At its heart, ministry is relational. Christ himself demonstrated this as he stepped into human history and established His church using close relationships with a select few. In turn, ministry leaders must take the role of relationships seriously as we continue to be used by God to be sent into the world, in whatever capacity that is. Healthy and meaningful relationships are the foundation upon which we build leadership teams, advance the message of the gospel, and serve those whom God has given us to care for.

social media threatens real communityFortunately, we live in a time where the resources at our disposal are nearly limitless. The existence and use of social media like Facebook, and other online resources, make the opportunities for rapid and widespread sharing of information more available than ever before, and they also increase our ability to make and maintain friendships, as physical distance no longer creates the barrier that it once did. The rapid growth of sites like Facebook have revolutionized the way users can communicate, get the news, shop, and even go to church. Churches and ministries are also taking advantage of this trend, using sites like The City to foster this kind of online community within their congregations.

While these sites have revolutionized the way we get and share information by enhancing the way we live in community, they also present a danger when it comes to healthy social interactions and healthy ministries. Because community is such a crucial element in life and ministry, any threat to undermine it must be taken seriously. For this reason, let’s identify some ways that we can use social media that threaten the integrity of our real relationships:

 1) As a Mask

One way that people can use social media negatively is to use it as a mask, thus hiding behind the illusion of anonymity. This can be seen in the rise of “cyber-bullying,” or using the Internet to send hostile messages and images. This illusion of anonymity has the potential to sabotage relationships, as it can often times make the user say things they wouldn’t otherwise feel comfortable saying.

For instance, the former Pastor of Mars Hill church, Mark Driscoll, confessed in his book Confessions of a Reformission Rev. to going on his church’s open discussion board and posting under the username William Wallace II. These posts included some things that were presented in a fairly offensive and inflammatory manner, which did nothing but bring further scrutiny to Driscoll and his behavior.  These statements obviously reflected Driscoll’s beliefs, but were presented in a way that he would have likely avoided in a face-to-face conversation.

2) As a Means to Recreate Yourself

Online social sites also give the opportunity for very deceitful practices, as many people purely interact in the digital world. First, and most common, would be the small embellishments that people often make to their own personal profile. When crafting their persona online, it is not uncommon for a person to expose only the parts of their lives that are flattering or successful, therefore presenting themselves as something they are not. In his book, Unfriend Yourself, Kyle Tennant confesses;

When I log into Facebook I find that I want to put my best foot forward; as a result, I find myself bending the truth and skirting the circumstance, ever so slightly, to offer to my ‘friends’ the best part of myself, the part of me that is the coolest, the funniest.  I announce to others something good about me with the goal of getting others to think a certain way about me.” – Kyle Tennant.

This practice of “bending the truth” is all too common on social media sites, as they are geared toward self-promotion. This also creates a competitive culture within a group or community, which leads towards pride, envy, and covetousness.

3) As a Replacement for Real Community

Ultimately, users of social media face a unique challenge, which is fighting the desire to make social media something it was not designed to be, namely a means of community. In a desire to satisfy their essential social needs, the user can unwittingly expose themselves to many kinds of trouble. Social media is a great tool for networking and connecting, but was never meant to be a means for replacing a real community.

Social media is, in essence, self-centered. In creating and maintaining an online profile, the user often remains primarily inward focused.  This self-promotion is only encouraged by sites like Facebook, which try to convince us that the “inane and mindless details of our lives are newsworthy,” Tennant notes. This self-focus also serves to drive an envious and competitive online culture that is seeped in embellishments, which can quickly turn into intentional deception.

Unfortunately, another problem with a site that is primarily focused on self is that it creates an unhealthy means for effective community.  Community, in essence, is built upon time spent in real relationships. While this online forum offers an easy, convenient way to stay connected, real relationships must be built on giving of self for the sake of others. When it is simply reduced to virtual interaction, often times we find ourselves communicating rather than truly communing.

Although it’s obvious that social media can be used in negative ways, we must be careful not to simply consider all social media inherently evil. Similarly, it would be a wasted opportunity for any ministry to completely avoid the benefits of social media altogether for fear of the possible negative consequences. Instead, like many things, we must consider and use the tools available with social media in a responsible way, avoiding the temptation to make social media something it’s not.

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As a relational tool, social media can offer depth and vibrancy to already healthy relationships, allowing people to share a level of intimacy that may not otherwise be possible. Also, in the context of community, the connectedness offered online can help maintain relationships that would otherwise grow distant.

The problem, however, comes when we begin to use social media in ways it was never intended. Used as a means of deception, a catalyst for envy, or a replacement for personal interaction, social media can become something that discourages, deceives and isolates people, which is essentially the opposite of true community.

How do you traverse the complicated landscape of social media in your own heart?