This essay is one of six in a collection of theological reflections on social media and new media conducted by the New Media Research Fellows at Union Theological Seminary. They are based upon the case studies conducted by the research fellows in 2011. Explore the Findings tab for more information about the rest of our work.
Study questions: Note that this essay includes questions at the end to help you go deeper into the topic, or to help others you may be leading to go deeper. Some of those questions will connect to other essays and case studies.
Social media are called social media because they are social
in character. While that may seem too obvious a statement with which to open
this essay, it is worth underscoring when thinking theologically about social
media and the Trinity.
Social media are forms of digital communication between and
among people who have some relationship to each other. As opposed to broadcast
media that blast created objects out to unknown consumers, social media usually
have a known target, and the character of the interaction is meant to be social.
I’ve recently been reading posts and comments about the best
way to get church members to “like” their church’s Facebook page. One writer reminded
us that because Facebook is social rather than broadcast media, the message on
the page should also be social. It shouldn’t be an advertisement for the next
church event. She recommended that we behave on Facebook the way we do when we invite
friends to church rather than as the one tasked with sending an ad in the local
newspaper. Write “Would you like to go with me to volunteer at the Thrift Store
sometime?” instead of “First Christian Church, Thrift Store Hours: 10 am to 2
pm, Help Needed.”
Social relationships are not new to Christian community.
Ever since Jesus sent out the seventy to carry his message of peace into homes
before he arrived (Luke 10:1), Christians have been spreading the Word of God
by word of mouth. We share the gospel of Jesus Christ with friends, neighbors,
relatives, and co-workers and demonstrate to them the love of God through our
actions. Building Christian community through social relationships is at the
heart of Christian thought and practice.
Community in high relief
What is new with the increasing use of social media is that now
many social relationships and human communities are visible in high relief,
revealing details and connections that were once more obscure. Like a relief
sculpture that shows the contours and depth of an image, social media can make
visible new dimensions of communities. Areas that were once in shadow are now
exposed for a much fuller viewing.
That friends of friends are a part of our networks is not new.
Visibly mapping those relationships in a digital medium that can penetrate to multiple
levels is new. Chatting in shorthand with buddies is not new. Doing so with
thousands of people at once for all to see is new. Awareness of the diversity
of peoples and communities around the world is not new. Building real
relationships with them in real time across thousands of miles is new.
Why should Christians bother to interpret and evaluate how social
media throw into high relief relationships and the communities formed by those
relationships? The answer is both theological and practical.
The body of Christ is the community of followers of Jesus
Christ that bears the Word of God to the world. Jesus served, formed, and
commissioned his followers to carry forth and enact the gospel message of God’s
incarnate love for the world. Social forces that impact the ways in which Christian
communities are shaped and function are therefore particularly interesting and
ripe for theological reflection.
Furthermore, every case study conducted by the New Media Project in 2011 contends with the
dynamics of building, maintaining, loving, shaping, healing, and sometimes even
the harm that can be done to community.
For example, The Young Clergy Women Project, an online network of almost 600 clergywomen
under the age of 40, was launched in 2005 with the stated purpose of providing
a supportive community to clergywomen who are often geographically isolated.
Using private blogs, a public e-zine, Facebook, and Twitter, their mission is
to gather this community, discover
the needs of its members, and build the network together.
Abilene Christian University’s mobile learning initiative is focused on
reforming education, but it also remains attentive to the ways in which the
community of students is affected. Since 2010, the school has measured an
increase in student gatherings as a result of the effort, which leaders view as
positive. However, Scott Hamm, the Director of Mobile Learning Research, is
also “worried that perhaps the mobile learning initiative is educationally
beneficial but might not be an effective tool for spiritual growth and
formation.” Hamm wonders if students might be cultivating only the practice of
consumption and not the practice of giving and sacrifice, for example.
Congregations in the case studies employ social media for
the purpose of engaging and forming their communities of faith as well. The
pastors at Seattle’s Quest Church are quick to note that they use social media only if it arises
“organically” from the practices and needs of the community; its only benefit
is for their specific community. The leadership at Community of Hope AME Church near Washington, D.C., on the other hand, explicitly uses
new and social media for evangelism—to increase and transform the community.
They reach out to neighborhood youth through video-storytelling as well as to
seekers around the world through live stream worship services with social media
Thinking theologically about particular community dynamics
arising from the use of social media can help us interpret and evaluate these practices
in the body of Christ.
The New Media Project researchers recognize the temptation
to focus our theological reflection primarily on doctrines of ecclesiology
because the structures and definitions of church—these communities of faith—seem
to be under the most strain. Social media practices are challenging some long
held ecclesial practices and beliefs. For example, does the manner in which
information is shared in a community of faith via social media threaten
doctrines of authority? Likewise, can people gathered online practice Holy
Eucharist, or do some ecclesiologies require that it only be enacted by people
gathered in the same physical space?
In his essay in this series, Research Fellow Jim Rice offers
an excellent analysis of the ecclesiological issues raised by new media and
social media practices. He successfully unearths some of the embedded theological
underpinnings of various ecclesiologies as churches encounter a world rapidly
being reshaped by social media. He posits how particular kinds of churches with
certain ecclesiologies might react, embrace, repel, influence, and challenge
However, as we explore the theological underpinnings of various
ecclesiological traditions, other doctrinal questions arise. Research Fellow
Kathryn Reklis explores the question of incarnation in her essay and how we
think theologically about embodiment as we move between face-to-face and virtual
interactions. Research Fellow Monica A. Coleman raises the question of how we
understand the mediation of salvation, the Word of God, in a world decidedly
shaped by digital communication. Research Fellows Lerone A. Martin and Jason
Byassee take a historical look at the transmission of tradition, theology, and
practice in their essays.
