Sometimes, Facebook is like Lord of the Flies

I remember the first time that social media became an issue in my ministry.

I got a call from the pastor who proceeded me at the congregation I was serving, asking for a meeting. His tone was serious, and even a bit apologetic. Of course, I obliged.

He showed up in my office and asked, “What do you want me to do about Facebook?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean, I’ve got members of this congregation. Members that you now serve, who are sending me friend requests on Facebook, and I don’t know what to do. I know ‘the rules’ about leaving a congregation: I’m supposed to back off and not be involved with things so that you can have a good ministry. And I want to do that. Really, I do. But these are also friends of mine, people I love and care about, and they’re asking me to be their friend on Facebook. So, what do you want me to do?”

In this age of digital communication, the boundaries have blurred. Not just in the realm of pastor-parishioner relationships, but everywhere. The expectations of easy communication continue to rise, and those expectations have created some old problems to rear their ugly heads.

We used to have boundaries figured out. But now, again, we don’t.

Social Media creates boundary problems

Don’t mishear me: I’m a big proponent of digital communication and social media. When I speak on Open Source Church, I spend an inordinate amount of time defending the basic premise that social media and communications technology has, in fact, changed the way we see, think, and interact with the world.

But I also spend time hearing confessions from folks for whom digital communication is not a first language about how out of it they feel and of how they are scared – yes, scared – that the use of this technology is going to ruin relationships. They tell stories of their children and grandchildren “holed up in their rooms.” They bemoan that they can’t get their kids and grandkids to answer the phone.

What I hear from people is that they see the use of digital technologies as ruining the ability to have a “real” relationship.

Now, I can point you to numerous books, blogs, and websites that address this phenomenon. This is well tread water, and I don’t need to get us all back in the pool. But I do want to remind us of it so that we can address the real issue I see creeping up on us. An issue that might just take us out if we’re not careful, and that is: social media creates boundary problems because many folks we are serving with don’t know how to interpret our communication.

I have a pastor friend who recently “liked” something on Facebook. It happened to be something politically liberal in nature. Of source, it showed up in her Facebook feed, and one of the people she serves (who resembles the people I described above) saw it and flipped out a bit. In response, said member posted something to the pastors wall and… well, you can see where something like this could head.

At issue is not necessarily that the particular pastor is a “liberal.” What is at issue is that the congregation member has no frame of reference for how to interpret that Facebook “like.”

Social Media has brought us to a place where many congregations are struggling to come to terms with a new way of being and living, particularly with how we communicate. Previously, the various outlets of pastoral communication were set. Everyone knew how to interpret the words a pastors said from the pulpit, and they understood that the words in a sermon will carry a different weight than the words in a newsletter article. Further, if they were hunched around the broken HVAC unit with the pastor, trying to determine whether to call in the electrician, the words out of the pastors mouth there would be given an entirely different context of meaning.

Different contexts make words mean different things to people, and the “problem” with the pastoral use of social media is that most of the people we have been called to serve don’t know yet how to interpret it.

I “got in trouble” for this all the time. I’d use my blog to tease out theories and ideas and you would have thought I was trying to get brought up on heresy charges. I’d post some snark to Facebook or Twitter, and my character would be questioned.

It was unreal. Accusations and foul behavior regularly ensued. It was like a re-run of Golding’s Lord of the Flies where the little boys became heinous behind their masks. Social media became a digital mask, and people showed up, true to form.

But I was able to manage it because I remembered one simple truth: Social Media is not a relationship. It is a tool for relationship.

Basic decency still applies

When Jesus is pressed for the most important part of the Law, he replies, “Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. And the second one is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”

If one purports to take the Bible seriously, then one would want to know what Jesus was meaning there. I am embarrassed to say that it was not until the last few years that I looked into the passage from Leviticus 19 that Jesus was referencing with the “love neighbor” thing. #pastorfail Here’s what I found:

Jesus was using “love your neighbor” as a shorthand reference to a section from Leviticus 19, that leads up to the exact phrase Jesus borrows. In reading it, I decided that the text was basically telling us that the way we love others as ourselves is by teaching them how to treat us. From verse 11 through 18, Leviticus commands us to live with decency, honesty, and integrity. We are particularly told to make sure others know what is and is not expected. “Reprimand your neighbor,” we are told. “Or you will be guilty yourself.” We are expected to insist that people treat one another well. This is a non-negotiable. And, while social media may exacerbate the issue, the same rules still apply.

