The site provides marvelous ministry opportunities, but
social networking anxiety
By John W. Kennedy
Social networking sites can be a great way to stay in touch
with overseas missionaries, to minister to non-Christians, to connect with old
friends and to find out what relatives are doing.
They also can be places where people waste hours of time,
get caught up talking about themselves and even develop addictive behaviors.
For Christians, sites such as Facebook and MySpace offer
tremendous rewards — and worrisome temptations.
Only three years ago, MySpace had 10 times as much traffic
as the nascent Facebook. But Facebook has more than doubled MySpace in
popularity as more and more in middle age and the senior years set up page
profiles, publish news feeds and upload images.
Facebook enables people to connect with long-lost friends
— from high school, college or churches in communities where they
used to live — people who meant a lot at one point but slipped from
contact. It can be a rewarding way to communicate with people young and old,
near and far, those you met years ago or last week, mere acquaintances or intimate
friends. By listing interests, it’s possible to find like-minded individuals
who become genuine new companions.
Facebook also can draw members within a congregation closer.
The person who is reluctant to talk in a Sunday School class or a small group
often finds a voice on a computer screen. Those who are reluctant to speak up
in front of a group can readily offer a prayer or word of encouragement via a
MinistryMarketingCoach.com founder Chris Forbes, 46, says
social networking has been a godsend for his wife, Angela.
“My wife is shy and likes to think through what she wants to
say,” says Forbes, a former overseas missionary who lives in Edmond, Okla. “On
Facebook, she can think through what she wants to say and look at it before she
sends it. She has more confidence.”
Assemblies of God General Superintendent George O. Wood
joined Facebook last year after receiving multiple invitations to join. And as
he has done with the electric typewriter, the computer, the cell phone, the
iPhone and, most recently, Twitter, Wood decided to immerse himself in the new
technology. By corresponding on Facebook, the 68-year-old national church
leader has attracted attention among the technologically savvy younger set.
“It’s a fun way to communicate. It’s a way to be in tune
with young people, and it has helped personalize my office,” Wood says. “It
fits in with our core value of strategically investing in the next generation.”
Pastor Bob J. Adams restarted Radiant Fellowship in Waupaca,
Wis., five years ago with eight attendees. Now 100 people come Sunday mornings
to the AG church, and Adams, 35, says half are there as a result of social
networking, including blogging.
The church’s Facebook and MySpace accounts promote concerts
and other upcoming events at the church in the town of 5,500.
The church Web site also is a place for Adams to post sermon
The online sites save Radiant Fellowship $230 a month in
printing costs as few congregants request a mailed newsletter.
“Facebook provides a point of social connection, and for
Christians, the model we’re presented with is it’s all about the body of
Christ,” says Evangel University professor Timothy Rohde, who also studies
literacy in popular culture. “Social networking sites enable us to have
interaction and fellowship.”
Communicating via the Web permits those who might be limited
because of physical impairment or geographic isolation to connect with
electronic friends elsewhere with just a few keystrokes. Social networking
allows an individual to spread a prayer request to dozens or hundreds of people
immediately, any time of the day or night. Many people respond faster to a
Facebook query than even a phone voicemail message. Facebook claims about half
of its 200 million worldwide users log onto the site at least daily, with more
than 30 million people updating their status at least once a day.
Rohde says the fact that he received 50 e-mail birthday
greetings in July from people of all ages and all walks of life greatly
“Social networking venues allow us to keep contact with
family and friends in a more or less ‘real time’ manner,” says Dr. Donald A.
Lichi, 57, a licensed psychologist with EMERGE Ministries in Akron, Ohio.
Because the interactions aren’t human encounters, it’s
unrealistic that Facebook can make someone more social.
“A lot of people look at Facebook as some kind of tool that
will somehow automate their relationships,” Forbes says.
For all its benefits, Facebook can appear to be narcissistic
and self-indulgent. Some people even try to create a narrative that is an
alternative storyline to their real life. The photo albums and video links of
their trips and parties almost appear to be patterned after a reality TV
episode. Lichi even knows a family whose home was ransacked — as they
issued daily updates about their vacation.
And there’s the potential of appearing irrelevant by posting
minutia throughout the day: detailing every meal, TV show viewed, shopping trip
or daydream fantasy. In addition, some people incessantly request others to
take quizzes or to join causes.
“Facebook allows us to take micro-moments that aren’t that
big a deal and put them up for 600 people to see,” Rohde says.
Posting too much information about oneself and doing so too
often can be annoying.
“People who can’t talk about anything but themselves perturb
me,” Forbes says. “These are also the people who perturb me offline.”
Of course Facebook thrives on frequent posting of personal
information and opinions.
“You need to find the balance in talking about yourself and
talking about things that matter to other people,” Forbes says. “I’ll post
something if someone in my network might find value in it.”
Rohde, 42, notes that some people have different Facebook
accounts for different circles of friends, such as roommates, co-workers and
“I’m sure some of my students may not want their professors
to have equal access to some of the information they want other students to
know,” Rohde says.
Lichi notes that EMERGE has counseled clients who have
established clandestine social networking accounts and hidden it from their
“These tend to feed into one’s fantasy life,” Lichi warns.
“It is a pseudo-relationship, and we’ve seen a number of affairs started from
Lichi likewise cautions against impulsive electronic
communications that are instantly read by others.
“Emotions can change quickly,” Lichi says. “A posting
“Facebook isn’t a substitute for personal interaction that
is needed in other ways of genuine friendship,” Rohde says. “Being physically
present is different.”
Forbes, who uses Facebook to network as an independent
consultant, has 3,400 online “friends,” some of whom he’s run into at
conferences but didn’t recognize.
“You can isolate yourself by befriending everyone you see on
Facebook,” Forbes says. “My wife has 150 close friends and family members, and
she knows them well.”
Some people try to collect Facebook friends the way they
would baseball cards. But, by default, the more links created, the more
superficial the relationships become and the more erratic the contact.
“It’s not the number of friends you have on Facebook as much
as it is the quality of the relationship you have with those friends,” Forbes says.
“Facebook is not a contest to see how many people you can add to your friend
list. The real prize is developing and maintaining authentic relationships.”
“Someone can have thousands of friends on Facebook and still
be lonely,” Wood says. “It’s important to get to know one another on a deeper
level than Facebook.”
Wood, as leader of the Fellowship, quickly found he reached
the 5,000-member friendship limit on Facebook. Wood says he now must ignore
friend requests, and he has to limit himself to 15 minutes a day on the site so
it won’t be so time consuming.
Still, Wood notes that social networking sites are just one
recent method that is transforming the way people communicate. Texting and
Twittering are others, but Facebook may have the most impact.
“There is the potential for Facebook to be a very enriching
experience,” Rohde says. “It’s rewarding for students from years past to find
me and to reconnect.”
Wood encourages pastors to be on Facebook and Twitter as a
way to communicate with people in the congregation, especially youth.
“Those in leadership should try to be on the cutting edge
rather than the lagging edge of technology,” Wood says.
“This type of communication is here to stay for better and
for worse,” Lichi says. “People should ask themselves, ‘Does what I post,
write, read and view enhance God’s potential in my life or detract from it?’”
JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.
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