My task in this essay is to interpret and evaluate the
dynamics of social media upon the formation and shaping of Christian
communities and to think about how we enact
and construe community in this context. The doctrinal lens through which I will
explore these questions is the economic Trinity.
Interpreting social media
Communities visible in high relief via social media present
some obvious opportunities to Christians whose faith is social in character. Social
media enable us to proclaim the Word farther and wider, more quickly, and
perhaps more effectively than ever before. Why wouldn’t we use all tools
available to us to share the gospel message with a hurting world?
Social media also present new opportunities for humanitarian
ministries. I love the story
of Toomer’s of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, who organized disaster relief via
Facebook for their neighborhoods hit by tornadoes in 2011. Describing how the
Toomer’s group operated, James Chris Fields said, “This is social media, but
how it is being used is more like the old-fashioned church phone tree.”
Communities in stark relief
High relief, however, might also be stark relief. Making more
visible the intricate details of human relationships can also uncover the sin
and brokenness of human life and amplify the messiness inherent in human
communities. As one New Media Project research fellow noted in conversation,
social media can also “allow us to foist terrible theology faster and faster on
less and less discerning persons around the world.” And it certainly has
enabled the proliferation of soul-crushing and exploitative activities like
pornography and human trafficking.
writes in stark relief about his case study, Nadia Bolz-Weber and House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver:
[Bolz-Weber] often taps her chest and says, “It’s dark in there.” She
found the Lutheran tradition was the only one that gave language to what she’d
experienced. “When I learned about simil
justus et peccator I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we are all sinners and saints
at the same time.’” The name for her future church was born.
One theme in the church’s preaching and liturgy is the depth of human
sin. “I come here every week to get thrown on my ass,” [one] parishioner says.
Bolz–Weber uses some of the heaviest clerical language I’ve ever heard in a
Protestant church for the absolution: “As an ordained minister of the church of
Jesus Christ and by his authority, I declare that your sins are forgiven.”
Christians have something to say about the potential for
both good and evil in their communities.
Because the doctrine of the Trinity includes foundational
claims about community and relationality, it is an important lens through which
to interpret and evaluate social media. For help exploring this doctrine, I rely
on Daniel L. Migliore’s book, Faith
Seeking Understanding, and
Joe R. Jones’ work, A Grammar of Christian
both offer broad descriptive narratives of the doctrine’s development over time
and give primacy to the economic Trinity—the relationship and interaction
between God and the world.
The economy of God is “a way of talking about God’s active
plan and management of the world and its history. God manages creation and
history in a way that is analogous to how a competent house owner manages a
household,” writes Jones. God’s
economic transactions are the ways in which God interacts with the world, and
they provide the means by which we can understand who God is, for how can we
know the internal divine life of God, described as the immanent Trinity, other
than through that which is revealed to us by God’s interaction with the world? We
learn who God is by what God does. There is no need to posit a more real God
hidden behind what is revealed.
I recognize that this conviction places me within a
particular theological worldview. It is a choice I make to begin confessionally,
with the economic Trinity. Other essays in this series offer different
theological orientations. Together, we hope the essays offer a set of
invitations to think theologically about new and social media in a variety of
ways without the need to synthesize.
Trinitarian theology in this vein arises from the recognition
that God identifies Godself in three distinct ways in scripture. A doctrine of
the Trinity gives an account of this three-fold self-revelation. Note that these
self-descriptions are economic transactions. Jones explains them as follows:
- God is the One who elected, liberated and
covenanted with Israel and is thereby sovereign Creator of all things.
- God is the One who is singularly incarnate in
and thereby definitively self-revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of
Jesus of Nazareth.
- God is the One who empowers the church into
being and moves within creaturely life to draw all creatures into a redemptive
The central question driving Trinitarian theology is: How do
we talk about God as One (monotheism) in accordance with the scriptural record,
when God’s self-revelation in scripture is also trifold?
The unity of the one God is required for Christian theology
to make sense. The alternative, tritheism, has long been recognized as heresy. More
recently, tritheistic thinking has permitted the idea that one god might act
upon another god in ways contrary to the will of one. Such thinking gives rise
to strong criticisms of Christian atonement theory because it seems possible
that an abusive Father God required and enacted the death of the Son as
punishment for human sin. The unity of one God resists such bloody atonement proposals
by insisting that God’s own divine self was crucified on the cross, not a
separate sacrificial victim.
Scripture also suggests a strong relationality, or
interaction, among the three. The earliest Trinitarian formulas (after Nicaea,
including the Cappadocians) that posited one essence (ousia) in three hypostases
(personae or prosopon) also stipulated an inner-trinitarian relationship among
the three. The Father is the Father who begats the Son and enlivens the Spirit.
In Greek, this concept of relationality was further developed as the perichoresis or inter-animation of the hypostases. The three are in each other and
act together, even while also remaining distinctly in relationship to each
other. Tertullian in the early third century and Augustine later in the fifth century
clarified a Latin formulation of the Trinity—one substance (substantia) of God in three persons (personae).
This sense of relationality in the triune God requires
otherness. While maintaining the unity of one God, we must also uphold the
three-ness of God in order for the biblical testimony and Christian theology to
make sense. That the God who elected and covenanted with Israel, the creator of
all, chose to become fully human in Jesus Christ, to reveal Godself in God’s
fullness, and makes real the ongoing possibility of living into this gift of
grace through the Holy Spirit, requires that the three have their own distinctiveness.
They are not simply extensions or shadows of each other. They are not just
roles or characters played by an actor who is more real than the masks he or
she puts on. The three persons of the Trinity are their own subjects, even as
they remain one, fully present at every moment.
Without the otherness or distinctiveness of the persons of
the Trinity, we could easily loose the distinctive faith of a people who claim
that the God of Israel and creation is incarnate in Jesus Christ in order to
reconcile the world through the power of the Holy Spirit. No other religion claims
that the deity becomes human for this purpose. In fact, Jones says, without the
claim of the divinity of Jesus Christ, we have no need for a doctrine of the
In the early part of the twentieth century, Karl Barth and
Karl Rahner revived interest in the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity,
both agreeing with the early formulas. They were, however, concerned with
whether person meant a distinct center of consciousness and will. Barth and
Rahner thought that the meaning of personae
in modern thought is different from the original hypostasis and thus should be avoided because it is misleading: God
is a single subject; there cannot be three centers of consciousness in God
because three conscious subjects would be tritheism.
Social trinitarians, as they came to be thought of in the
mid to late twentieth century, pushed back. Theologians like Jurgen Moltman,
Catherine Mowry LaCugna, and Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. argued that “the modern
understanding of person is precisely what is needed in trinitarian reflection
because it emphasizes both person as an intentional center of activity and
awareness and the sense that persons are constituted by their relationships,” explains
Also taking the economic Trinity as their starting point,
social trinitarians made an even stronger case for the importance of the
three-ness of God than did Barth and Rahner. Daniel Migliore explains, “The
trinitarian ‘persons’ are not to be understood as separate and autonomous
selves [Barth and Rahner’s concern]. Instead, they have their personal identity
in relationship. A trinitarian understanding of personal life questions modern
views of personhood that equate personal existence with the self-consciousness
and autonomy of the individual.”
The high relief view of community offered by today’s social
media use could be exemplary here. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, once
remarked that his goal was not to help people escape from their lives, as do
video gamers who create multiple avatars. Rather, Zuckerberg wanted to map real
human trust relationships in which people long to be more fully embedded. He
seems to have hit upon something. The exponential growth of social networking
sites like Facebook would suggest how deeply formed human beings are by their
relationships and how much they wish to explore and expand those relationships.
In fact, the pressures that make individual personal privacy more and more
difficult to maintain in an online and networked world, might even suggest that
the primacy of the independent human individual seems to be diminishing in
society today. Our view of personhood is indeed changing.
On the other hand, social media can also fuel the worship of
individual celebrity and fame, the height of individualism. However, such fame is
still defined by the number of followers or likes one has. It’s curious that celebrity
is literally defined by human relationships even if the famous person doesn’t
personally know any of his or her fans.
To the discussion about personhood, Migliore adds, “God is
one, but the unity of God is a living unity. It is a unity of plentitude that
includes difference and relationship. … Otherness is the presupposition of
personal relationship; it is the sine qua
non of the event of love.”
Jones suggests that we need both the language of social
trinitarians to appreciate the fundamental ways in which God’s own self is
defined by relationship and the language of unity in a single subject who acts
as one. He says, “The social analogy seems to preserve the differences and
relationalities, while the analogy of God as a single subject seems to preserve
the unity and oneness of God more adequately. Hence, some balancing of these
models of unity and multiplicity will be required as we confront the
limitations of our language.”
When thinking about social media then, should we focus our trinitarian
reflection upon the relationships themselves—the relationships between the
three persons? Is the very essence of God in these connections? As social media
users begin to lose their individuality and fall more and more into their
embedded social relationships, are they to find solace in the idea that God’s
own triune self is also primarily defined by relationships?
Jones argues that the unity of God is the unity of a
person-subject, not a common essence with three instances. That would be tritheism.
Neither is the unity located in a community of persons or the quality of the
relationships among the persons. “While it is good grammar to say that the
Father, Son, and the Spirit enjoy relationships of loving mutuality, it is
devastating to locate the divinity of the Father and the Son and the Spirit in
the loving mutuality as such, for that mutuality is quite prior to and
detachable from the narrative interactions of the God of Israel, Jesus Christ,
and the Spirit.” The
content of the Christian faith is found in the three-fold revelation of God’s
own self, which may be constituted by relationship but is not the relationship
itself. If it were just the relationship, what could we say definitively about
who God is in the world?
Instead, Jones suggests that God is an “I” (unified subject)
who meets us as a “Thou” (three distinct persons). “God has three decisive ways
of being God, wherein God’s being is in God’s modes of agency.”
The Trinity and communities in high relief
What might these fundamental claims about God’s relational
triune life help us say about human community, especially community thrown into
high relief by social media today?
Starting with the economic Trinity precludes one approach: It
is not adequate to make the single claim that because humans are created in the
image of God and God is relational in substance and character, we are therefore
relational too. While it is not incorrect to make this claim, it’s just not
enough. It doesn’t take into account the content of the Christian faith that
claims the divinity of Jesus Christ who enacted a gift of grace so abundant
that the Holy Spirit continues to offer it to us today.
