christians in the media

Social Media Fast for Lent? Not for me!

I wrote a piece for Christian Today last week, which reflected that according to OpenBible, social networking is the number one thing that people tweeted that they were giving up for Lent! For many, this reflects the negative perception of social media that persists: that it causes us to disconnect from those around us, and that we have become ‘slaves to machines’. Some feel that they are simply reflecting upon habits that have become ‘all-consuming’, but this assumes that time online is time wasted. Abandoning social media feels less helpful than adjusting and experimenting with our interaction with it: our mobile devices and social media are embedded parts of our everyday lives, and places that we connect with ‘real people’. It is right to question if we are using them healthily, but disconnecting entirely can make life poorer both for those who give it up, and those who connect with them online.

There are so many possibilities for the church to engage online, to see it as a space with real potential for connection, especially in seeking to equip members of the church to speak out with confidence about their own faith experiences. There are many aspects of the digital in which it is easy to experiment, to try things that are low cost financially and reputationally, and for which the rewards in community engagement, local and international, are potentially powerful. We live in a culture which has become obsessed with efficiency, with getting things right, with wringing the last economic drop out of every penny, without regard for other costs.

How can the church be a leading light within our society, if we are seen as irrelevant, refusing to engage with the latest technology? Can we lead by example, and show that we are not afraid to experiment, not afraid to fail? If we’re not in the digital spaces, the latest ‘public square’, then we can’t offer an ‘example’ to influence the wider world. We need to be part of people’s everyday conversations, and not just arriving when we have a message to ‘sell’. Sharing our everyday lives, in which stories of humour and vulnerability are particularly powerful, allows us to connect – including with journalists, who find spaces such as Twitter a useful hunting ground for stories, and to build up trusted relationships with potential contributors to stories.

A number of platforms have offered a range of ways to get involved in Lent, from the Big Read that I ran 2010-2014, in which we sought to break ecumenical boundaries by encouraging ‘bigger Bible conversations’, to the multi-award winning 40 Acts, to the email series I am reading via Brain Draper, to options to share a picture each day from The Bible Society, to listen to 40 voices from the Diocese of Canterbury, whilst there are Facebook book reading groups, support groups for those decluttering for 40 days, and all kinds of other opportunities, the large majority small groups who have self-organised.

The digital age has brought with it a desire for personalisation, and a recognition that one size does not fit all. Whilst being wary of commercialisation, the digital gives us the ability to encounter the richness of many great theological minds which we would have had no access to before, allowing challenges from those of us who are ‘everyday theologians’ with a hunger for connection, for spiritual development, and for theological knowledge, as we learn that God loves us as we are.

The digital allows us to read on the move, we can access the Bible in many translations for free, use apps to manage our prayers, can move beyond our geographical limitations, whilst also enriching our communities through the ‘hyper-local’. Social media often brings small glimpses of theology into our everyday lives, through the people we connect with, and the content we encounter. Much of that content has become increasingly visual, particularly on platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat, both incredibly popular with teenagers. We need to be present to participate in conversations, demonstrating that we have something to say about the smaller aspects of life, means that we can demonstrate the relevancy of a faithful life, and may even be asked to comment on our lives, our faith, and the organisations we represent.

Dr Bex Lewis is Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University, director of social media consultancy Digital Fingerprint, and author of ‘Raising Children in a Digital Age’. Follow her on Twitter @drbexl

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