Faith leaders have a responsibility to use social media with intentionality and humility, writes the director of grants at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.
As a millennial who came of age in the early years of Facebook, I hold a complicated relationship with social media. While I appreciate the connectivity that it creates — the ability to meet people from around the world and sometimes build genuine relationships — I dislike how it serves as a vehicle to present images, videos and messages that can push me to a place of envy and low self-worth.
Recognizing that social media was created as a form of self-directed mass communication that allows people to bypass the channels set up by institutions, I also understand that it affords extreme creative liberties that can cultivate toxic desires to appease an audience in hopes of affirmation.
In a season of ever-increasing division, social media presents an opportunity for Christian leaders to share their perspectives on policies, legislation and social norms in ways that direct people to their understanding of what God is saying.
These platforms allow people to rapidly publish their thoughts, ideas and opinions, relatively unencumbered by censorship — or checks for credibility. While the immediate feeling of uninterrupted thought may create some sense of freedom, in reality, no one can express opinions without consequences.
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat — you and your congregation probably have at least one of these. Technology has always been a useful medium for faith leaders to spread the gospel to communities, so it is not surprising that we have embraced social media platforms as an essential tool in our ministry.
The mandated COVID-19 lockdowns made social media a necessity to communicate with faith communities while physical gatherings could not take place. But with an uptick in our posting, tweeting and creating reels to stay in regular contact with our congregations, this rapid expression of published opinion calls for a theological ethic that guides faith leaders’ involvement on social media.
How can social media be ordered to generate a common life with God and neighbor as we seek to bear witness to Jesus Christ in the world? This task should be grounded in the virtue of humility.
It has taken me years to remember that my identity is not affirmed through what I post or share on platforms. As a Christian leader, I have had to recognize that embracing the world’s affirmation can lead to a life and ministry of trying to please everyone, allowing my public witness to drain the energy needed to accomplish the work of God’s desired plan.
Social media platforms are an extension of voice that must be managed as such. Our voices are tools for how power is wielded in society. Audiences can perceive our voices through the offices we hold, so we must always use them as instruments to give witness to God’s involvement in our communities and our lives.
Humility is essential, because it is the recognition that all we are, all we have and all we will ever be or obtain is a direct result of God’s provision and sustenance. Christian leaders should not disregard how, even in social media, a posture of humility is a tool to reject the false notion that success is possible without total reliance on God. To embrace humility is to fight against the celebrity culture often associated with social media, which can entice modern-day Christian leaders to boast of their social media following and the expansive reach of their digital platforms.
As our audience grows, our impact is amplified. By office, Christian leaders have an inherited audience on social media, which gives us the ability to influence users and even change their mindset, character and attitudes. This influence can go toward good (what some researchers call “reality perception”) and ill (what they call “deceiver perception.”)
Audiences can perceive our voices through the offices we hold, so we must always use them as instruments to give witness to God’s involvement in our communities and our lives.
Positively, leaders can present solid facts and data through social media that illuminate reality — informing people and helping them learn to give their opinions appropriately. Negatively, leaders can present false “facts” and data that promote deception — misinforming people and encouraging them to malign others’ character, sowing chaos and cultivating an environment with limited tolerance.
Christian leaders have always been influencers, and as such, we have participated in either illuminating reality or promoting deception. The voices of Christian leaders have always carried a burden of responsibility. In “Three Books on the Duties of Clergy,” St. Ambrose wrote, “Let there be a door to thy mouth, that it may be shut when need arises.”
The influence that Christian leaders carry on social media platforms is another form of power that can be used responsibly or manipulated. If Christian leaders are called to help curate and cultivate systems and communities where people can bear faithful witness to God, then our social media engagement needs to be seen as a place where we express faithful discipleship.
In speaking for God, the prophet Isaiah recounts, “The Lord God has given me a trained tongue, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word” (Isaiah 50:4 NRSVUE).
In using our voices to speak to societal ills, we need to cultivate a practice of humility that allows for prayer, reflection and intentionality. Just as we prepare our sermons, presentations and publications, our social media posts should seek to sustain the weary with a word.