The question instead is: How do we interpret the way the triune
God interacts with communities today, especially given how visible and intense those
communities can become through the use of social media?
We return to the perichoresis
of the triune life of God. Jones describes this perichoresis as the “lively—dancing—way in which the Father, the
Son, and the Spirit have their life together.”
Not only are they in relationship with one another, but they also inter-animate
each other, not doing each other’s work, but being fully present within each
other at every moment.
The Holy Spirit and communities in high relief
If this is the case, then the work of the Spirit, described by
Jones as that which “moves within creaturely life to renew it and redeem it,”
is fully permeated with the other two persons of the Trinity. “Their
inter-animation is the communal permeation of love among the Father, the Son,
and the Spirit. It is in love that the triune Subject lives and interacts both
within Godself and with the world.”
God’s interaction with the world through the Holy Spirit is
filled with the love and grace, forgiveness and reconciliation, and joy of the
God of Israel and Jesus Christ who lived and died and was raised to new life
that we might have new life and have it abundantly.
If we look for God’s interaction with the world today through
this lens of the Holy Spirit, how might we view communities in high relief?
Evaluating social media and enacting
Can this kind of trinitarian reflection help make the social
media practices impacting our communities more theologically intelligible? To address
this question, I will explore how some of the practices of social media that we
observed in the New Media Project case studies function, and how we might then evaluate
those functions theologically and ethically given this discussion of the
Trinity. I’ll approach the functions of social media through a series of
questions, and finally, I’ll suggest what best social media practices we might
enact that are theologically coherent and sturdy.
My hope is that by stepping in and exploring the function
and practice of social media with some sharpened theological tools, we might
not only see this world marked by social media more fully, but also learn to
shape it ourselves as people of faith. Eugene Cho at Seattle’s Quest Church,
said that he thinks very little about whether or not to use social media, but
he does think theologically about how to shape his community using all the
tools and gifts at his disposal. That’s a bit of what I hope to do here.
Is the function of social media to collect
Long before digital communication existed, people of faith
utilized their social networks to gather people, and they continue to do so
today. Christians invite people they know in their neighborhoods, families,
schools, and work places to worship, mission, and educational events related to
their churches. Social media tools significantly extend this reach.
Abilene Christian University, along with other social media
trend watchers, claim that social media have helped increase the number of
face-to-face gatherings by helping people find others with common interests. Lerone
A. Martin writes, “Students who
matriculated during the advent of the mobile learning initiative report an
increase in group study sessions and gatherings. From 2010 to 2011, 86 percent
of students reported improved student-to-student and student-to-teacher
collaborations and interactions after employing their mobile devices in the
Nadia Bolz-Weber and her church, House for All Sinners and
Saints, intentionally collect people who are often excluded from other forms of
church. And social media is a key tool in this mission. Jason Byassee writes:
Members told me about a hymn sing that took place in the pub.
Participants wept to be singing “old time religion” songs over cold suds. Yet
only some small portion of those singing came from the church. Others saw the
meeting planned on Meetup.com and came too. Still others happened to be at the
(largely gay) bar that day, heard the singing, and wanted to join in. Online
and embodied communities are not here playing a zero-sum game. They supplement
and depend upon one another.
Jesus says to his followers, “For where two or three are
gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matt 18:20), promising the ongoing
blessing and presence of the Spirit of God. When the people of God are
gathered, assembled, collected, there the Holy Spirit enlivens and informs the
community through the worship of God and the preached Word, through brotherly
and sisterly love and care shared among the members, and through the education
of God’s people. We do not flourish as the people of God in isolation.
We are beginning to learn that more and more congregations
are using social Facebook pages as their primary web presence rather than a
static website that can only make announcements. If
this trend continues, then the largest social media platform on the planet will
become a common means by which people discover information about particular
congregations and consider whether to attend.
If social media practices like those above function to collect the people of God for
the purpose of knowing each other and knowing the triune God through the power
of the Holy Spirit, then they are worth pursuing. That’s one way to evaluate
social media theologically.
Social media practices that serve to isolate the people of
God one from another and from their brothers and sisters around the world are
not so worthwhile to the people of God. They may even be harmful. When people
feel trapped behind screens that may steer their attention down tempting paths,
then the practice ought to be avoided. The leaders at Abilene Christian
University have worried about easy access to pornography via the Internet,
while the youth ministers in The Young Clergy Women Project contend with the
experiences of cyber-bulling among their charges. Finding safe and life-giving
ways to collect the people of God is essential.
Collecting or assembling the people of God may not always result
in face-to-face community, however. But that, in and of itself, should not rule
out the practice. Disabled people, those who are isolated for other reasons,
find significant and real community online. It would be a mistake to assume
that a relationship online is not “real” and therefore excluded from the beneficial
act of collecting of God’s people.
Is the function of social media to connect
people (create community)?
After the people of God are collected, what happens? Putting
people together in a room (or in a Facebook group) does not a community make. Pastors
know this. Youth workers recognize the importance of reaching the critical mass
of particular teenagers before a group really gels. Religious leaders of all
sorts look for ways to measure how well people are connecting in their communities,
not just how many events they attend.
The throngs of people who gathered around Jesus were not
all followers of Christ. That sort of community had to be created and come to realize
its purpose. We connect people by helping them feel they belong together and share
a common purpose. We get to know their names and stories, and we connect them to
others with similar stories and ideas.
Elsa Peters, a pastor in Portland, Maine, who is also one
of the leaders of The Young Clergy Women Project, sees Facebook as an
opportunity for church members to tell their own stories of faith. “That’s how they’re learning to tell the
story about who our church is. I’m motivating them to tell a story,” she says. When the congregation redesigned its website, they looked
to Elsa to maintain both the congregation’s Facebook page and their Twitter
feed. She said, “no,” because she worried that if she agreed to be the voice of
the church online, they would not have the opportunity to develop their own.
Sharing and telling stories is just one way to foster
community, but it is particularly well suited for social media. Eugene Cho of
Seattle’s Quest Church says:
Theologically, one of the main things that I would see supporting the
usage of new media is the ability to communicate story and narrative. That’s
probably the most important thing. One of the ways that God created us uniquely
as human beings is the ability to process stories, to narrate stories, and to
live a better story.
Certainly for us as Christians, let alone pastors, we are part of a
larger narrative that I consider to be the greatest story, the greatest
This isn’t just a means for us to engage in pop trends but also to
utilize this to communicate the larger narrative of God that has been personified
in Christ. That would be probably the strongest theological reason why I engage
in new media as another form of communication that is revolutionizing the way
that we do such things.
Countryside Community Church (CCC) in Omaha uses media
differently and for another purpose, but it certainly creates community with a
Christian telos. Eric Elnes and the Darkwood Brew team produce worship services and educational videos for small groups
around the world who seek progressive Christian resources. They imagine
creating a new community that crosses borders. Kathryn Reklis writes, “CCC has invested considerably (in capital, space,
and time) in new media and social media to create a program they hope will
resource a new form of Christianity,
one that escapes the deep polarizations between “left” and right” and focuses
instead on the three great loves—of God, neighbor, and self (emphasis added).”
If social media practices function to connect the people of God to create life-giving communities
that can come to know, display, and share the good news of the triune God, then
they are worth pursuing. That’s another way to evaluate social media practices
When social media practices serve to divide people against
each other, especially through destructive and violent means, or in other ways
that do not comport with the promise of love and grace made to known to us in
the triune God, then they should be avoided and dismissed. Social media do not
function in a vacuum. The content of the message and the story-telling and the
quality and purpose of the relationships shared via social media become
critically important to the practices’ value in creating Christian community.
Creating Christian community requires not just new and
effective tools, but also knowledge of the content of the faith to be shared.
Is the function of
social media to collect and connect people with an aim to convert them (evangelize and transform)?
The Great Commission is clear about the work God gives to
the community: “Go
therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the
Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey
everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to
the end of the age” (Matt 28:19).
Many traditions measure success by how many disciples they
baptize or convert to Christianity. Other traditions interpret “make disciples”
in broader terms. But certainly the purpose of Christian community is at the
very least to proclaim—in whatever way that may be understood—the good news of God’s
grace to a hurting world.
Unfortunately, the purpose of evangelism in some settings
has been reduced to increasing numbers alone—numbers of conversions, baptisms,
confessions, meals served, those attending, etc. And when numbers become the
focus of Christian activity, a marketing mindset can take over.
Business marketers were among the first to recognize the
potential power of social media to sell products, especially as they came to
understand that social relationships
drive consumer choices more than advertisements do today. But a world altered by social media requires a
different way of seeing that world, and it’s taking time to make the shift.
Some marketers continue their one-way communication strategies, even as they
attempt to use social media networks. They announce things and send out
messages, but this is becoming increasingly counterintuitive to active social media users.
Christian communities reduce evangelism to marketing for the purpose of
increasing numbers, then they will misunderstand the power of social media and
probably rub people online the wrong way as well.
However, if we think
less about increasing numbers and more about transforming people’s lives—and
understand that relationships are crucial to transformation—then social media
begins to make sense as a powerful tool.
Community of Hope AME Church near Washington, D.C., Monica A. Coleman writes, “If
the goal is community, new media are tools for evangelism. When asked, Lee
describes the content in traditional terms—the good news, the love of Christ,
the way that knowing Jesus transforms our individual lives.”
If social media practices function with an aim to convert people to the knowledge
of God’s gift of grace through transforming relationships that empower them to know
grace-filled lives, then they are worth pursuing. That’s another way to
evaluate social media practices theologically. However, if social media tools
are used in ways that ignore the power of transforming relationships, or
relationships at all, then they will likely fail.
Perhaps another way to think
about conversion is to ask the following.
Is the function of
social media to conspire people,
to encourage them to be in harmony with one another (nurture community)?
The New Media Project conducted a non-scientific survey of
68 young clergy gathered for the Transitions into Ministry program in May 2011.
Ninety-two percent of the respondents were under the age of 40. When asked
about using social media in ministry, 83 percent said they use Facebook, and 46
percent said they use text messaging in their ministries. In what areas of
ministry do they use social media? The number one response was pastoral care
Nadia Bolz-Weber uses social media to nurture her congregation
in communal patterns of care. Byassee writes:
several members tell me they embrace House for its inclusivity, more say they
do so because of its sense of community. ‘This place is by and for and within
and into community,’ one says, piling up prepositions. Their way of doing
community is online. Members go to events, post photos, and all are vicariously
Bolz-Weber tells a story of the church starting a Google prayer group,
so that members can log on and tell their ill companion she’s being prayed for.
