Although I have had a Twitter account for years, I only started using it in earnest a few months ago. I quickly connected with other people in the Christian blogosphere, particularly those in the Reformed tradition. Some of what I saw encouraged me. People were making use of this social media platform to communicate gospel truth. Yet, a good percentage of what I saw also discouraged me.
Twitter has confirmed what I already suspected about the human condition: people are often more drawn to the negative than the positive, regardless of what they claim. I was aware of this phenomenon, having a background in political science and knowing full well that the same voters who claim to hate negative campaign ads are heavily influenced by them. This principle seems to hold true with social media. A criticism, however legitimate, attracts more attention than, for instance, a kindly reminder to love your neighbor as yourself. To give an example, of all the articles I have posted in recent months proclaiming the virtues of reconciliation and redeemed suffering, the ones that received the most page views by far were the two that criticized Donald Trump and a third that leveled a very mild criticism (if you could even call it that) at two individuals connected with The Gospel Coalition.
The negative is certainly attracting a lot of attention in our world today, even among Christians. I have been disappointed (though once again not at all surprised) to see many people using their social media accounts not so much to build up the body of Christ, but simply to critique any little thing in that body that annoys them. Now, I am not stuck in some utopian fantasy. There are a lot of things wrong in this world, and there is a lot of stupid out there! We need to confront the stupid. However, my problem is not so much with the fact that people are using social media to criticize, but rather that they seem to be focusing on criticism almost exclusively or going about it in an unnecessarily offensive or careless manner.
Consider the opening verses of Ecclesiastes chapter three, where author tells us there is,
A time to give birth and a time to die;
A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.
A time to kill and a time to heal;
A time to tear down and a time to build up.
I believe that there is a principle here that can be applied to our use of social media, or indeed our communication in general. While I am perhaps expanding a bit beyond what King Solomon originally had in mind, I do not think it is at all unbiblical for me to suggest that there is a time to tear down and a time to build up with our communication.
Within the Church and the wider culture, there are any number of problems that need to be addressed. There are cases where people, organizations, or movements legitimately need to be rebuked and reproved according to gospel principles. This is what I would refer to as “tearing down”. When you criticize somebody or something, you are effectively attempting to tear something down. You are calling for that thing to be reformed or scrapped altogether. There is a time and a place for that. However, some people feel so passionate about correcting error and devote so much of their energy to that pursuit that they have forgotten the other side of the equation. We need to be using our social media accounts not only to tear down, but also to build up.
Now, we do tend to use social media to build up, but not in the way I mean. We use it to build our number of followers, likes, retweets, shares, etc. It is not necessarily wrong to want a lot of followers on social media, particularly as certain professions are rather dependent upon public exposure. However, attention for attention’s sake and fame for fame’s sake are not really building anything. This is a vapor: a chasing after the wind. It does not make the same kind of eternal difference as the type of construction I am advocating.
Consider the case of a construction company. People may hire them to tear down dilapidated buildings, and they will put their bulldozers to work. This is a good and necessary task, but if they never actually build any new structures, the neighborhood will be rather empty…kind of like parts of Detroit. There are many Christians in the world today who do a very good job of bulldozing things, but what have they actually built? Have they created anything positive that will stand the test of time? Have they discipled people and led them into a deeper knowledge of God? Or have they simply nit picked at everyone else?
I believe that there is a healthy balance that ought to be achieved in our social media activity between tearing down and building up. Here are a few ways that we can attempt to bring that about.
- Be conscious of what you are building (or not building). It is very easy to treat social media as a stream of thought, and as such never give it a second thought. Yet, every time you post, you are typically either building up or tearing down. Take the time to consider what you are doing before you do it, and try to achieve a good balance.
- Consider the view of an outsider. Many types of social media are by nature public forums. Do not assume that only your friends will read what you have to say. Do not assume that everyone will know what you mean. Think about what it would be like for someone who does not know you at all to view your Twitter or Facebook feed. What kind of testimony would it present? If you are a pastor or other Christian leader, would they be wary of attending your church?
- Pick your battles. As I said earlier, there’s a lot of stupid in the world, but no one person can take on every fight at once. God calls each of us to certain tasks. We need to learn how to discern the difference between the serious issues and the things we can just let go. Save your fire for those fights where it will do the most good.
- Engage – don’t dismiss. I have seen a worrying trend of people rightly responding to something they believe to be a serious theological error, but doing so in a way that shows little or no respect for the person they are criticizing. Rather than offering a thoughtful critique that makes clear the good and bad points of what the other person has to say, they will simply point and cry, “Heresy!”, or as is more often the case, simply Tweet things like “Disgusting!”, “I couldn’t read it!”, etc. Even if the other person is in the wrong, I think it is disrespectful to criticize them publicly without being willing to actually engage with what they have to say. (It also makes you look like a jerk!)
- Keep an eternal perspective. The purpose of all our communication, whether it be online or in person, is neither to glorify ourselves nor even to straighten out all the sinners, but to glorify God. Throughout Christian history, new technologies have brought great benefits to the Church, along with occasional curses. Social media can be an excellent tool for growing together in Christ, but not if we use it merely as a weapon or a promotional tool. As with everything else in life, we will be called to account for the things that we post. Let us do so with an eye to what will glorify God and edify others.
I do not exempt myself from blame regarding these issues. There have been times where I took the bait and dove into a fight that, in the end, served no real eternal purpose. There have been times that I did not carefully consider my words, and as a result had to explain or retract them later. I am not attempting to paint myself as holier than everyone else, but simply to state that we all are subject to the temptations of the flesh, which will cause us to trend toward discord rather than harmony. Let us keep these principles in mind as we engage on social media and strive always to build up in addition to tearing down.