Friday, January 7, 2011

The Age of Facebook and the Church

If you have been around this blog before, you will know that I’m a great advocate for honesty . . . deep, emotional honesty, warts and all. My premise is simple. The Bible says that lying is sin. Plus, if God is really there after all, then He is a God of truth. If He wasn’t a God of truth, then what’s the point with Him? Since lying is the opposite of truth then the more dishonest we are, the more removed from God we are.

But this type of great candidness is despised by many parts of society, and in a paradox, the Evangelical subculture seems to abhor it the most. The reason is, when you deal honestly with life—warts and all—you dispel the Christian myths about righteousness and godliness.

The myth is, you become a Christian and over night you become a much better person than you were the day before. You also, supposedly, loose your motivation to do things which the Bible considers sinful. Then as you grow, those tendencies virtually go all away until you are godly.

I know it sounds like I’m getting off on a tangent, and maybe I am, but I will eventually relate it back to the Facebook phenomenon.

But I believe in reality, we change very slowly. The “overnight” change, in my humble opinion has a lot more to do with socialization than a supernatural change. This is not a theological statement but one based on the observation of human behavior over a long period of time.

Then, over time our character does change subtly, but we imagine it doing so much more than it does. The Christian author Philip Yancey is saying the same exact thing in his book, What’s So Amazing About Grace.

So, where there is a incongruentcy or conflict between what we perceive about reality and what IS reality, we cover it up. To expose it, creates great social frustration and uneasiness. That’s what candidness does.

I will just give a brief example of what I mean. I hate to even bring this up, but it a classical example of what I’m talking about. A few months ago my ex-pastor, who certainly would consider himself a mature Christian and godly man, was in my house screaming at me with a contorted face and a look of pure rage. There were psychological reasons he could feel rage. I had announced a few weeks earlier that I was leaving his church. His personal esteem was wrapped up in that church (not saying he was a bad guy, but saying this is a normal human emotional feelings and response) and I was threatening his self esteem.

But during that “conversation” I made reference to his anger. I bet every sociologist and behavioral psychologist would agree that he was exhibiting extreme anger or rage. However, he voice offense that I would say he was “angry.” This made him livid. In his mind’s eye, he was doing pastoral counseling because I was a very bad man who had turned his back on God.
But then I was candid and said I, personally, was mad as hell. But the fact that I admitted that I was angry was used against me. It was more proof that I was a bad person and deserved such a harsh rebuke.

When I was very involved with Evangelical groups we all lied through our teeth to maintain the myth that we had godly motives for everything we did. In my opinion, this tension, between our good-Christian ideals and the reality of human nature has created a culture of farceness. It is against this farce that 80% of our Evangelical-raised children are rebelling. Don’t believe me? Ask them. Every 20-year-old + ex-church person I’ve talked to says the same. No Ken Ham, it is not because they’ve been exposed to “humanistic evolution.”

So how does Facebook fit in? The commentator says that Internet-based social networks have created a far more candid society. People are sharing on a public stage their most intimate thoughts and the trivial details about their lives—often with photos to back it up. Speaking of which, he also including these strange birds that speak their most intimate thoughts on these things call “blogs” whatever the hell that is.

Imagine that the world’s emotional/intellectual façade is like the sea. The bed of the sea is reality. As that water level starts to go down towards reality, the exposure and contrast with the dishonest Christian subculture becomes more apparent. The Church starts to look more like isolated islands sticking up out of the water, with the Facebook-generation falling off the edge towards that lowering water level. If not falling off the edge, then they have to construct a psychological dichotomy between their personas in the Christian world and in the non-Christian world.

This dichotomy was exemplified by friends of mine a number of years ago. They were typical, hard church-working, evangelicals. In the church context they said all the right things and appeared like the ideal Christian family.

They had another world in which they lived as well. They had a family business, in which the parents and the kids participated in. In that social setting, they were totally different. They were rough, drank a lot of beer, dad smoked cigarettes and they used rough language.

