Written by Josiah Piett
How should a follower of Jesus engage with social media? I’m not sure there is a clear-cut answer to this question.
I’ve noticed three different types of Christian engagement. The first is the Christian who has a verse in their bio and often posts things explicitly about their relationship with God, church and spiritual experiences. The second are Christians who don’t explicitly talk about their relationship with God at all; their feed looks like anyone else’s (except maybe less inappropriate). The third approach is to not engage with social media at all.
I want to propose a fourth option that I would call a parabolic approach to social media. But first, let’s think about whether or not the early Church Christians would have used social media if they had access to it.
Of course we cannot know for certain, but I do think we can see clues through the New Testament and other ancient documents that suggest some probably would have. The apostles who wrote the New Testament were using the most advanced forms of communication at that time: writing letters, going to the marketplace to speak to the masses, and in some cases using arenas so more people could hear their teachings.
They used the most advanced transportation—horses, roadways and ships—to travel all over the Roman Empire. Despite the apostles using their modern technology to proclaim the good news and build up the Church, they also frequently expressed a deep need to meet in person with the people they were writing to. They recognized the limitations of the technology they were using, yet they still used it.
The first question this leads us to ask ourselves is: What are the benefits and limitations of using social media?
Through words and deeds, Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God that was coming through Himself. When speaking in public spaces, Jesus often spoke in parables. These parables were stories that on the surface were understandable for all to hear and yet underneath carried deep wisdom into the ways of God and His kingdom.
There are many different practical reasons Jesus did this: to keep the Romans from killing Him before His time, to fulfill Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah, and to invite all, not only the religious or elite, to follow Him. In John’s Gospel, John uses the phrase “living witness” over and over as a way of describing the life of a follower of Jesus. We are to be living witnesses to our King and His kingdom in everything we say and do.
This includes our approach to social media. When He was speaking to the public, Jesus did not use language that would have been confusing or confronting on the surface. Instead, concealed within everything He said was the message of who He was and what He was about.
What might it look like for us to be living witnesses through the content we post on social media?
I am not a social media expert or influencer. From my limited understanding, the goal of most social media platforms is to have as many people stay engaged with their platform for as long as possible. These platforms collect data about their users that can be used for all sorts of different purposes, such as selling advertising.
This means our social media feeds are essentially a reflection of what we consume.
What we post is shown primarily to people who are interested in us or the content we’re posting. So that means if I post a Bible verse on my Instagram feed, the people who follow me who are interested in Bible verses will be the primary people who see this post. The people who follow me who aren’t interested in Bible verses—depending on the social media platform—might not even see the post. This matters, because if we take the first approach to social media (verse in bio, explicit Christian content) we are likely speaking into a Christian bubble. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but we should be aware of that.
Since Jesus engaged with the public primarily through parables, what could a parabolic approach to social media look like? I think this could look like posting content that authentically reflects ourselves in Christ as a new creation. This means not trying to be something or someone we’re not. Not trying to find affirmation or significance through likes or follows.
Rather than being confusing or confronting, this means that every post or comment carries a message of faith, hope, and love beneath the surface, much like Jesus’ parables. This doesn’t mean we all have to be amazing storytellers, but it certainly means we all need to be mindful of what stories we are telling online and offline.
So much of social media is a highlight reel of our lives. I think Christians have an opportunity to be appropriately vulnerable in the good and the bad of their life in Christ. Just like the early Christian disciples recognized the importance of the right time and place for a conversation, I think many of us need to re-evaluate some of the conversations we’re choosing to have online that may need to be reserved for in person.
Or on the flipside, I think some of us might need to recognize that many of our neighbours we are called to love find themselves online. The way we love people through our posts and comments and the content we choose to engage with matters.
When looking at what you currently post on your feed, what story are you telling? What values, ideologies, lessons, and memories are you sharing? What could a parabolic approach to social media look like for you?
I don’t think every Christian should be on social media. We have to be honest with ourselves about our limitations and temptations. Some of us need to have healthier boundaries in place around the time we spend on social media. For example, when I realized I was spending too much time on my phone, I decided to start using the screen time feature to restrict the amount of time I use on any platform. This allows me to not get overly consumed with the content I am consuming or posting.
Some of us may need to do an inventory of who we are following and the content we are consuming. This content is informing and forming us consciously and subconsciously, and it’s important we are mindful of this. Some of us might need to take a step away from social media for a longer period of time. I know many Christians who rightly take long breaks and fast from social media as a way of removing distractions and re-prioritizing their relationship with Jesus.
Yet I think there are some of us reading this today who are called to engage with our neighbours, friends, family, and strangers on social media in creative and intentional ways that bear witness to our King and His kingdom in our midst.
Josiah Piett has the privilege of being a child of God, husband to Kara-Lee, and a house church pastor. He also suffers from severe lifelong health issues. These experiences have shaped him into having a passion for seeing people discover who they are in Christ and their role to play in the Father’s Kingdom. To learn more about Josiah’s work, check out @theknjcast on Instagram.