Tuesday, 7 May 2013

On social media and self-projection in ministry

Over the weekend I’ve been doing some reading which has helped me crystallise thoughts which have been on the back of my mind for the couple of months since I took the plunge and entered the Twittersphere. I’ve been working through James Smith’s Imagining the Kingdom, the second of his Cultural Liturgies series, which follows 2009’s Desiring the Kingdom.

The central thrust of Smith’s argument is that our discipleship often fails to be effective because it focuses on head knowledge. We believe that if we get people to think correctly they will be able to live well for Jesus, forgetting that we have bodies as well as minds and that our passions and impulses are competed for by a culture which is constantly and compellingly offering us an alternative story to the Christian one.

A part of the book which I found especially helpful was Smith’s analysis of social media. At one point he writes:

‘… both Facebook and Twitter can seem to foster habits of self-display that closely resemble the vice of vainglory. Or at the very least, they amplify the self-consciousness and ironic distance that characterises late modern capitalism – to a debilitating degree.’ (p145)

Later on the same page, Smith fleshes out these observations in a discussion of the impact of social media on the average Western teenager: ‘Her Twitter feed incessantly updates her about all of the exciting, hip things she is not doing with the “popular” girls; her Facebook pings nonstop with photos that highlight how boring her homebound existence is. And so she is compelled to be constantly “on,” to be “updating” and “checking in.” The competition for coolness never stops.’

Years ago at College, I remember the regular advice of one of our tutors that the last thing to ask anyone at a minister’s meeting was the question: ‘How many people do you get on a Sunday morning?’ I suspect the loneliness and thanklessness of this role make those who hold it more susceptible than most to insecurity, even to the occasional prima donna moment. Added to that can be the need we often feel to justify ourselves and our use of time.

And then enter Twitter. Am I being overly-anxious when I detect a variety of trends in the content of our tweets? There are…
  • The ones which show how edgy we are: e.g. I’ve just spent the morning at our new missional/radical/enterprising project
  • The ones which show how connected we are: e.g. great to meet today with @’insert name of high profile colleague here’
  • The ones which show how techy we are: I’ve shared x, y or z, on my most recent gadget acquisition or on the latest app I’ve discovered.

And as I read this, there’s a nagging question at the back of my mind: For whose benefit do we broadcast all this news? Of course, I realise that one of the great advantages of a tool like Twitter is to share ideas and information. I do it myself with updates to friends and members of our church, so I don’t want these words to be misunderstood as cynical, or critical. But when most of us have felt the lack of honesty in our churches, the feeling we have that we often can’t be real about how awful we feel, the lack of lament in our worship, isn’t it troubling that we may now have discovered a tool which takes this problem to a whole new level?

So a plea… how can we redeem this medium with a bit more honesty and balance? Or am I being naïve to think we could actually reach the point where we feel sufficiently honest to tweet that it’s been a lousy day and we could really do with a prayer or encouragement, or that all I’ve done today is follow the same routines I’ve done for weeks, months and years, because a major part of our calling is simply to be faithful?

1 comment:

  1. I think you're spot on here Trevor. Unfortunately the prevailing theme with a lot of social media is to portray an image of having things sorted and living an ever changing, super-exciting life. As to where this theme originates from, well maybe that's not so easy to pin-point, but I'm sure the world of media, reality TV, celebrity etc have something to do with it.

    As to whether we can ever reach a point where social media is a place where people can be open and honest about their lives and not feel the need to put on a mask, I think it's a nice thought but sadly one that is unlikely to ever come to fruition.

    The whole world of social media is still relatively new and also fast-changing, so what is just as important is for all of us (as humans and particularly Christians) to remain aware of just what platforms exist in which people may feel the need to put on a "performance". If we don't keep up with it (and by keep up I mean be aware, which is not necessarily the same as being actively involved in the platforms ourselves) then we risk losing touch with people and not being able to relate to the pressures they face.

    So, though I suppose I am answering your closing question with a sort-of "yes", I think the mere fact that you have written the above post is an encouraging step in the right direction.