A spoon has no agenda. It sits in a drawer, waiting to be used. How a spoon is used, however, makes all the difference. You could eat ice cream with it, or you could accidentally poke yourself in the eye. In the same way, social media was intended for good but often causes anguish and pain.

How can we good, God-fearing folk use social media in ways that are uplifting and uniting? How can we stay true to our convictions without getting caught up in useless, time-wasting arguments in comment threads? How can we model healthy social media use for our kids and our colleagues?

And, most immediately: To post or not to post?

My discernment process used to lean toward “the truth at all costs” to “hills I am willing to die on” and sometimes “silence is complicity.” These are good axioms, but they also sound like things yelled while charging an enemy.

The enemy is not our old high school classmate pushing our buttons about some issue. The enemy is the algorithm in the platform that elevates our old classmate’s outrageous post to keep us online and engaged for as long as possible, draining the valuable resource of time from our lives.

I must remember that, in God’s economy, being in relationship is ultimately better than being right.

When I post online now, I try to remember Philippians 4:8: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

The apostle Paul was no stranger to conflict or saying things that would get him in trouble—up to and including his beheading in Rome. Nevertheless, this verse offers us a measure of common sense and perhaps even a Christian sense of how to live out loud.

This is a difficult process for me, but I must remember that, in God’s economy, being in relationship is ultimately better than being right. If you doubt me, just ask the prodigal son’s father (Luke 15:11-32).

Facebook, then and now

When I first joined Facebook in 2004, I did so mostly for laughs and to keep in touch with the kids in my church youth group. I shared corny pastor jokes and pictures from our mission trips.

I’m still friendly with many of those people today, only now they post pictures of their kids during confirmation and youth group activities. How fun Facebook used to be! And it consumed only minutes a day.

Now I almost find myself feeling guilty when I check my social media feeds, because I am either (a) angered by the thoughtless, inane comments I encounter or (b) jealous of people’s pictures of their vacations, dinner plates and family gatherings where, to paraphrase humorist Garrison Keillor, everyone is strong, good-looking and way above average.

Also, I find myself getting lost in a time-sucking blur of memes, photos and cat videos. This is because, in our brokenness, we post things to provoke others and present our lives’ highlight reels for others to consume, indulging this malaise-inducing scroll mechanism.

According to David Levy’s book Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives (Yale University Press, 2017), even email raises our blood pressure.

In our brokenness, we post things to provoke others and present our lives’ highlight reels for others to consume, indulging this malaise-inducing scroll mechanism.

How did we get here?

Over time, cultural engagement with social media began to change. It started with the invention of the Facebook news feed and its subsequent tweaks, which draw users into a world of their own making based on their “likes,” clicks and comments. Slowly, advertising became part and parcel of the news feed experience.

Similar shifts followed on Twitter and YouTube. Newer platforms, such as Snapchat and TikTok, were born with the algorithms already in place.

Our social media platforms and digital devices (I’m looking at you, Alexa) are designed to mine data from us so that producers can target us with ads that urge us to spend money we don’t automatically have on things we don’t necessarily need. Side effects include anxiety, fear of missing out, depression and, in the case of adolescents, a horrible uptick in suicide attempts and completions.

Sinan Aral’s book The Hype Machine: How Social Media Disrupts Our Elections, Our Economy, and Our Health—And How We Must Adapt (Currency, 2020) spells out these facts in all their dystopic glory.

Jesus defines us

We can’t allow social media to define us. Jesus already does that through our baptismal covenant.

We can and should use digital media to build stronger communities, to “rejoice with those who rejoice, [and] weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). God knows that technology serves the church well in this pandemic time. Yet social media is no substitute for incarnational interaction. Being in the same room and having nuanced conversations are optimal for convening the communion of saints.

For a better understanding of this, I recommend Sherry Turkle’s book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin Books, 2016).

I treasure the time I have with my beloveds, especially when we share a meal across a table or a walk through God’s creation. We are all one in Christ Jesus—God wills it—and social media is merely one aspect of this sacred bond.

In this digital age, when our broken world erects artificial barriers between us, may we cling to the simple, the good and the sacrosanct as we navigate our lives.

Next issue: Youth and social media

To learn more

Jeff Orlowski’s docudrama The Social Dilemma (2020), currently streaming on Netflix.

Deanna Thompson’s column “My Take: The Ethics of a Digital World,” Living Lutheran (February 2020).

Martin Zimmann
The Rev. Dr. Martin Otto Zimmann is an adjunct professor of church and society at United Lutheran Seminary, Gettysburg campus. He holds a Ph.D. in American culture studies.

Read more about: