3 Reasons Social Media May Be Dividing Your Church

Over the last decade or so that I’ve worked in social media professionally and studied how it affects us as users, I have become especially concerned with how social media may undermine the work of the local church. Now, obviously, social media isn’t all bad. I have consulted with many churches over the years about the benefits of social media for the local church, talking strategy with pastors and church leaders about how to best use social media for the good of the local church community and for outreach into the broader contexts in which local churches do ministry. Social media can be very good and valuable for the work of the local church. But it has become increasingly difficult to ignore the myriad ways social media can also undermine church leaders, church culture, and otherwise. Why might social media undermine the church? Here are a few reasons:

1. Social media platforms thrive on conflict and negativity.

In 2020, the Wall Street Journal began to receive the first leaked documents from Facebook that would eventually become the infamous “Facebook Papers” that pulled back the curtain on the inner workings and struggles of the most powerful social media company in the world. One internal Facebook presentation by a research team within the company included the quote, “Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness,” followed by the realization that the Facebook algorithm kept delivering “more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention & increase time on the platform.” In short, Facebook’s own researchers recognized that divisiveness and negativity drove engagement on Facebook. The research, reportedly, did not drive Facebook to make its algorithm less likely to promote negativity for fear that it would hurt user engagement.

In a study called “Out-group animosity drives engagement on social media” authors Steve Rathje, Jay K. Van Bavel, and Sander van der Linden investigate the performance of divisive content on social media. What they found is that the most engaging content on social media is content posted by one political group about an opposing political group. This content is, obviously, overwhelmingly negative, but it gets twice as many shares and retweets as content about the group doing the posting. This means that, say, posts by one political party criticizing on opposing political party get twice as much engagement posts by a party promoting its own ideals.

In short, Facebook’s own researchers recognized that divisiveness and negativity drove engagement on Facebook.

That social media thrives on conflict and negativity is one of the deepest root issues when it comes to how social media can undermine the work of the local church. Social media being driven by negativity wouldn’t be nearly the problem that it is if people spent 15-20 minutes per day on social media—that’s not much time. But because they are spending much more time than that, the constant negativity becomes more concerning.

2. Your church members spend more time on social media than many other things.

According to Hootsuite, a leading social media software and data company, the average person spends about 2.5 hours per day on social media. Think about that. An active local church member likely spends about that time involved at church in a given week. It also means if a person spends an hour reading his or her Bible and praying every day (which would be a bit higher than average, probably) that person is spending more than twice that amount of time on social media. In order to grasp how truly influential social media is in the life of the average churchgoer, you don’t have to look any further than the amount of time people spend on these platforms.

Why does this matter for pastors and church leaders? It ought to be pretty clear. Anything that someone spends 2.5 hours per day doing is going to dramatically affect their lives. Whether you’re playing 2.5 hours of basketball every day, watching 2.5 hours of porn every day, or reading your Bible and praying for 2.5 hours every day—that sheer volume of time is incredibly impactful in one’s life. The reason I feel the need to make this simple reality so plain is this: I am routinely shocked at how flippantly pastors and church leaders use social media.

The most common talking point I hear from pastors about social media is usually something like, “Oh I don’t care about social media. That stuff’s so foolish. It isn’t even real life. I care about people’s real lives, not what they’re doing on Facebook or whatever.” I get it. Social media can be quite foolish, and it can often feel very disconnected from reality. But if the people in your church are spending an average of 2.5 hours per day on social media, it is real life, and it can have real impacts in the offline world too.

3. The ways we are shaped by social media overflow into offline life.

Social media is discipling church members more than pastors and church leaders are.

If the average person, and therefore the average church member, is spending more than 2.5 hours per week on a form of media that is fueled by negativity and conflict, pastors would be foolish to not take that form of media seriously. We must resist the temptation to believe that whatever happens on social media is not real life and has no bearing on the “real world.” If someone is always getting in arguments on Facebook, but appears to be sweet in person, it is only a matter of time until that divisiveness spills over into his offline life. If a church member is sharing fake news on her Facebook account, pastor you shouldn’t be surprised if she starts spreading lies about you eventually. I have talked to over a dozen pastors in the last two years who have told me story after story about how a “sweet, beloved” church member who was always making conflict on social media ended up creating conflict in their churches.

Social media is discipling church members more than pastors and church leaders are. Social media is prone to conflict and negativity. This isn’t some new, trendy technology for teenagers anymore. It’s the primary way people communicate. In order to push back against the many ways this can undermine the work of the local church, pastors and church leaders must understand social media and start taking it seriously. Featured image credit.

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