The printing press was crucial to the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther is quoted as having said: ‘Printing is the ultimate gift of God.’ Social media is often viewed as today’s printing press. Is it a space we, as Christians, can better use for the good of the gospel? We asked online media consultant Rikki Lambert to share his views.

by Rikki Lambert

You may feel like Dorothy and her dog Toto in The Wizard of Oz, lifted into a technological whirlwind. This bewildering social media and internet-connected revolution is reshaping the world and relationships, even how we think and act.

This Information Revolution has gathered a socially transformative pace unseen since the Industrial Revolution, thanks to smartphones, cloud computing, data mining and a global COVID-19 lockdown.

If you’re of an older vintage, you might have dipped your toe into social media or Zoom to see your loved ones during times of isolation.

I am neither an expert nor an evangelist for social media. The Lutheran Church of Australia and Lutheran Education Australia engaged me to share insight into online media due to my qualifications and experience using those tools, particularly in politics.

Social media is no different to your mobile phone, car or chainsaw. It is a tool and, like all created things, can be used for good or evil.

Lutherans have a compelling story to tell from an earlier revolution – the combined power of the printing press and the Reformation. Back then, some considered it profane to use the popular or ‘social’ media of that day – the printing press, wood carvings and pub songs – to deliver God’s love and word into the hands, eyes and ears of commonfolk. We are all beneficiaries of the first Lutheran era of innovation.

Today’s social media might make you think of, say, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Facebook was launched to help university alumni to stay in touch and Twitter began as a micro-blogging platform for short thoughts on topics of the day. Instagram came along for more visual people. These morphed into social phenomena. Instagram was acquired by Facebook and now the proliferation of smartphones with good video capability sees those platforms – and TikTok – shifting social media into an emerging, video-based media.

In today’s race for global broadcast supremacy, there are two giants crushing media veterans such as TV channels 7, 9, 10 and the ABC in Australia, with another fast catching up. In the blue corner, Facebook and its partner, Instagram. In the red corner, Google and its partner, YouTube. Both giants originate from the USA, which is why a third is muscling in – video-based TikTok and Zoom, with strong Chinese links.

So the term ‘social media’ is a catch-all for a global broadcasting transition from radio, through TV, to the internet, as the trusted source of information. The church has followed these trends – remember the 1980s controversy about televangelists? Today’s pandemic quarantine now sees many local pastors and congregations reaching their people – and many others – via online video.

Like radio and television before them, internet-enabled devices may have been created for noble reasons. Like much of what humanity touches, all have been turned toward every good and evil use under the sun. There are many foul evils in this world, including abuse, degradation, addiction and exploitation. Those are all so much more accessible online to children and the vulnerable. Parents and grandparents would do well to talk with their children and grandchildren about how they use social media, their phones or other technology to interact with friends and strangers.

How should we 21st-century Christians engage with social media and the internet, accessible by this newfangled phone in our purse or pocket? Some avoid it completely, others plunge right in, while the wary trust only selected platforms. I believe everyone should act as their prayerful conscience directs.

The LCA/NZ now shares great content on Facebook and Instagram and has expanded its YouTube output, such as live-streaming worship. Sharing God’s truth, the gospel of Jesus Christ, is more important than ever. It can be as easy as sharing LCA/NZ content on your own Facebook account, liking a church department Instagram post, forwarding a link on an email, or telling friends about it.

Just as social media gives us the freedom to find things out fast, share things instantly and have our say to an ever-widening audience, it carries with it responsibilities. Our conduct on social media should reflect our values – if you wouldn’t say or do something face-to-face, don’t do it on social media. Seeking to understand one another – even bringing reconciliation – is a quality the world always needs.

We also need to look after ourselves. Some people shout, rant, or abuse others online. Social media, like Facebook, now allows you to mute someone for a while. Social media and video content are Dorothy’s Oz – they are not the real world. At best, they are a mirror. Spend time away from your phone. Go outdoors or communicate with family or friends. Stay grounded in reality, not in the virtual online world.

Before anyone had heard of COVID-19, I recommended that the LCA use more video, encourage Lutherans to reach out online and consider calling digital evangelists. These evangelists could reach out online to connect lost Australians to a local Lutheran congregation. Little did I know that we would soon be under virtual house arrest, unable (for a season) to physically meet as church. If we can, we should all reach out online in these strange times, remembering our salvation hope – and looking forward to meeting and embracing each other once again.

Pandemic isolation, children doing school from home, adults working from home and customers ordering online have accelerated the whirlwind Information Revolution. As church we talk about reaching the lost in this short-term lockdown, and longer-term in that paradoxically interconnected, anxious and lonely world.

If today’s Information Revolution is as bewildering as Dorothy’s Oz, then our ‘no-place-like-home’ Kansas is true community in Jesus. Instead of clicking magical red glittery shoes together, acts reflecting Jesus’ kindness and love can bring love and community to those who badly need it. Let’s encourage one another to do a simple, loving act in person or online to shine Jesus’ truth and love in this strange new world.

Facebook reshaped what ‘friend’ means and gave us the terrible term ‘unfriend’. Nothing will shake the truth of Jesus’ permanent friendship with humanity. In John 15, Jesus lives and teaches what true, self-sacrificial friendship looked like.

The right question is not whether to use social media, but: How can I be the type of friend Jesus is and wants us to be? And, can I use technology to be such a friend in these challenging times?

Rikki Lambert runs Lambert Creative, creating board games, fiction stories and consulting on his experiences in the law, politics and communications. He provided reports for the LCA and LEA during 2019 and is contracted part-time with Redeemer Lutheran School, Nuriootpa in South Australia for 2020. He is married with four children.

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