Thanks to technological innovation, we now have access to spiritual wisdom and divine inspiration at all times — flying 35,000 feet in the air, going for a jog, washing dishes, or walking our dog. We have access to countless types of content, from the nourishing and fruitful to the degrading and harmful through our mobile devices, social media platforms, apps, and so on. Today, unlike ever before, we are fully submerged in a sea of mystical data — bits of floating information that shape who we are and how we live in the world.
For those of us who are Christians, we are called to proclaim the Gospel to all of creation. And since the world of cyber bits and invisible waves constitutes a part of that creation, we are inevitably called to bring Christ to that world as well. This realm offers the potential for both aids and obstacles to our faith, inviting us to wonder how we can better navigate cyber-creation in ways that keep us close to Christ while drawing others to him as well?
Where Are We Today?
A CNN article reports that American adults spend, on average, about 10 hours and 39 minutes each day consuming media through mobile phones, laptops, smart TVs, and more. And according to a Tedx Talk by Daniel Newman, “of 18 to 44-year-olds, 79 percent are on [their] device, or connected to them, 22 hours per day.”
In other words, we spend substantial portions of our waking hours engaged in a world beyond our physical and material everyday lives, or what we might call, within the realm of cyber-creation.
Regardless of what personal convictions or fears we have about the ascending pervasiveness of digital connectivity, many of us remain “plugged in” nonetheless. It’s how many of us spend the majority of our workday — scanning emails, firing chat messages to co-workers, joining Google hangout meetings. It’s also how many of us stay in touch with our friends and family throughout the day — sending text messages, starting FaceTime calls, “liking” Facebook updates.
Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor and author, has explored how technology continues to shape our relationships and way of life. In her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, she talks about this new digital world — or regime — born of recent technological innovations.
“In this new regime, a train station (like an airport, a cafe, or a park) is no longer a communal space but a place of social collection: people come together but do not speak to each other. Each is tethered to a mobile device and to the people and places to which that device serves as a portal.”
In this new regime, a train station (like an airport, a cafe, or a park) is no longer a communal space but a place of social collection: people come together but do not speak to each other.
This is the somewhat strange irony of such a world: we are always connected, yet disconnected. We are in the presence of others while simultaneously siloed. It’s important for us to recognize that we live in a new age — recent technological developments aren’t going to fade or become unpopular, and we will need to adopt more ways of detaching ourselves from “connectivity” in order to remain healthy (for example, certain restaurants in New York City provide vintage boxes on each table where guests are invited to place their mobile devices inside to enjoy a meal uninterrupted). Still, we will continue to spend much of our time connected. With this in mind, it’s worth considering how to engage this increasingly expanding digital world and respond to Jesus’ great commissioning of proclaiming the Gospel to all of creation.
Go (Online) and Make Disciples
The God that Christians profess is a triune God — three persons in one divine nature — and therefore a relational God. Melissa Newman, Ph.D., a PLNU communication professor, explained to me how our understanding of God’s nature should shape our understanding of what role community and communication — be that in real life or online — should have for us as human beings.
“He is a God of community,” Newman said. “He is a God of being social. In Genesis, He spoke the world into existence. He said, ‘Let there be light.’ So, He is also a communicative God, and so as beings created in His image, we are also both social and communicative. Whether it’s through a face-to-face or mediated form, [like social media], we are never not communicating.”
When it comes to the many fruits of technological innovation — mobile devices, tablets, social media platforms, video calling apps, etc. — that allow us to be both communicative and in community we are imaging God. In this sense, technology’s ability to expand our capacity for connection and communication in forms unimagined throughout human history enables us to live out our call as social, communicative beings made to know and love others.
Rebecca Laird, D.Min., a theology professor at PLNU, affirmed to me that technology can offer us ways to animate our vocations as communicative and relational beings if understood rightly. This is especially the case when it comes to fostering communities grounded in faith and spreading the Gospel to others digitally.
“I believe that online communities can be spiritually nurturing,” Laird said. “A few years ago, a minister I knew had a congregation with many commuters, so he built a spiritual disciplines pathway online. Someone might be in India and another person in Cleveland but everybody could pray together, find support, and be accountable while physically distant through this [online platform].”
