The Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod is charged with studying and coming to conclusions on theological issues. Its latest report is a discussion of social media. You might wonder, how is the topic of how we use social media technology theological? But it is.
The CTCR, which took on the assignment at the behest of the synodical convention, released the 30-page report entitled A Snapshot of Trending Tools: Christians and Social Media. (You can access the report by clicking the link.)
CTCR Executive Director Rev. Dr. Joel Lehenbauer said of the study,
“Lutherans have always been open to the constructive use of new technologies for sharing the never-changing truths of God’s Word — think of Luther and the printing press! At the same time, Lutherans are clear-eyed about the power of sin, the world and Satan, and are therefore realistic and necessarily critical about how such technologies can be twisted and misused.”
The report emphasizes that Christians have always used the various media technologies in productive ways. Lutherans, in particular, have pioneered using new media to proclaim the Gospel and to proliferate God’s Word. The report discusses Luther’s use of the printing press and its role in the mass production of Scripture. It also cites the work of the LCMS in the early days of Christian radio.
The report does not make the mistake of blaming the tools for misuse of the tools. But it also shows the problems that are coming with social media. Drawing on a range of scholarship, including Lutheran writers Trevor Sutton and Bernard Bull, the report shows how social media has detrimental effects when it comes to the following areas, each of which is treated in detail:
- “trolls” and “fake news”;
- knowledge and authority;
- the capacity of social media for influencing thought, both negatively and positively;
- social media’s propensity to turn people inward and provide occasions for sin.
Here are some insights from the report (with the sources of the quotations given at the link):
People connect on social media; they also search there for answers and for spiritual comfort and insight. They may not always find what they are seeking, because some connections cannot be found through a digital device. The more we become connected online, the less we may be connected personally. “People awash in social media can’t get past the paradox that the best salve for loneliness is properly applied alone. They look for answers in added connections, and more-emotional ones, but God isn’t acloser contact and better friend. He transcends the social, and you must seek him beyond the medium of ‘share’ and ‘like.’” [quoting Mark Bauerlein] (p. 6)
[Robert] Putnam explains that technological trends today “are radically ‘privatizing’ or ‘individualizing’ our use of leisure time and thus disrupting many opportunities for social capital formation.” Due to this trend toward individualization, a trend encouraged by social media, people are less inclined to be active in existing social communities, including the church. (p. 7)
Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook, comments that, instead of bringing people together, the popular social media platform drives them apart, and online advertising benefits financially from the divisions. “The use of algorithms to give consumers ‘what they want’ leads to an unending stream of posts that confirm each user’s beliefs. … The result is that everyone sees a different version of the internet tailored to create the illusion that everyone else agrees with them. Continuous reinforcement of existing beliefs tends to entrench those beliefs more deeply, while also making them more extreme and resistant to contrary facts. Facebook takes the concept one step further with its ‘groups’ feature, which encourages like-minded users to congregate around shared interests or beliefs … the larger benefit goes to advertisers, who can target audiences even more effectively.” (pp. 7-8)
In his book, Digitized, Bernard Bull asks, “Where do people go when they have a faith question? While many still turn to their pastors or a learned family member or friend, countless others are literally googling God. They are typing questions into the most available search engine and exploring what appears at the top of the list. The question is, of course, what will they find there?” Should we trust the internet and social media as sources of religious knowledge and spiritual insight? How can we provide knowledge online that is firmly grounded in the truth of God’s Word? (pp. 10-11)
The array of opinions and knowledge (both accurate and inaccurate) available online encourages the idea thatthere is no absolute truth, no single, overall perspective for understanding our purpose, life and death or the world around us. Many “truths” exist, many of which are more likely to have their origins within the ideas and opinions of individuals rather than in the Word of God. The information available online brings a wide variety of religions and worldviews into our homes and hearts and minds. (p. 12)
Yet technology does exert its daily influence in our lives. “It changes the nature of our relationships, our sense of community, how we live out our various vocations, how we organize our thoughts and lives, how we spend our time with family and friends and even how we think and talk about what it means to be human. It’s short-sighted to believe without question that anything with so much power to shape who we are and how we live is a spiritually neutral force.” [Bernard Bull, in Lutheran Witness] (p. 15)
The report discusses the sinful use of Social Media under the categories of Idolatry, Slander, Disrespect for Authority, and Lust (pp. 23-24).
I especially appreciated the report’s use of the traditional Lutheran practice of examining ourselves by means of the Ten Commandments, running through each of them to show how they can apply to our misuse of social media (pp. 25-26).
And I really appreciated how the study concluded with a whole section on “Vocation and Social Media”! (pp. 27-30)