The Shadow Side of Social Media

A few years ago I saw a movie—chosen by my wife—called Shall We Dance. One of the characters had an insightful monologue about the meaning of marriage. She said: “We need a witness to our lives. There’s a billion people on the planet. I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things … all of it, all of the time, every day. You’re saying, ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go unwitnessed because I will be your witness.'” Her intent in the film is to explain the companionship we long for in marriage, but I think the fear of living an unnoticed life also reveals the powerful appeal of social media. Last year at the Passion Conference, Louie Giglio told 60,000 young people, “The only thing I’m afraid of is living an insignificant life.” That fear resonates with many of us, but in our exhibitionist culture we’ve been formed to believe that significance comes from being noticed. This explains both our culture’s deification of celebrities and disregard for the unborn. Celebrities are valued merely because they are seen by millions, while unborn babies are not valued because they haven’t yet been seen by anyone. Our culture has embraced the cliché that out of sight really is out of mind. We might strive toward the eternal life of celebrity, but we live closer to the second death of obscurity, and in this struggle we’ve come to see social media as a savior. With each new Facebook friend or Twitter follower, we are gaining another witness to our lives, another person to notice us and thereby add another particle of validation to our existence. Each “retweet” or “like” brings an ephemeral happiness because someone is telling us, “You matter. Your life is being noticed.” If this is at least part of the lure of social media, what are we to conclude about the disproportionate presence of pastors on Twitter? The site has proven to be so popular among church leaders that last year Twitter assigned a senior executive the task of targeting and recruiting more pastors. Yes, it can be another way of communicating with our congregations Monday through Saturday, but might we be looking for something more? Might we be looking for more witnesses? For more significance? We may be seeking to fulfill a spiritual hunger for companionship that cannot be satisfied online. In fact, at its deepest level, it cannot even be met through the intimacy of marriage. The Christian comes to see that his yearning for significance, and his desperation for a witness, can only be quenched by God. Psalm 139 tells us that God knows us in a manner no other can. He sees every facet of our lives, and he witnesses every thought and moment even before they occur. In the economy of God’s kingdom, there is not a single thought, feeling, or moment that is lost. Nothing is unseen or unrecorded. God is our witness. But as church leaders, we are tempted, perhaps more than others, to believe that our value is defined by the visible, quantifiable, and tweetable aspects of our lives. How many came? How many followed? How many liked? This is a grave mistake, and perhaps why we struggle with prayer. Prayer, which is our private communion with God, is not something others can see. In prayer only God is our witness, and in prayer God is our only reward. Rather than tweeting incessantly, what if we followed Paul’s advice and learned to pray incessantly? Thomas Kelly wrote about this kind of life. He said, “There is a way of ordering our mental life on more than one level at once. On one level we may be thinking, discussing, seeing, calculating, meeting all the demands of external affairs. But deep within, behind the scenes, at a profounder level, we may also be in prayer and adoration, song and worship, and a gentle receptiveness to divine breathings.” The world today only values and pursues the first level. It believes what others can see and retweet is what really matters. It says the most important thing is being noticed. But, as Kelly notes, “We know that the deep level of prayer is the most important thing in the world. It is at this deep level that the real business of life is determined.”

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