With such technologies, the Gospel can be proclaimed to people beyond the realms of the church’s walls. Someone who would never set foot in a church or religious institution can spot someone’s personal narrative about their coming to God or read an illuminating essay on Augustinian theology and be exposed to Christianity in a way that would have otherwise been impossible.
Newman shared how since many of these platforms are free — assuming you have a mobile device and access to the internet — it can expose us to a host of diverse ideas and thoughts that we wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise.
Someone who would never set foot in a church or religious institution can spot someone’s personal narrative about their coming to God or read an illuminating essay on Augustinian theology and be exposed to Christianity in a way that would have otherwise been impossible.
“Instagram is free. Snapchat is free. Facebook is free,” Newman explained, though she is quick to clarify that by ‘free’ she means without financial costs (one might say the giving up of our personal information to use many of these platforms constitutes a payment of some sort). “One of the cool things about Instagram is you can follow so many people or organizations. You can follow your favorite Christian band. You can follow your favorite speakers. You can follow ministries that are doing great things.”
The most obvious spiritual fruit of recent technological developments is that is allows for us to reach others — and be reached by others — in ways that transcend space and time. This may come in the form of a subtle reminder — through an Instagram photo or Facebook update — of the power of worshiping in community with others; or through a podcast episode on the Book of Acts that leads someone to pick up the Bible and read it for themselves; or through a speaker on a Tedx Talk explaining how to discern God’s presence that encourages someone to spend fifteen minutes a day in silent prayer. In other words, cyber-creation can serve as a repository for countless, small instances of grace that foster authentic communities, knowledge of God, and manifestations of love.
The Spiritual Snares of Cyber-Creation
While some of the pitfalls of constant online use — isolation, anxiety, depression, lack of authentic relationships — are somewhat well known and have been discussed in many popular publications and books, it’s important to survey certain snares related specifically to discipleship and faith.
One area of potential danger has to do with the person — the preacher, teacher, or committed follower of Christ — who relies on these mediated technologies to create a platform for the purposes of sharing the Gospel with others online. As mentioned above, this platform can offer tremendous fruit and opportunity in helping others know Christ more fully. A website, blog, Instagram account, Podcast or video series, and so on can certainly provide avenues of grace. However, they remain fraught with potential risks.
Jonathan L. Walton, Ph.D., a theology professor at Harvard University, wrote an article titled, “Staying Human in a Media Age.” In the article, he explores some of the temptations he has encountered as a pastor and theologian employing technology to augment his work of sharing the Gospel. One of his points: the endorphin rush of being followed and “liked” by thousands of faceless people all over the world can certainly breed egoistic addiction.
Walton admits that the realm of social media may “exacerbate the narcissistic impulses,” potentially corrupting our “vocation choices” to use social media and other technologies to magnify one’s voice and insight. Of course, this is something any prominent preacher, teacher, or pastor contends against, as there is always a temptation to eschew humility and depend on one’s inflated ego — or social media following — as opposed to God’s grace.
Related Article: Navigating the murky and challenging waters of social media.
Although this clearly raises questions regarding the dangers to one’s soul, there are also the dangers to one’s relationships. Walton writes about how being tethered to one’s social community can dilute relationships in real life: those relationships that are most precious and important to us. Walton writes:
“And if faith leaders offer themselves up as the transubstantiated bread and wine to be consumed by the networked public, they must keep giving for the ministry to thrive. What might this mean for the faith leader’s own soul? Spouse? Children? When we belong to everybody, we belong to nobody — including ourselves.”
Another serious pitfall is that we might feel compelled to perpetually share “insight” and “wise spiritual counsel” in order to stay relevant and popular in the often fickle minds of our followers. Yet, if we’re responding out of a neurotic need for attention — and affirmation — then where is the room for prayerful reflection? And if we aren’t reflecting on what we’re saying, how do we know that our words are reflecting God and not something else?
Real vs. Mediated
Another major area of caution within cyber-creation is that oftentimes our relationships mediated in real life are very different than those online. Unfortunately, our online selves are often not authentic — they do not represent our true selves created in God’s image but rather a projection of what we desire to be in the eyes of others.
Newman talks about how this tendency to project a well-polished, false self actually increased in the last few years with the popularity of platforms like Instagram and Snapchat. Facebook and, years ago, Myspace, were heavily text-driven, which didn’t invite as much weight placed on visual appearances.
