The world turned upside down for all of us in March 2020. Probably no one felt that change as much as teenagers did. Social life shrunk to homes and families. School moved entirely online. Many of us experimented with new online tools for connecting with friends or just passing the time.
At the time I am writing, TikTok is becoming the most popular social media app in the world, especially among teenagers. By the time you are reading, teenagers may have already moved on to something else. It is nearly impossible to keep up, even when one is young.
That is why it is even more important for all of us to prioritize our local church even as the rest of the world moves more of life online. The body of Christ is essential to spiritual growth. It is not incidental to healthy faith. It is necessary. Any Christian without a church is a Christian in trouble, even when he or she is young. A lot of us tend to think of churches simply as dispensers of religious content or facilitators of spiritual experiences. But if that were the case, it would not be clear why we need church. We could just sleep in or hang out with the rest of our traveling sports team on Sunday morning. Then we could customize spiritual input at our convenience throughout the week. We can probably find better (or more entertaining) teaching through podcasts than at our local church. We can probably find better music on YouTube. TikTok influencers will be more than happy to give us their take on the Bible.
Online we find a lot of pundits but not many pastors. A pundit today makes money from extreme claims that get attention. A favorite influencer gets paid only if he can grab our attention. But pastors are not free to comment on every current event or to give a hot take on every tragedy around the world. When they do, they lose authority. Their authority derives only from the Bible, not their own wisdom or what makes the mysterious algorithm work. And, because they are teaching the Bible, this means they sometimes need to tell us things the Bible says that we may not want to hear. This is a big clue to help us know if we can trust someone. Pundits only tell us what is wrong with the people we do not like. Pastors help us see our own sin and then point us to the Savior.
That is strange in our self-help culture—to listen to someone who does not just tell us what we want to hear. But it is okay that the church looks strange to the world! Only strange churches have any future. Where else do our neighbors gather for things like intimate discussion and enthusiastic singing? Where else does the group revolve around subject matter from an ancient book about strange practices such as animal sacrifice? From a book with absolute authority? Social media asks what is on our mind but rarely helps us know what is on God’s mind. He left us a book full of timeless wisdom that transcends today’s fleeting trends.
It is tempting to cobble together our spiritual influences online. The à la carte approach fits our consumer expectations. It is all about what these apps can do for us instead of what we can do for our neighbors. Podcasts and YouTube give the impression that we do not need other ordinary Christians for our spiritual growth. The imaginary church in our head could never compete against the actual church down the street.
The Biblical Vision
The social media church is very different than the biblical vision in Acts 2:42–47:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
There is nothing fancy here: teaching, fellowship, food, prayers. But the results, blessed by God, are spectacular. How much of this can we get from our favorite sermon podcasts? One of my pastors often said, “No one gets the church one wants. But everyone gets the church one needs.” I could not agree more. We should want a church willing to discipline us if necessary. Such a church is a church willing to fight for our good. To love us when it is hard. We need churches that call us to something greater than ourselves. We need churches that will call us to follow Jesus, who taught that we will find our lives only when we lose them for his sake. These churches will tell us the truth, even when we do not want to hear it. And they will do it in love, not like the anonymous Twitter trolls who revel in reviling.
The apostle Paul tells the Philippians, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” How can we do this if we do not see anyone in the flesh? If we are not attending and serving a church? To make his point Paul cites the example of Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:3–4, 6–7).
We are all trained today to leverage institutions such as family, work, and school to achieve our personal goals of attention and acceptance. Once we get what we want, or the institution asks us for something we do not want to give, we can discard it and move on to another target. Get a new job. Get a new family. Get a new school. And, of course, get a new church. Social media tempts us to speak before we understand, to serve ourselves with prideful boasting rather than serving others in silent working. How many of us grow up and wish in our youth we had heeded Proverbs 17:28: “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent”?