Now, please understand that I’m not criticizing this family as not being good Christians or even being hypocrites. My intentions could not be further from that, and this is where people often misunderstand what I’m trying to say. I’m just pointing how some people, actually most people, deal with this disjoint between the Christian ideals they subscribe to and the reality of the world in which they live.

On an even more interesting sociological note was that when this family was stuck by an unexpected tragedy (the father was killed), it was their non-Christian friends whom they drew closes to. I noticed that when us church-people, visited them in the hospital, a stiff façade would go up. When their non-Christian friends came (and most of the church people were gone) they let their guard down and they were real. No more flaky God-talk (God did this for a reason to teach you to trust Him) but crying and outrage . . . which was far, far more consistent with what they were really feeling.

So the big question, what does the future of the Church hold for a more candid society? How can the Church adapt to social networking?

Like I stated in the previous post, there are good and bad with every human endeavor. I personally applaud any movement towards a greater honestly. However, we all know that Facebook, blogs and other Internet interfaces between people can be a fraud. Who knows, maybe I’m a twelve year old girl in India rather than a fifty-five year old man in the San Juan Islands.

I posted once before about the virtual church (which some mega churches are playing around with). Most of that seems a continuation and even magnification of the farce factor. On line, you can appear to be even more holy than you really are. Online, they can’t see your bloodshot eyes or veins sticking out of your neck as you exhibit your carnal rage but cloak it as loving concern.

But, what is this Facebook society going to do to/for the future Church? I think we must become more honest are the Facebook generation is lost forever.

Maybe more on this though later.


JamesBrett said...

interesting conversation. this is my first time to visit the blog. i'll be back, though; i've now subscribed.

"The myth is, you become a Christian and over night you become a much better person than you were the day before."

christians would do well to dispel this myth in a hurry. because the truth is that discipleship is a series of small decisions to be obedient to God which, over time, affect a greater change. the Spirit empowers this process, but there's not (often) an overnight and magical change. [though i'll certainly allow for the power of God to accomplish that if he so wishes.]

i'm convinced that too many christians and would-be christians have been hurt because of this ridiculous expectation. and, as you've said, when everyone believes this way, all are encouraged to be dishonest.

Eagle said...


I hope you are not a 12 year old from India...if so I would not be happy..

Seriously...I agree with your points. All too often Christinaity comes down to be a facade for a lot of people. Under the guise of behavior modification people present an image that is far from reality. As I leanred I was hammered for talking about lust honestly, while my accountability partner lived a double life to present the image the church expected to see. Guess who was hammered by the Pharises. Part of the reason why I think Christianity can be unhealthy is that such a culture can damage your integrity. However I would also suggest in some of the circles I moved in the facade that can be Christianity can carry over into Facebook by evangelicals.

Read the status updates...when you are reading constant updates such as "Praise God my brother made a recvoery from his motorcycle accident" to "The Lord is awesome!! I got a new job at $%#...." to " The Lord has deeply blessed us we're engaged!!" It's all about the prosperity gospel. I know you would probably agree with me but I would suggest that the prosperity gospel is a deep, deep problem for Christianity. I think many Christians are in denial about how much a problem the prosperity gospel can be. However...for me reading evangelicals status updates helped me realize that issue clearly.

Mindy M said...

Thanks for your writings. I find them both interesting and challenging, but most of all accurate. I have a great passion for young people, and if we(Christians) don't figure out how to be real and revelant we will loose them forever.

jmj said...

Thanks for your comments on this. I was planning on continuing this discussion and I may. I've been consumed about starting a new business the last three days . . . plus my thoughts are on the tragedy in Tuscan. I think there is a message there about extremism . . and of course mental health. But I will mull it over.

Thanks JamesBret and Mindy M for visiting.