“The shift between the text based social networking and image based is fascinating to me; because, now, you’re not just reading my words, you’re looking at an image,” Newman said. “And a lot of students, a lot of young adults, do put up images of themselves, but they don’t accurately represent the person.”
“And a lot of students, a lot of young adults, do put up images of themselves, but they don’t accurately represent the person.”
– Melissa Newman, Ph.D.
Since one’s appearance, thanks to the rise of visual platforms, has become more important, an unfavorable response to one’s “image” can be devastating. Newman has experienced this first hand with her students, where the image they present to the world online and whether it’s approved or rejected has major consequences on how students view themselves. If their visual, two-dimensional “self” is not adequately affirmed via social likes or views, then students may believe they are defective.
This is not authentic community. As Turkle writes: “Communities are constituted by physical proximity, shared concerns, real consequences, and common responsibilities. Its members help each other in the most practical ways.”
Real communities don’t deny or reject others who may not fit a certain profile or look a certain way, but instead are responsible for that individual just the same.
Laird explained that we are physical creatures, and as physical creatures we “get all sorts of information from one another in ways that are beyond the verbal, or beyond the visual, and you don’t get that in online spaces. There’s something else that happens when people are actually embodied together.”
Communities are supposed to be incarnational. They are supposed to allow us to express our full humanity — not just amalgamated visual traits for online consumption — to each other in the hope of both being known and loved and knowing and loving others.
Related Article: Technologically Yours: Is Technology Redefining Our Relationships?
Going Out to Work the Digital Vineyard
Back to the nature of God: a relational and communicative God of love. With this as our guide we can better understand what role our mediated technologies should play, and which roles they shouldn’t.
As relational beings, Laird affirms that in order for disciples to help others know Christ, we must invite others to belong.
“People need to belong first,” Laird said. “It’s about belonging to Jesus, belonging to the mission. We talk a lot about God’s love and it’s certainly the underlying theme, but there’s less about love in the Bible than there is about following Jesus in our daily choices and interactions.”
By following Jesus we are living in community; we belong to him and are known by him. Therefore, we have to ensure that whatever we do online to draw others to Christ is actually helping others feel connected and like they belong.
“It’s about belonging to Jesus, belonging to the mission. We talk a lot about God’s love and it’s certainly the underlying theme, but there’s less about love in the Bible than there is about following Jesus in our daily choices and interactions.”
– Rebecca Laird, D.Min.
Ben Boelter, a PLNU sophomore and ministry leader for Young Life on PLNU’s campus, has tried to embody this notion with his own efforts. When I asked him how he uses social media to draw others to Young Life, he said he makes a point to highlight an individual person, not just an event or activity. Additionally, he is careful to note that what makes social media effective is also what makes it dangerous.
“The worst thing about social media is the same thing that makes it so valuable,” Boelter continued. “It’s ‘FOMO,’ or the fear of missing out.”
Boelter explained that with promoting Young Life online, he wants people to feel that they are missing out by not being a part of our ministry so that they come and join it — so that they befriend others and Christ more fully. According to him, he employs social media in an “invitational way” to make people want to belong. Yet, he is careful not to propagate a “fear of missing out” that results in self pity, lack of self esteem, or sense of rejection within the one who sees the post or image online.
“We try to highlight the great stuff that we’re doing so that people join us,” Boelter shared. “But we try not to imply that if you’re not here, you’re missing out in a negative way.”
He also cautioned against using social media just to be relevant as opposed to actually caring about connecting with others.
“I think certain ministries or churches who aren’t very well versed in social media try to use social media to be relevant and I don’t think that works,” Boelter shared. “The way that you become relevant is by genuinely caring about people and then using social media to show that you care with personal, meaningful content.”
Cyber-creation remains challenging to navigate as disciples, requiring much discernment and prayer. It has the potential to bear much fruit — an avenue for getting the message of the Gospel out to others in wonderful ways. It can provide first steps for some to begin considering Christianity or help foster those already deeply committed. Still, it can’t ever supplant the role of actual, in-person communities and authentic relationships. Christ became flesh for our sake, and as disciples, we must ensure that we remain flesh to others as well — not just floating and untethered digital composites of false “selfs.”