Social media: vain distractions or community-building tools?

As I was listening to a recent sermon, the speaker disparagingly remarked that social media are all about vanity. Though there are potential pitfalls with using Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, I believe these tools can also be used to build community and engage people about faith.

There are about 127 million active Twitter users around the world. On Twitter, you create a brief profile outlining your interests. Then, you publicly post thoughts and links to information you want to highlight. Twitter provides a good way to “meet” new people. (Of course, you can also follow people you already know.) You follow people whose profiles attract your attention, listen to what they have to say, and interact with some of them. If you want to pursue a deeper connection, you can get in touch through email, Facebook, or even in person.

Twitter is a bit like a face-to-face professional networking event or a community gathering. You make small talk with a variety of people. If you resonate with someone in the crowd, you exchange personal information and deepen the relationship.

Facebook is better for connecting with people you’ve actually met because more personal information is shared. Interacting on Facebook could be compared to a family wedding, a church potluck, or a high school reunion.

One of the dangers of Facebook and Twitter is that it’s tempting to spend more time connecting with people virtually than you do in person. It’s fun to engage on social media – you could spend hours doing it. After posting photos, videos, event announcements, or thoughts, you sit back and watch who “likes” your post, comments, or retweets your brilliance. It’s exhilarating when people respond. But social media interactions cannot replace genuine face-to-face relationships that include hard conversations as well as enjoyable experiences.

Despite the risks, I see value in using social media. Let me tell you about some positive ways I have seen Twitter and Facebook used.

Tweet for prayer and support

A respected family in my region who owns a well-known country farm market, recently experienced a tragedy. Thirteen-year-old Lydia Herrle was struck by a garbage truck as she got off her school bus in May and ended up in a coma. (The Herrle family attends Waterloo [Ont.] Mennonite Brethren Church.)

Before the event was reported on radio, TV, or in the newspaper, I heard about it on Twitter – and I prayed. As the Herrle family now walks the difficult journey of helping Lydia recover, the community is watching – and supporting the family with good wishes, a “Pray for Lydia” campaign, and fundraisers. As Lydia’s parents, James and Michelle, blog about their experience, the community gets to see how Christian parents handle a horrific situation with grace and forgiveness. People regularly share links to the blog on Facebook and Twitter; in this way, a message of hope travels faster and further than it may have otherwise.

Extended caring through Facebook

There are approximately 845 million active Facebook users, including many youth. In fact, a good proportion of young people use Facebook the way earlier generations used the telephone. My 15-year-old son rarely calls anyone to hang out; he uses Facebook and texts on his cellphone instead. Some youth pastors and youth leaders connect with teens on Facebook, where at a glance they can see what is important to their teens. This helps them pray for the youth and choose topics for discussion. They can also show care for students in their group by commenting – encouraging a young person who’s worried about school or offering kudos when a teen scores a goal for her hockey team.

The equipping pastor at our church is an avid Facebook user. Kevin is great at connecting with people in person and he uses Facebook to extend his caring. He visits my Facebook page to comment on the latest thing my family is doing and asks me in person at church about our vacation or how my daughter did in her soccer tournament. His Facebook use doesn’t replace face-to-face contact – it enhances it.

Social media can also be used directly for faith-based activities. I follow a pastor on Twitter who posts encouraging and challenging messages and hosts Twitter chats about faith topics. Through Twitter, I was invited to participate in a Bible study on Facebook. The discussion leader posts his thoughts to a private Facebook group and other group members respond with their own reflections on the study book.

These examples barely scratch the surface of social media’s potential to connect, influence, and build community. Can social media be a vain distraction that encroaches on person-to-person relationships? For sure, but so can watching television, playing video games, working too much, etc. In the end, I believe modes of communication are neutral – it’s the heart behind the Facebook profile that makes it vain, not the tool itself.

Social media are not going away (even if Facebook and Twitter wane). Though it’s unwise to spend too much time engaging virtually, it’s equally unwise to completely ignore this society-shifting phenomenon. Let’s discover together how to relate as Christ followers in the sphere of social media.

Sandra Reimer finds community at www.twitter.com as @canworldchange and in-person at Glencairn MB Church, Kitchener, Ont. 

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