Personal growth usually does not come through personal expression. Generally, relationships do not change us for the better if they do not challenge us at our worst. Consider this: Who are the most important people in your life? Do they only affirm you and every decision you make? Or do you trust that they will love you no matter what and love you enough to tell you the truth? Relationships with family members and friends are forged through thick and thin. These people will stand behind you at your best, stand next to you at your worst, and stand in front of you at your most vulnerable. That is the kind of spiritual family one can find in a church, even if one’s biological family does not believe in Jesus. The church is not just another institution we use to build a résumé and enhance our self-identity. The church forms us into mature men and women of God. We grow stronger together.
Friction in the Church
Maybe I have too high a view of the church. Or a naïve understanding of actual churches. Or maybe I underestimate the challenges. After all, online communities tend to incentivize younger Christians who criticize their elders. Sometimes that criticism is warranted.
Maybe I just do not want to be criticized. But through my position of training church leaders I have seen far more than most about the dark side of churches. I have experienced it myself. I have heard it from others. I have seen it with friends and family members. And I am not in any way asking anyone to tolerate abuse or heretical theology. I am not issuing a blanket endorsement for churches or condoning the misuse of power and authority that we know is too common among churches, past and present. I am grateful for how technology gives voice to victims who could have been silenced in the last century.
But we must expect friction in church. We should not expect to get along with everybody, any more than we like all our classmates in school. We should not expect to share the same vision, the same priorities, the same strategies. Those moments of friction test all of us. They make us wonder if another church around the corner would be easier. It might be—at least for a time, though probably not forever. Because in that church we will find sinners redeemed by grace. And we would still be sinners redeemed by grace. We will find the good and the bad, maybe to a lesser degree. But no church this side of Jesus’ return can avoid every disagreement and disappointment. One may think it would be easier to find online community among people who share one’s frustrations. But the enemy of one’s enemy is not always one’s friend. So many times I have seen young Christians find enthusiastic fans on Twitter while their faith flags offline. When deconstruction comes, that online crowd will not help anyone pick up the pieces.
Spiritual formation works altogether differently in the church. We can think of church as something like waves rolling over rocks. The waves are the church. We and other church members are the rocks. Day after day, year after year, the waves flow without ceasing. They rush over each rock and jostle the rocks against one another. From month to month, we probably will not notice much difference. But over years—even decades, as we grow older—we will observe the change. As the waves crash and the rocks tumble over one another, their rough edges become smooth. They take on a polished glint in the sun. No two rocks emerge from the process with the same size or shape. But in its own way each becomes beautiful.
Sometimes it would be much easier to stay at home and read a Bible app and pull up a favorite YouTuber. There is a lot of great stuff online! My own job involves making good biblical resources online. Meanwhile, at church, someone’s kids are whining for snacks, Sister Bethel snored through the benediction, Brother Jim posted something dumb on Facebook, and the pastor put in a C+ effort on sermon preparation because he had a funeral and three unexpected hospital visits. It is not Insta-worthy.
When we leave our phones at home and worship with God’s people, though, we will see beauty where much of the world sees only rocks. We will see that the way of truth is the life of worshiping Jesus and serving others in his name.
The Way Forward
Other Christians need us more than we can realize, especially when we are young. They need us to show up and help. They say that “Familiarity breeds contempt,” but I do not believe it, because in the family of God familiarity breeds love. Amid all our struggles and mistakes in the church, love never ends. Not when it is from the Spirit. Not when it honors Jesus. Not when it seeks to glorify the Father.
I am thankful for so much of what makes me think and laugh online. I am glad I have a voice online to speak against injustice. But I am more thankful that the church offers me a refuge from the false friends waiting to pounce on my online missteps. Maybe the hardest command in Scripture for me to obey is James 1:19–20: “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” Social media gives us ample opportunities to break this command. But I know that in the body of Christ I will never be canceled, even if I speak in anger or give the wrong answer.
Among my brothers and sisters in Christ, I find the grace of God instead of a Twitter mob. I can always repent, ask forgiveness, and receive assurance of pardon. I find a shelter from the online storm.