There’s no doubt about it—we are living in a technocentric, social media-saturated age. As of 2016, according to a Pew Research study, 88 percent of U.S. adults browse the internet, 69 percent engage with social media and 77 percent use a smartphone.
The data trends upward: Americans are making use of these tools more and more as the years go on.
The use of these devices has clearly revolutionized whole industries, created and eliminated various job sectors and permanently altered global economies. Most importantly, though, the new communication platforms they offer have completely transformed how we go about connecting with one another.
Today, with a couple clicks on Twitter, hundreds—or even thousands—of readers can see your thoughts almost instantly. Go back a couple hundred years and messages had to cross the Atlantic by boat, a journey that took roughly six weeks. Many of us now can hardly fathom a world in which letters carried by boat, train or horse were the most effective means of communication. That is because we live today in a world that is more connected than ever before.
But despite the comfort and convenience that these advances afford us, it’s important to recognize some of their more negative impacts, especially if we are to lead our churches well.
Take a look at human behavior on a plane, bus or train; you’ll no doubt notice that interpersonal, face-to-face communication is virtually nonexistent. People glue their eyes to a screen, sometimes multiple devices, for the vast majority of the time. Although technology can and does connect people, it also distances many of us from one another as well.
Regardless of these shortcomings, we know as Christians that God can use anything, however flawed, for the good of his kingdom. Jesus tells the Pharisees in Luke 19:40 that even in our silence, the stones will cry out in proclamation of God’s glory. The natural metals and earthen materials used to build our phones, computers and tablets are themselves a part of God’s natural creation. They testify to his power and will proclaim his truth, regardless of the imperfections in our approach to their use.
Knowing this, it’s our job as church leaders to determine how we can best leverage these tools to advance the kingdom and make the gospel heard both far and wide. Let me share three ideas.
1. Avoid overuse.
Many of us too easily can get caught up in the entertainment trap. Whenever there’s a second of free time, it’s tempting to pick up our phones and scroll through Facebook, Instagram or whatever form of social media we find most alluring. There’s always something happening or someone to catch up with, and no one wants to end up missing out.
While these patterns of behavior might at first look like an attempt to engage with others, they actually end up feeling more like disengagement when put into practice. As most of us realize, time is a scarce resource. When we choose to engage with the world via screen, we simultaneously choose to ignore the face-to-face connections God might have us make.
That’s why whether we find ourselves at home, church or work, we need to make sure that the people right in front of us—our congregations, staff, friends, families and community members—are our highest priority.
2. Get creative.
In the fourth century B.C., the Romans decided they wanted to facilitate more efficient transportation throughout their empire, so they built a road system. Although this might sound like a simple innovation to us, it was revolutionary for the Roman Empire. The new road system allowed for soldiers, travelers and resources to travel far and wide. It was, for them, a powerful tool that could be used to share ideas.
Fortunately, today, we have a tool much more powerful than a simple road at our disposal: social media.
We need to find ways to use these online networks to spread the word and welcome people into our faith communities. Chances are, if people are spending as much time on these devices and using social media as frequently as we surmise, there’s a chance they’ll take note of our church-related posts and tweets. We need to do what we can to leverage the power of this incredible tool God has given us to build bridges and reach people for his kingdom.
3. Look for ways to be like Jesus.
Divisiveness and bitter rhetoric so often rule the day on social media. Rarely do we take the time to listen to different perspectives and practice attitudes of understanding; most are quick to cast blame and criticize others whenever they can. As believers, it’s our job to step into this space and set an example.
We should, as James instructs us, “be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.” Instead of choosing to react on impulse, we should take the time to carefully consider and choose words that bring life and encouragement to all.
This is utilizing technology to its fullest.
Ed Stetzer, an Outreach magazine contributing editor, holds the Billy Graham distinguished chair of church, mission and evangelism at Wheaton College and the Wheaton Grad School, where he also oversees the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.