That way one can watch as a prayer chain forms visibly before her eyes.
blogged about this
experience, showing that
pastoral care is communal, not simply individual, and can come in short
increments—in precisely the sort of attention-span-deprived bursts in which
newer generations specialize.
Tony Lee at Community of Hope AME Church thinks of
social media as a means by which to “touch people who need hope.” Lee and his team use social media
extensively for this purpose. He once saw on Facebook that a church member’s brother
has committed suicide—something he did not know otherwise. Because of that
knowledge, he was able to find the young man and attend the funeral.
However, Monica A. Coleman notes that Lee worries he has
become more like a vertical hub of connection rather than the means by which
people conspire, or grow together. She writes, “The use of social media around community formation appears to be more
vertical than horizontal. There are no ministries completely online, and
members say they do not text each other with prayer requests. The minister is
still the mediator for the community.”
In a blog
post last year, Kathryn Reklis explores the idea of a “thickening web of
interactivity” pulling us deeper and deeper into relationships somehow marked
by divine touch. She explains
Catholic theologian Karl Rahner’s depiction of the “intimate relationship to God
that grounds all human existence” as a “horizon of being.” According to Rahner,
she says, “Every moment of being … has as its precondition an awareness of the
transcendent God as the possibility of any existence at all. We are not aware
of this awareness in an explicit way, but like a horizon always pulling us
forward, this ‘pre-apprehension’ grounds our existence in God’s existence and
draws us toward God in love.”
what it might mean to re-envision this particular image for God in a social
media world in which users dig down deep through hyperlinks and Tweets and
posts into ever expanding arenas of ideas and connections that pull us forward
into new and deeper relationships.
She asks, what if
God is “not a receding horizon making experience possible but the thickening
web of interconnectivity, the relationship between all other relationships?”
She concludes, “What do we know about ourselves and our world theologically if
the divine possibility of all our knowing can be imagined as the hyperlinked
connections of our digital experience?”
Here is the image of falling more deeply into community and
into relationships that constitute our personhood. While God cannot be reduced
to the relationships, what if our own thickening webs of interconnectivity with
others become a place for God’s presence to be experienced anew? And what might
it mean if the content of our connections and digital experiences were rooted
in the self-revelations of God in scripture?
If social media practices function to conspire people together into the Body of Christ that is
constituted by relationships but also filled with freely created people who are
drawn deeper and deeper by the grace of God made know to us in the God of
Israel, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, then they are worth pursuing.
However, if social media practices begin to obscure the
content of the faith, drawing us into ever thickening webs that do not lead to the
life abundant made known through the Holy Spirit, then perhaps we need to be
Is the function of
social media to create space for cultivation,
to be conscious of formation (give shape and definition to community and the
individuals in it)?
Martin Luther famously theologized about a priesthood of all
believers in which all followers of Christ are called into ministry, not just
the ordained clergy. He was looking for, or perhaps creating space for,
Christians to reflect on their faith, learn from scripture, and reach
conclusions that might differ from those taught by sanctioned church leaders.
Social media is often thought to be flattening the playing
field of societies and thereby threatening hierarchies of power by providing
immediate access to huge amounts of information previously unavailable. Who
needs an expert to tell you what to think when you can study it yourself or ask
What if we thought of the space created by social media as a
space well suited to the cultivation and formation of faith? This would require
the evaluation of content that comes into that space. Some of it may be untrustworthy
and a waste of time. However, sometimes the permission to explore that is
granted in such a space will lead to new insights, creativity, and new
expressions of faith. Overall, I think it requires of pastors the kind of
leadership that might better be described as a curator of information than a
gatekeeper, a cultivator of ideas rather than an instructor. The leaders at
Abilene Christian University think of their faculty now as “technology guides,
not sages” who alone possess the knowledge.
If social media practices function to create space for cultivation of the people of God
by the Holy Spirit, then they are worth pursuing. If the space becomes
formless, devoid of content, open to whatever suits a fancy, then it can
devolve into something that may not, in any recognizably Christian way, convey God’s
grace. That’s one way to evaluate social media practices theologically.
Is the function of social media to change
societies (social justice advocacy)?
The news is filled with stories about the capacity of social
media to empower disenfranchised peoples to organize and mobilize for positive social
change. One only need look to the Arab Spring and the role that social media
networking sites played in gathering large numbers of protestors with such
rapidity that despotic regimes fell in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
More recently, The New
York Times shed light on petty corruption worldwide with a story
about the website, ipaidabribe.com, that allows individuals to report anonymously about
bribes they paid, were asked to paid and didn’t, or are still expected to pay. Governments
are now asking the organization for help to stop the corruption in their
nations. The story explains:
Ben Elers, program director for
Transparency International, a nongovernmental organization, said social media had given the
average person powerful new tools to fight endemic corruption. “In the past, we
tended to view corruption as this huge, monolithic problem that ordinary people
couldn’t do anything about,” Mr. Elers said. “Now, people have new tools to
identify it and demand change.”
In March, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite of Chicago
Theological Seminary opined in the Washington Post’s On
Faith blog that the defeat of Rush Limbaugh for his attack on a Georgetown University
law student who protested the school’s refusal to cover birth control was an
example of how social media is empowering women. “Many women are finding each other through social media and they are able to
give powerful voice to their outrage at the injustices done against them,” she
wrote. “The outrage has been there for a long time, simmering. But the
connection to new media has changed how women understand themselves. They are
realizing they don’t have to be voiceless and powerless any more. Women,
especially younger women, connecting through new media are finding a new sense
of self-empowerment. And they are using that power through social media.”