Eagle, I think you are right. It was a powerful lesson when I saw the most righteous people I had ever known, so I thought, doing (in their secret lives) some horrible things. It put my sense of godliness on its head.

Brenda said...

I used to get so sick of hearing about motives, motives, motives...I would try to do something good or right and it's still not good because my heart wasn't pure. Eventually, I gave up. Whose heart is pure anyway? Now, I don't really care what your motivation is. If you are helping people at the homeless shelter just to get your picture in the paper...I don't care. I'm just glad you are there and doing something good for someone else on the planet.

I also wanted to comment on your comment about loosing 80% of Christian youth...if you follow the whole Family Integrated Church or Quiverfull stuff...they have invented their life style in answer to this problem. They accuse church as well and have created their own that is suppose to "save" the children. I don't think it's working. I think it is worse.

I wanted to comment, but, I have no answers.

Becky said...

I recently read the book You are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier. He's one of the Silicon Valley techie "vision types" - maybe brilliant, maybe crazy, probably both.

He makes pretty much the opposite argument about the influence of social networking software as the NPR commentator you mention. As I read him, Mr. Lanier is concerned that the Web2.0 (or is it Web3.0?) technologies - think Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia - are forcing us into very confined, stereotyped ways of interacting (think the character limits in Facebook or Twitter) that places more value on the "fragments" a person produces than on the whole person. This tends to lead to a culture of shallow fandom rather than deep thought, everybody having to constantly produce "fragments" that advertise themselves rather than deep relationships, and an over-emphasis on the crowd relative to individual unique people.

That's probably way too abstract, given that he spent large swaths of his book on it. And I'm middle-aged, so maybe I just don't get it, but Lanier's viewpoint jives with my experience of Facebook. Facebook got going among the women at my church as a way, initially, to keep up with a pastor's wife who moved overseas. First I had to get used to a different definition of "friend" - initially my instinct when someone sent a "friend request" was that they actually wanted to get to know me better. Nah - most of them were just collecting people (I think). It seems I am mostly valued in this new society as a source of interesting (or not) "fragments" that are only remembered until they scrolled off someone's screen, regardless of their content. (Is that the fault of the technology or the people? I think partly the technology - face-to-face conversations stick in my mind longer than character-limited comments that scroll off my screen, replaced by other character-limited comments.) Then there is the predominance of "shallow fandom" stuff - people forwarding links to articles/videos, but not engaging with the ideas; people playing Farmville, but not remotely interested in my real-life garden; comments like the reply "Yay, Jesus!" when somebody posted the Christmas status "Thank you, God, for the greatest gift: Jesus." And when someone did post something difficult, it seems like the usual "I'll pray for you" is even more shallow than usual - the person saying it doesn't have (is prevented from having, by the technology) the personal investment of standing in the presence of an emotional person. And, I have to admit that I have "hidden" (rather than un-friended) people whose status updates constantly irritate me. So the technology lets me avoid dealing with certain people while remaining "friends" on the surface. Plus, Facebook seems to exploit people's inclination towards gossip and eavesdropping by its default of showing you the status of non-friends as long as one of your "friends" comments on the status.

Maybe all that is a bad example because it is "church people" but lots of it seems like it is partially human nature and partially forced (or at least encouraged) by the format of the technology.

All that sounds rather like a rant. It is more just things I think about. I'm not sure if I'm on to something or if I'm just becoming an old fogey.

I just started reading the book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam (2000) that reportedly talks about the apparent real decline in "social capital" (people participating in groups of any kind) over the last few decades. I think the computerized social networking phenomenon is an attempt at swinging the pendulum on "social capital" back the other way. I just have my doubts on whether the Facebooks and Twitters as they exist now really have any capacity to build anything except shallow bonds.

jmj said...

Brenda, I think you are right. No one does anything out of pure motives. If we waited until we have pure motives, we would never do anything.

