No One Asked You to Sheriff Social Media
We really shouldn’t be talking about community if we’re not advocates for reckless transparency—and we shouldn’t be imagining that’s what we are if people need to be on eggshells around us.
The community that the church is always expounding upon doesn’t exist as long as people aren’t given permission to be themselves.
The hazards of holiness
I am currently leading worship in a Nazarene church. If you’re not familiar with the Nazarenes, they’re a denomination birthed out of the holiness movement of the 1800s. They strongly emphasize sanctification and therefore have a history of stringent, and often legalistic behavioral expectations. A good Nazarene never drank, played cards, danced, went to movies, or any other activity prohibited in their congregation.
The people in these churches often were divided into sheriffs or scofflaws—and occasionally combinations of the two. The sheriffs were responsible for finding and penalizing infractions , and the scofflaws were focused on doing them without being caught.
I have quite a few friends who remember driving with their family to watch a movie two towns away. Not only could they not admit to their “community” that they enjoyed an occasional movie, they reinforced to their kids that you got along with others by keeping areas of your life a secret. I don’t have to tell you that, no matter what you say, that’s the antithesis of community.
Thankfully, the Nazarene movement has come a long way. But, like the rest of Christendom, not far enough.
Our fractured community
In many congregations, transparency is a non-issue. Lots of Christians don’t share the kind regular interaction that makes openness an issue. They come to church on Sunday and maybe attend a Bible study during the week, so there’s really no reason for them to hide anything. As long as they don’t light up or drop an F-bomb in the middle of the Women’s ministry, they should be okay.
This fractured lack of cohesiveness is precisely the reason the church goes on and on about community, and rightly so. We need to be connected more closely. But if the church wants people to realize that community is the missing piece in their lives, they can’t penalize them for being themselves.
How social media bridges the community gap
Despite its flaws, social media is bringing community back to the church. Now instead of heading home on Sundays and being entirely invisible to each other, we have been given this portal to gaze into each other’s lives. It might not be perfect, but I do know a lot more about people in my congregation than I might know otherwise.
It’s been a great way for me to find common ground and interesting fodder for conversation when I see them at church. I’m a little anxious in social situations, and having natural segues into conversations like, “How’s that new job?” or “Your new porch looks really great,” has made it easier to connect with people when I see them.
But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the sheriffs threatening even this entry-level form of community.
Are you sure it’s God who disapproves?
As anyone on Facebook can will tell you, you don’t agree with your friends about everything. But while you can disagree with friends without risking relationship, it doesn’t often feel that way with other Christians on Facebook.
Somehow adding the God-factor into the equation, ups the ante. Now it seems there’s always a risk of offending someone’s deeply held convictions. I have quite a few friends who are very particular about the people from their church who they’ll friend on Facebook because it’s created too many hassles. They just get tired of dealing with:
Updates that get blown out of proportion
Gossip circulating about something seen on their wall
Comments like, “How can you call yourself a (pastor, worship leader, youth leader, Sunday school teacher, etc) and say/post/like that!?”
(Mind you, I don’t really blame others for blowing someone’s passive-aggressive posts out of proportion. Some people need to learn that covertly airing their dirty laundry on social media is inappropriate and relationship damaging.)
For me, the biggest issue here is that we think we need comment on or correct everything we don’t like or disagree with. There’s maturity in not feeling the need to fix everyone around you. Your convictions aren’t invalidated about things like politics, music, swearing, alcohol, or religion, just because others don’t share them (and they’re not really legitimized when you bully someone into agreeing with them, either).
If we’re going to be serious about community, we need to be doubly serious about accepting people where they are. This doesn’t mean that everything that you see on social media is good, right, or acceptable, it means that you have not been deputized to fix it.
Here’s the problem: if I post a picture of a friend and I out having a beer and you get upset about it, you might get me to stop posting those pictures—but you haven’t reformed my behavior. All you have done is damage community.
Maybe I shouldn’t be drinking, but you have set yourself back in fostering the kind of relationship that would allow you to tell me so. I assure you, the acceptance of a friend request is not a license for judgement; it’s a willingness to get to know you better and a gracious offer to let you see who I am and what I am passionate about.
Addressing the caveats
There are two voices that I can hear in my head as I write this, and I want to quickly address them:
1. Aren’t we supposed to speak the truth in love?
Yes, but a lot of the time the “truth in love” we’re exposed to is neither truth or love. It’s personal conviction delivered in a way that tells me that my value is contingent upon getting with your program. So if you’re going to jeopardize our relationship because you feel the need to speak the truth to me, please make sure it’s the truth and not just your strong opinions on the matter.
Your ability to speak the truth in love hinges upon relationship and tactfulness. The closer we are and the more you’re able to approach me in a way that’s not threatening, the more impact you’re going to have. Don’t waste your one shot by typing some dumb, terse comment on a status update.
2. But what if you’re causing others to stumble?
1 Corinthians 8:13 is one of the most misused Scriptures in the New Testament. Due to the length of this post, I’m going to have to assume some familiarity with the verse, or at least the idea.
The problem is that this becomes verse becomes a noose when it’s applied to every situation. While we shouldn’t flaunt our freedoms, we shouldn’t be expected to give them all up because someone somewhere has a problem with it. I can’t refuse to let my daughter wear sandals because you never know who might have a foot fetish. That is not liberty.
So please don’t use this verse as an opportunity to insinuate yourself into the business of others.
The social media revolution is an incredible opportunity to relearn how to love each other and enter into community. Don’t squander this opportunity for the church by feeling the need to police it. If you find you just can’t do it, you can unfollow them without unfriending them. When you feel a little better about letting people be themselves, you can give it another shot and, hey, no harm done.
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