Social Media and Spiritual Formation
Is Facebook an indispensable tool in today’s world that we would be foolish to avoid using? Is it a lesser but necessary evil? Is it a cesspool of human depravity, inherently corrosive to our character and beyond all redemption? Similar questions can be asked of Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and a host of other social media platforms. As Christians find themselves in the new age of social technology, these are some of the questions we find ourselves asking.
Christian responses to social media vary. For some, these platforms provide ways to spread the Gospel and we must use them. Even the former pope, Benedict XVI, started a Twitter account. For others, however, these platforms instill worldly values and distort the healthy ways that God created for us to socialize. I’ve had many friends, for example, who’ve deactivated their Facebook accounts because they felt that it ruined their spirituality and brought out the worst in them.
While there are good points made on both sides by those who are for or against the use of social media, I think that there are different questions that need to be asked. The issue of social media is too often framed as an all-or-nothing affair. Should Christians, as individuals or organizations (there may be a difference), use Facebook? That is an important question. But the more interesting question may be: If Christians used Facebook, what virtues would be needed to use it responsibly, to use it in a way that leads to our good and the flourishing of others?
To be sure, we need to keep in mind that it is not just how we use tools like Facebook but how these tools always—even without our awareness—form us. Research has already started to show that Facebook use contributes to a heightened sense of envy and a lower sense of life satisfaction. Perhaps the vices cultivated by Facebook outweigh any cultivation of virtue and, ultimately, compromise our spiritual formation and discipleship to Jesus Christ. From this perspective, no virtue can redeem Facebook. However, I’m not sure this case has been conclusively made. Additionally, it seems clear that platforms like Facebook—for the time being—are here to stay. Christians will continue to use it. Now what?
If we shift the discussion instead to virtue, new questions and possibilities arise. How can we develop good habits on social media? This may mean taking “Sabbaths” or “fasts,” so that we are reminded that humanity does not live by status updates alone. It may mean accountability to others, and self-interrogation in which we ask: what am I trying to communicate by posting this? It may mean being intentional about encouraging others. It may also mean blocking the source of unedifying words and images when it becomes necessary. What is called for will vary from person to person or from one time to another, but what remains consistent is the necessity to develop practices that discipline us in our use.
Here at TCF, the use of social technologies—and the impact they have on dialogue and relationships—is one topic that we are exploring. While thinking about social media in light of our spiritual formation, in term of virtues and vices, may not be the only way to think about the matter, it is nevertheless crucial for those of us who desire to reflect the Word in whichever way we choose to communicate.