By Samuel Cripps
Prior to beginning my road to the ordained ministry I worked in software and web design. I had some good luck with it, but soon enough the call to ministry became too strong and I walked away from the industry almost completely. But it wasn’t until relatively recently that I began to consider what the internet is to the Church and to the Christian.
One thing I soon realized as I began this exploration is that neither the Church nor individual Christians really know how to use the internet well as a tool. The culture of the internet (its language and customs) is honestly a foreign culture to the Church.
Think for a moment about two Facebook posts made by a parish Facebook account:
One: the parish account posts a photo of one of their young parishioner’s first day of daycare. Who is reacting and what are the reactions to this post? The people who are commenting and reacting are people in the parish orbit, these people are their family, friends, and fellow parishioners. The reactions are going to be predictable; they are going to be kind, uplifting, and supportive; probably a few “prayer hands” emojis scattered in there. But this post is going to be ineffective; meaning the content will never escape the local online orbit of the parish community.
Ineffective in this case means that this very average piece of Christian digital content does not make use of one of the native languages of much of the digital world, namely the language of incitement, division and accusation.
Consider a second post by the same parish Facebook account: The parish posts a comment either condemning or supporting the Supreme Court’s decision to roll back Roe v. Wade. Who is reacting and what are the reactions to this post? At first, those engaging with this post will be parishioners, but, because of the controversial nature of the post and the increase in engagement, the post will begin to trend outside the orbit of the parish Facebook accounts and the “circle of engagement” will begin to widen. The reactions will be far more varied, and engagement will spike. Some comments will support the post, and some will comment on those comments to say how wrong the first comment was. This will happen ad nauseum. At the end of the post’s “life,” there will be comments and reactions by the score, plenty of hurt feelings and acrimony unbridled by the shame of saying these things to your neighbor’s face. However, the post was shared, engaged with, and reacted to on a wider scale than the first post. This makes the post effective; not despite the fact that division was sown, but exactly because division was sown.
There is no effective vocabulary of moderation or nuance in the culture of the digital world. There is little reward for the Facebooking priest who posts a picture of prayer before the Thursday Bridge Group. A quick scroll through the news feed can show you this. Which posts show up higher on your feed? The one with the most comments and “reactions.” Which posts get the most comments and reactions? The posts that are the most controversial and divisive.
If you choose not to engage in the language of incitement, your only other recourse for success in the digital world is to speak that most universal of languages: the language of money. You can certainly pay for the right to trend higher, to show up more prominently in Facebook newsfeeds, or to populate on a stranger’s Instagram. Or you can engage with the language of money by flashing wealth in exotic places or beautiful homes; a dialect of this same tongue that also seems to be effective in the culture of social media.
The Church must not engage with either of these languages: the language of incitement or the language of money, as these are the languages of the world and not of Jesus Christ. Our Lord certainly rocked the boat, and his teaching was divisive, but it doesn’t seem that his earthly ministry was marked by intentional outrage for self-aggrandizement or flashing jewelry in a rented condo in Miami.
The internet — and this coming from someone who profited in helping to create a miniscule percentage though a part of its infrastructure — is an incredibly mixed bag from a Christian perspective. This isn’t to say that good things cannot be done here, but that most of its spaces do not encourage one to goodness.
This isn’t a call for Christians to dispose of our cell phones or to cancel our social media accounts; they have their virtuous uses, though these are limited. I really just think that we need to be mindful that our engagement in this other culture of the internet, which can distill some of the goodness of our physical world, should be done carefully and advisedly. It is too dangerous a place to enter into any other way.
We live in the earthly city, as Augustine reminds us, and we should live here, and we must even live in its “transitional neighborhood” that is the internet, but we must be mindful of how we live there. In this concentrated world of the internet we must be doubly salt to be able to begin to engage with it, let alone to season it.
So what now?
First, we, being the Church, need to realize that we are totally outclassed in this new environment. Treat the internet as what it is: a foreign place, with foreign customs, and a foreign language. This means that a thoughtful approach to engagement in this new world is a missionary’s approach. Learn about this place, figure out how to engage with it while keeping your integrity, find a way to be salt there and to make the gospel known. I will tell you, I’m 28 years old, which means that I’ve lived in this place for pretty much my entire life, and I still don’t have a clue about how to do it.
The second thing to do is to keep posting cheesy parish photos, keep writing condolences for national tragedies, and keep posting videos of your church choir performances. It’s small, it’s often silly, but it is salt, and even one grain in the concentrate is better than nothing.
Third: don’t try to be relevant in the online culture, because to do so would be to allow a “reverse osmosis” of sorts. When you are trying to influence the culture on social media, trying to engage with it on its terms, it’s more likely that the culture will dilute your salt than that you will salt its concentrate. If you do engage with the internet on its own terms, you’ll find that your circle has widened, your relevance has expanded, but your work is divisive and emotionally damaging to those who engage with it. If we are to be a light on a hill in this suburb of the earthly city, this type of engagement is an abuse of our platform and will drastically damage our witness. Not only that, but a clergy person or lay minister trying to be “hip” and use memes to evangelize is, as the internet would say, pretty “cringe.”
Lastly, tread lightly, the digital world is not an idle toy; it is a tool that can be used for good and bad. Think of it like nuclear science: it introduced new treatments for cancer, but it also built the atom bomb. The internet, as most things are, is chiral, it has two sides to it. It has incited acts of violence, eating disorders, crises of identity, and an insurrection. But it has also been used to connect the life of the parish with the homebound and the socially anxious, it can be used to sprinkle salt in a place that desperately needs it.
Even with all this being true, we should be mindful not to engage with social media in just the way that their companies intend: with abandon, without our guard, and with all openness to the languages of outrage, incitement and money. We must not let this happen, as Christians our role is to preserve the world, to operate as ambassadors of the heavenly city in the earthly city, to salt the unseasoned, to love the unloved, to work in the world without being citizens of it. We cannot do this if we switch our allegiances, because our loyalty, our language, and our tools must always be firstly of and for the Kingdom.
The Rev. Samuel Cripps is the curate of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas, and also serves as the co-host of the upcoming Diocese of Dallas Theology Podcast. Samuel is a graduate of Nashotah House Theological Seminary. He lives in Dallas with his wife, Lauren, and dog, Tennessee Jed.