By Bryan Owen
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.— James 3:9-10
One of life’s great joys has been connecting with friends old and new via social media. For me that’s primarily included Facebook and Twitter. It’s been wonderful seeing what’s happening in the lives of people who, in some cases, I haven’t seen since I was in eighth grade. And I’ve really appreciated the opportunity to connect with clergy and laity in the church, some of whom live in different parts of the world.
Sometimes I think social media are among the greatest things to ever happen. But I’ve also come to the conclusion that at the very same time, they are among the worst things to ever happen.
The social media platforms that allow us to celebrate life’s joys, and invite others to show support when life is difficult, and that bring people together can also be used for slander and personal attacks, spreading misinformation and fake news, inciting anger and animosity, and creating division.
I see social media posts that fall squarely within the latter categories almost daily. Some of them are posted by liberals, some by conservatives. Some of them are posted by Christians. Some happen to be Episcopalians. Some are members of the clergy.
So how do we as Christians deal with these realities?
I do not believe that retreating from social media altogether is the best response. Of course, the decision whether to be on social media is personal. No one should feel obliged to participate.
But it’s also true that given how people communicate today, social media can be a powerful tool for sharing the gospel and the wonderful things happening in our churches. I think we can all agree that these are very good things we want to see happening regularly.
I also think it’s important to underscore the point that as church members — regardless of whether we are paid or volunteer staff, committee chairs, etc. — we are representatives of Christ and his Church in all that we say and do. That includes our social media postings.
In the Baptismal Covenant we have promised to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” And we have promised to “respect the dignity of every human being” (1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 305). Are our social media postings compatible with the Good News of God in Christ? Or do they proclaim a different message? And how does our social media behavior show respect for the dignity of other people, and especially those with whom we disagree?
As I’ve been thinking about all of this, I came across “Social Media Guidelines for Clergy and Congregational Leaders,” a wonderful document approved for use in the North Georgia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. I went through the document, pulled out relevant parts, and did a bit of revising for the context of the church I currently serve: St. Luke’s in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The result is a two-page social media guidelines document for clergy and lay leaders.
I want to share all of this more widely in the hope that the principles it contains will be helpful for how people across denominational lines communicate via social media in ways that are consistent with Christian values and witness.
In all of our social media interactions, may God give us the grace to speak the truth in love, to set aside all bitterness, wrath, anger, and slander, that we may be kind to one another, tenderhearted, and willing to forgive, just as God in Christ has forgiven us (cf. Eph. 4:15, 31-32).