At Community of Hope AME Church (COH), Monica A.
Coleman observes that the pastoral leadership understands new media as
liberative for the many disenfranchised and poor people in the neighborhoods
surrounding the church. Coleman writes:
In practice, Lee is a
liberation theologian. His message is focused on including the excluded. The
church motto is repeated on the website and during every worship service: “We
don’t care who you are; what you’ve done or who you did it with. We don’t care
if you did it last night or if you woke up doing it this morning. You’re in the
right place at the right time to become all that God has called you to become.”
COH spends as much time outside of the church building as it does inside, if
not more. They are committed to working against crime in the community, with
young people around bullying and self-esteem, and in local gang-intervention.
If social media practices function to change societies in ways that are liberative, focusing on
justice, freeing the oppressed, and empowering the afflicted so that they might
live life abundantly, then they are worth pursuing. Thistlethwaite writes, “I believe social media is inherently
progressive,” because it has the power to level the playing field between the
“haves” and the “have nots,” which she connects to a Christian ethic that
recognizes God in movements of justice. That the triune God—the God of Israel,
Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit—calls us into in such movements is evident
If, however, social media is used to fan the flames of despotism
and oppression, which it certainly may do—there is no reason why the forces of
oppression couldn’t use the same social media tools to influence opinion and
action—then it is no longer a good. In a recent Huffington
Post editorial, Arianna Huffington warns against the danger of the
fetishization of social media in which the tool itself is idol-worshipped and
those in the media have failed to be concerned with the content being spread around. Are
social media inherently progressive? Only if progressive is defined by action
and not by content. Christians should ask the same of the content of their
stories—is social media amplifying the good news for a hurting world? What do
we do when it is not?
Because social media is relational and because it is having
a significant impact on communities of faith in America today, it has been
useful to think theologically about social media through the lens of the
doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity offers a way of thinking not
only about who God is as relational, but also how God interacts with a world increasingly
defined by relationships. The economic Trinity helps us stay grounded in the
scriptural record of God’s own self-revelation to the world, a revelation that
provides the content of Christian faith. This content then helps us to evaluate
and enact social media practices that are theologically intelligible and sturdy
in a world rapidly being re-shaped by social media. In fact, the process of
interpreting, evaluating, and enacting best social media practices may also
help us give shape to that new world emerging around us.
I am grateful to my colleagues in the New Media Project for
their exemplary work on the case studies and the fine theological tuning of the
essays in this collection.
Verity A. Jones is the project director of the New Media Project, and a Research Fellow at Union Theological Seminary.
The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact email@example.com.
 See all six case studies published by the New Media
Project at http://www.cpx.cts.edu/newmedia/findings/case-studies.
 Lerone A. Martin, “ACU Connected: Groundbreaking
initiative reshapes education at Abilene Christian University,” New Media
Project at Union Theological Seminary, http://www.cpx.cts.edu/newmedia/findings/case-studies/abilene-christian-university/article.
 See Jim Rice’s essay and all essays by New Media
Research Fellows at http://www.cpx.cts.edu/newmedia/findings/essays.
 Kim Cross, “What Stands in a Storm, Part III:
Fellowship,” Southern Living, August
 Jason Byassee, “Ancient liturgy for scruffy hipsters
with smart phones: A profile of Nadia Bolz-Weber and House for All Sinners and
Saints,” New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary, http://www.cpx.cts.edu/newmedia/findings/case-studies/house-for-all-sinners-and-saints/article.
 Daniel L. Migliore, Faith
Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, 2nd
ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 2004).
 Joe R. Jones, A
Grammar of Christian Faith: Systematic Explorations in Christian Life and
Doctrine (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).
Seeking Understanding, 77.
Lev Grossman, “2010 Person of the Year,” Time Magazine, December 27, 2010, http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2036683_2037183,00.html.
Seeking Understanding, 77.
 This and the following questions about the function of
social media were formulated in conversation with Serene Jones, Roosevelt
Professor of Systematic Theology and President of Union Theological Seminary in
the City of New York, in October 2011.
Lerone A. Martin, “Case study report on Abilene
Christian University,” New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary, http://www.cpx.cts.edu/newmedia/findings/case-studies/abilene-christian-university/full-report.
Byassee, “Ancient liturgy for scruffy hipsters.”
Scott Thumma, “Virtually Religious: Technology and
Internet Use in American Congregations,” Hartford Institute for Religion
Verity A. Jones, “Webs of interconnectivity:
Inhabiting the world of The Young Clergy Women Project,” New Media Project at
Union Theological Seminary, http://www.cpx.cts.edu/newmedia/findings/case-studies/the-young-clergy-women-project/article.
Jim Rice, “At home with new media: A profile of
Seattle’s Quest Church,” New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary, http://www.cpx.cts.edu/newmedia/findings/case-studies/quest-church/article.
Kathryn Reklis, “Becoming the media: Darkwood Brew at
Countryside Community Church (UCC), New Media Project at Union Theological
Monica A. Coleman, “Go-go preaching: New media at
Community of Hope AME Church,” New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary,
New Media Project, “Social media use among young clergy persons: Survey at Transition into
Ministry gathering,” New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary,
Byassee, “Ancient liturgy for scruffy hipsters.”
