What Does Evangelism Look Like in a Digital, Social Media Age?
- Gregory Coles
- 2017 5 Jul
What if I asked you to think twice before you talk about Jesus on Facebook?
Some of you are probably outraged at the thought. (“How dare you muzzle me? I’m not ashamed of the gospel!”) Some of you might be relieved. (“Thank goodness! I always feel awkward, and my atheist friends keep getting into fights with my fundamentalist friends in the comments section…”) Whichever camp you’re in, please hold your exclamations for a few minutes while I explain.
To be clear: I’m not advising you to erase Jesus from your social media accounts. Not at all! If you’re the sort of person who’s constantly Instagramming and Tweeting and Facebooking about your life and thoughts, I hope Jesus is an unavoidable part of those posts. I hope that you talk about Jesus (whether online or offline) the way you talk about your significant other or your children—unable to keep quiet because you’re so obsessed with Him. If you can document all the most important parts of your life without mentioning Jesus, it’s time to wonder whether you’re really following Him at all.
So why should you think twice before talking about Jesus on social media? Because when it comes to sharing our faith with others, the Bible calls us to communicate the gospel in a way that will help other people understand and receive it. This is the Apostle Paul’s attitude in 1 Corinthians 9:22 when he writes, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (NIV). Paul was so eager to see as many people as possible know Jesus that he adjusted his approach to evangelism depending on who he was talking to.
What would it look like if we adopted Paul’s attitude towards evangelism in our social media-saturated digital age? It’s tempting to answer this question by simply saying, “Everyone’s on Facebook, so let’s preach the gospel on Facebook!” But the reality is much more complex.
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Social media spaces are dangerous because they shape the messages we communicate and the kinds of conversations we’re capable of having. If we’re not careful, we can wind up communicating a “gospel” that’s different from the gospel of the Bible. We can speak the name of Jesus in a way that drives people away from Him instead of towards Him. That isn’t real evangelism. It might make us feel like we’ve “done our job” in sharing the gospel, but it does nothing to advance the kingdom of God. If we’re really serious about evangelism, we need to seriously consider how our methods influence our message.
Here are two of the biggest ways that social media can distort the gospel if we’re not careful:
1. Social media can turn the gospel into an advertisement.
Gone are the “good old days” when advertising was limited to billboards, TV commercials, magazines, and the occasional door-to-door vacuum salesperson. Social media is rife with advertising—and the cleverest stuff is disguised so that it doesn’t look like advertising at all.
Even personal profiles have turned into sales pitches. Think about that guy you knew in college who just started working for a life insurance company and sends you a friend request on Facebook so he can “hear how your family is doing and share an exciting opportunity with you.” Or think about the business recruiter who tweets every morning how amazing her company is (and just happens to mention that they’re always hiring, in case anyone is looking for a “life-changing opportunity”).
To protect ourselves from the constant emotional strain of being advertised to (and to keep from going broke), a lot of us who spend substantial time online have learned to stop paying attention the moment something starts to smell like a sales pitch.
These days, the world is full of people who say “I don’t have an agenda” and then pull out a pen and point to the dotted line. Sometimes Christians are guilty of this kind of evangelism: We become more agenda-driven than we are gospel-driven. At other times, people might perceive us as agenda-driven simply because of the ways we use social media to talk about Jesus. If we want to proclaim the gospel effectively, we need to think carefully before posting about Jesus in a social media world where sincerity and sales pitches are so easily confused.
2. Social media can communicate a gospel that’s as fake as an airbrushed photograph.
It’s easy to make yourself look good online. And this, of course, is a big part of why people love social media. We get to pick and choose which parts of our lives we want to talk about. We talk about our funniest and most impressive moments, share our most attractive photos (and maybe airbrush that one mole we don’t like). Meanwhile, most of us choose not to document the unglamorous moments we spend scrubbing the bathtub or clipping our toenails. Our Facebook profiles and Instagram pictures depict the people we wish we were.
Far too often, Jesus becomes part of our airbrushed online persona. He’s easy to invoke as we tweet about our successes (“#blessed”) and post photos with toothpaste-commercial-white smiles. But the Jesus who loves us at our worst, the Jesus who forgives us when we curse at our kids or watch porn again and come crawling back in repentance—that Jesus isn’t so easy to find on Facebook. The more we make Jesus the spokesperson of our supposedly perfect lives, the more we communicate a gospel for well-behaved people, a gospel that excludes real-life sinners.
The world doesn’t need our airbrushed Jesus. If that’s the only Jesus we show them, they’re right to call our bluff. The world needs the real Jesus. A Jesus whose grace is big enough to cover over the ugliest parts of our hearts and lives, the parts that will never make it onto Facebook.
So by all means, talk about Jesus on Facebook. Tweet about Him. Instagram about Him. But think twice before you do. Be thoughtful, slow, prayerful. Don’t assume that a social media post about Jesus is inherently a good social media post.
And finally, whatever you do, don’t let talking about Jesus online become a substitute for developing meaningful, in-person relationships with people who hold different faith perspectives. The best evangelism doesn’t happen online. Now more than ever, in our social media-saturated digital age, the world is searching for something real. They don’t need your best 140 characters tweeted at them. They need an encounter with the Living God.
Gregory Coles is an author and an English instructor at Penn State University. Learn more at www.gregorycoles.com or follow him on Facebook.
Photo credit: ©Thinkstock/lolostock