I've done relief work overseas and after a week or two of that, it seems that everyone's motives are about 90% self-absorbed. Yet, like you said, if good is being done, then it is worth it.

jmj said...

Becky, everything you said rings true. Somehow, and I will to think about it, there is a deeper candidness but at the same time a superficial nature to it. I'm not a big user of Facebook, but while many people are sharing the intimate details of their daily life, the interaction is reduced to sound bites. Maybe this candidness is a cheap substitute for true community. The Church seems to us programs as a cheap substitute for community.

I've said before, and speaking of motives, that I believe the most fundamental motive for human behavior is the desire to be significant. Of course, the true gospel has solved that problem, but none of us grasp it psychologically here in this life. So, Facebook posting is saying, "Look what I'm doing . . . please respond and tell me that it matters to someone." Blogging like I'm doing is no different. It is a little more like, "This is what I'm thinking . . . does anyone really give a damn?" And, like the thoughts about motives, it doesn't mean that we cease what we are doing (Face-booking or blogging) but to recognize that we can never be fulfilled by those feeble attempts for finding significance.

I think you agree however that the Facebook (Twitter, blogging) generation is different. We, the Church, need to figure out how to meet this need of community in a much more profound way.

I do see how the Church could reach this generation better when they replace some of their models (formal program-centric) into groups of 20 something year olds sitting around coffee shops, or the living rooms of old, musty houses, listening to music, taking of real life, sharing meals and supporting each other . . . which could accented by, but not replaced socialization tools such as Facebook, Twitter etc. Of course they would need direction and not expect this to just take its course.

Just a thought.

jmj said...

Just another thought. You mentioned the pastor's wife moving overseas and Facebook was a way to stay in touch.

In my days, as a missionary, the same tool was the missionary "Newsletter." We still get a ton of them from the missionaries we support. But they were a fraud. We were taught to create in the letter people who were far better than we were in reality. The true purpose of the newsletter was to get money . . .and a little prayer on the side. But we couldn't get the prayer we really needed because we couldn't talk about the hell that was happening in our personal lives.

I have missionary friends right now who are living through hell on earth . . . but I seriously doubt they can ever talk about it outside of really personal friends.

Like we were told by our missionary boss, "Don't share negative stuff in your newsletters. Donors never like to give to losers." That statement could have easily have come out of the mouth of Olive's dad (Little Miss Sunshine).

Eagle said...

One thing I find interesting about Facebook is how people respond to you. Recently I learned that the Pastor of where I went to church unfriended me. What I would do is post questions on my wall. For example:

1. Do Christians worship the Bible and do they make it an idol?

2. Why don't Christians have difficulty with God's morals or ethics? I mean take the Egyptain plagues..I can see why you would take Pharoah's life, but what did an infant new born/first born do where he was killed by God? What was his crime? Are atrocities like this in the Old Testement commited by God any different than the attrocities carried out by Pol Pot, Stalin or Mao Zaedung?

Anyhow...I'd post question after question on my wall. Questions dealing with the Bible, evil, church culture, etc..

So waht happens? My Pastor where I was embedded for several years unfriends me. I find it both amusing and distrubing. You'd think if he knew you were invovled in small groups, involved in his chruch, etc.. that he would have reached out and said something to the effect of "Hey I saw you used to be involved at &^%) Community Church, but now are no longer. What happened? If you want to talk my door is always open and I want you to know that you are loved."

What happened instead? He pulled back Now is that what Jesus would do?

One thing about Facebook and technology is that I think it can expose a person much easier than in the past. Many Christians carry over the facade and I think it doesn't stick as well. The phonieness looks a lot more cheesy on the net.

Maybe its just me...

NOTAL said...

Facebook makes it much more difficult to live different lives in different groups. Unless you take the time to categorize all of your "friends" and selectively post to each group, you are saying the same thing to all of your friends and family.

Many of my generation (20-somethings) block their family members to hide the life they live around friends (hide the fact that they drink or are atheists, etc).