Coleman, “Go-go preaching.”
Kathryn Reklis, “From horizon to hyperlink,” New Media
Project at Union Theological Seminary, http://www.cpx.cts.edu/newmedia/blog/new-media-project/2011/08/16/from-horizon-to-hyperlink.
Stephanie Strom, “Website Shines Light on Petty
Bribery Worldwide,” The New York Times,
March 6, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/07/business/web-sites-shine-light-on-petty-bribery-worldwide.html.
Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, “Tweeting for justice:
Why social media is the new face of feminisim,” The Washington Post On Faith, March 8, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/guest-voices/post/tweeting-for-justice-why-social-media-is-the-new-face-of-feminism/2012/03/08/gIQAiBXizR_blog.html.
Coleman, “Go-go preaching.”
 Arianna Huffington, “Virality Uber Alles: What the
Fetishization of Social Media Is Costing us All,” Huffington Post, March 8, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/arianna-huffington/social-media_b_1333499.html.
Study questions (going deep):
- Have social media thrown your own relationships
and communities into high relief, i.e., made them more visible, as the author
suggests? How so? Can you give examples?
- What about your faith community, is it more
visible via social media? Do you find this visibility to be helpful or harmful
to your church community, or somewhere in between? Does thinking about your
community as the body of Christ change anything?
- Why should Christians bother to interpret and
evaluate how social media throw their relationships and communities into high
relief? When you think about social media, are your concerned about its impact
on your faith community? How so?
- How would you describe the relationality of
God? What does it mean to say that in
God’s own self revelation, God shows us that God is relational in character?
Why might this relationality be important to Christian teaching and
- How is one’s personal identity tied to his or
her relationships? What might this tell
us about God’s identity? Or what might the three-ness of God tell us about our
own identity and relationships? Is the essence of God in the relationships
themselves? Why or why not?
- Do you think social media help you escape from
your real life, or does it further embed you in real relationships? What about
the quality of the relationships?
- The final portion of Jones’ reflection focuses
on evaluating—from a Christian perspective formed by trintarian thinking—some
functions of social media in our culture today, the six Cs. Explore each C—collect, connect, convert,
conspire, cultivate, and change. Could
these be used to evaluate your own faith community’s use of social media? How
would you answer each of the six questions for your own faith community? For
your denomination or tradition?
Further study questions (going really deep)
Research fellows for
the New Media Project have written six different but interrelated theological
essays, each focusing on and drawing from a distinct theological tradition and
discipline. The following questions draw from the essay above and its relationship
to the other New Media Project reflections.
- If we avoid making a stark distinction between
physical presence as embodied and virtual presence as disembodied, and instead
come to see an individual’s single embodied presence manifested in both
face-to-face and mediated (or digital) forms, as Kathryn Reklis argues in her reflection, how might
we see the social media functions that Jones describes in her reflection
differently? In other words, when we
ask, “Is the function of social media to collect people,” do we mean “collect”
face-to-face, or in both physical and online settings? Does that change how we
evaluate the act of collecting as Christians?
- At the end of her reflection, Reklis explores “metaphorical
interpretation” of X-reality from the perspective of the Incarnation, and
suggests that the deep connectionality of links and networks in X-reality is a
metaphor for thinking in an “incarnational pattern” about the “interconnection
God desires in creating and redeeming the world.” Could we learn from the mechanisms of social
media something about the deep relationality of God, even if in metaphorical
- In his reflection, Jim Rice explores models of church that reveal
theological dispositions of various kinds of church in an effort to evaluate how
they might react, repel, or respond to social media. Which of Jones’ social media functions might
do well in each kind of church in Rice’s typology—institution, community,
herald, or servant?
- Rice says the community model of church might respond best to
social media. Why is this the case? What does he say about the content of the
message shared in community that is in accord with Jones’ argument that God is
not just the relationships, but the content of the persons in the relationship?
- If as Lerone A. Martin suggests in his reflection, that new
media is again altering the American Christian landscape with regard to
proclamation, practice, and power, how do these current alterations impact
Christian communities in particular—their self understanding, modes of being,
and forms of practice?
- Jones points to the role that social media may
play in “cultivating” Christian lives. If as Martin notes, proclamation of the gospel is
undergoing a major shift due to the influence of new media, how might new forms
of proclamation help or hinder the cultivation of Christians? How do we
- Jason Byassee proposes an “underdetermined” response to new
media for Christian thinkers and practitioners. It is a questioning and cautious response that is appropriate for those
who have been tasked with teaching an old and timeless faith. It is also marked by a humility and openness
that is equally theological. What role do you see for humility and openness in
a world being rapidly shaped by social media and digital technology? What role
should humility and openness play when evaluating functions of social media as
Jones does in her essay?
- In her reflection, Monica A. Coleman invites readers to consider
how new media and social media play a saving role in people’s lives. She explores the new patterns of
communication for indications about salvation itself (“how salvation may happen
in a digital age”) and how new media patterns are positively changing lives. In her essay, Jones retains the work of
salvation for the triune God and asks us to evaluate how social media functions
may or may not convey and enact that message well. What do you think about this? Can social media bear the very work of
Christ, or even be Christ in the
world? Or do social media facilitate the
message bearers themselves, the people of God?
- Coleman’s work asks whether the content (message/Christ) saves,
or the practice of sharing that content (social media, etc.) saves. What do you think?