Thinking back to my friend on Facebook and my own life, its clear to me that what is happeneing is people are confused about how to interpret a particular genera of communication, they’re scared/frustrated, and so they resort to childish behavior. Some general practices become clear when needing to handle difficult situation where integrity and decency are lacking.

  • Be clear on expectations. For instance, I always refer to my Facebook wall as “a party that I’ve having in my living room.” It’s okay for you to come and hang out. It’s okay for you to disagree with me or others. But it is not okay for you to be an ass. Everyone wants to have fun at a party, and if you’re making it so that others no longer want to come to my house for fear of being around you, then you will not be allowed in.
  • Be firm and consistent. Once the expectation has been set, don’t budge. Even if the offending party is your best friend. Don’t be afraid to call someone out for it. Often, I have found that a simple “Easy there, So-and-So” does the trick.
  • Don’t be afraid to block/unfriend/unfollow. As Carol says, “Facebook is suppose to be fun.” Repeated offenders will have had numerous warnings. If they show no signs of slowing, then is goodbye to them. Simple. Don’t feel guilty. Don’t look back.

At the end of the day, this Christian Faith thing we get to do is about right relationships. Please do not enable the bullies. Have a backbone and stand up for yourself and others, because if church leaders do not then who is going to?

(By the way, I told the pastor who asked me about Facebook that the fact that he was concerned enough to ask said to me that I didn’t have to worry about him and boundaries. I’m glad to report I was proven correct.)

Good theology, Bad theology

Within the first 18 months of arriving at the church I previously served, 12 different people decided to leave. When the average attendance of a congregation is around 100, 12 people is a lot of people. Some of them quickly slipped out the door while others drug out the process of their departure, but every single person made it clear that the major (if not only) reason they were leaving was because I believed “that everyone was going to go to heaven.”*

To a person, they could not get it through their heads why I would preach about God’s grace the way I did – a way that (to their minds) absolved individuals of making a decision to be and behave in a way that was different from how they had previously lived. As one gentleman told me, “Let’s face facts – God loves us all, but some people are sinners and are going to Hell.”

Obviously, that man wasn’t jiving with my theology. Well, that’s an understatement. That man thought I had my theology all wrong. I know as much. He told me. 🙂

From where I sit, I believe that it is of utmost importance to take into account the ways in which a particular theology calls us to live. Some theological expressions are more tightly constructed than others. Some make use of narrative as their primary thread, while others make use of propositional statements. But no matter what they look like, there is good theology and there is bad theology. The difference between them is their ethics. In other words, you can tell whether your theology is Christlike or not by how well it equips you to love your neighbor.

This whole “Love your neighbor” thing constantly trips me up. Every Maundy Thursday I am made aware – again – that the New Commandment is to “love one another as I have loved you.” Of course, my mind naturally goes to Jesus setting the benchmark that “they will know you are my disciples because of how you love one another.” And, then, there is that pesky “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Deconstructive critiques aside, the text is pretty clear that, in the end, we are to love our neighbor.

And so this, for me, is where I think we can start to see the light at the end of the tunnel that is “The Postmodern Problem of the Fundamentalist.” If I am going to claim that my understanding of the work of God in Christ is better than a fundamentalist’s, this is how I am going to know if my claim holds weight or not. Which of us holds a theological viewpoint that allows us to better love our neighbors?

Actually, that’s a silly question. I’m sure Fred Phelps loves his family just as much as I love mine. It would be ridiculous for me to assume otherwise.

No, I think the real question is not one of “how” but of “who.” It’s not a matter of knowing how to love, it’s a matter of knowing who to love. I think the real question is the one posed by the Parable of the Good Samaritan: “Who is my neighbor?”


*I actually don’t believe all people “are going to Heaven.” As these folks used it, “Heaven” is a decidedly Judeo-Christian belief, which other religious traditions do not subscribe to. To be clear, I do not consider myself a Univeralist (the belief that Jesus Christ’s work is effective for all people, everywhere regardless of their decision or opportunity to enter a relationship through him), but, rather a Pluralist (the belief that God calls people into relationship through various religious traditions). However, when someone is on their way out the door, that distinction seems a little silly to insist on, right?