THE SOCIAL CHURCH
There is nothing that perhaps captures the zeitgeist of the age or the spirit of our times like the phenomenal rise to prominence of social media. Suddenly, everywhere we turn, we are struck by the pervasiveness of social media platforms. It is no longer a sign of being hip or being cool to be on Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn.
It is a fact of 21st century life and this in itself is a measure of how much communications technology is changing the dynamics of social interaction, interpersonal relationship, business networking and community organizing. People have even met through social media and gotten married. Social media has also transformed the conventional approach to occupations such as journalism.
Journalism is no longer the rarefied pursuit of the news hunter. With a smart phone enabled to access social media, everyone is a journalist. Every major news outlet has a social media platform where viewers can offer feedback and participate in debates on the main issues in the news. The one word that describes the dynamics that social media has introduced and emphasized is interactivity. People are talking to each other more and sharing information more with each other.
The fact that by its very nature social media fosters a climate of interaction and debate also means that it challenges rigid, hierarchical and unquestionable models of leadership. This has implications for how power is defined and exercised in society. Social media is tailor-made to enable people, especially the young, question authority and defy the dictates of power in ways that are unprecedented. We have recently seen this dynamic in action in Nigeria. Young Nigerians have taken to social media variously to pour scorn on derelict government officials as was the case during the “My Oga at the Top” controversy. They have used it to question ecclesiastical authority and condemn the excesses of church leaders, a case in point being the torrent of criticism that greeted Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor’s acquisition of a private jet. During the Occupy Nigeria protests, young activists used social media to mobilize the citizenry for anti-government protests that brought the nation to a standstill for a week. Recently, social media went abuzz with an attack on another religious leader for skirting moral standards by trying to alter the reporting of news with a fee.
All of this has implications for the church. Churches are typically run along rigid authoritarian lines with undisputable hierarchies that clearly define the gulf between the clergy and the laity. In these settings, the pastor is often portrayed as the sole and infallible repository of power. Social media’s predisposition towards defiance and questioning authority apparently sets it against the traditional notions of ecclesiastical leadership and church structure. The church largely does not see the domain of cyberspace and social media, in particular, as mission fields. Pastors have been slow to take to Facebook and Twitter where the multitudes are now congregating. They have been very reluctant to test their mettle and influence in the virtual realm where profound conversations about spirituality and faith are ongoing.
To be fair, a number of these pastors belong to a generation for whom Facebook and Twitter are novel, alien tools of communication. For them, it is simply a case of it being too late to teach old dogs new tricks. But on the other hand, a lot of clerics clearly fear the uncontrolled and seemingly chaotic nature of social media circles which is very much far removed from the artificial tranquility and controlled environment of the local assembly where they rule the roost as infallible anointed men of God. Accustomed to total and unquestioning obedience, they are wary of the risks inherent in two-way communication in social media. They realize that social media unshackles conversation from the limitations of the church setting. They can no longer bark instructions from the pulpit. Instead, their dictates will be scrutinized, challenged and relentlessly critiqued. Clerics do not feel comfortable operating in this sort of environment.
Yet by avoiding engagement with the denizens of cyberspace, we have effectively conceded that realm to a host of unsavoury influences. Celebrities whose followership on Facebook and Twitter is reckoned in the millions are now serving both consciously and inadvertently as moral exemplars to our youths. The void created by the absence of true mentors and elders in cyberspace is encouraging young people to crowd source for answers to profound questions on life’s meaning. The battle for the hearts and minds of the young is being fought, won and lost on social media.
The impact of the internet and social media can be likened to what happened with the invention of the Guttenberg Press in the Middle Ages. Then, the emergence of the press had the effect of enhancing access to the scriptures. Instead of the bible being treated as a sacred book to be kept and interpreted by a cast of priests, it was put in every hand enabling individuals to interpret the will of God for themselves. The spread of the Guttenberg Bible was a key trend that aided the impact of the Lutheran Reformation which emphasized that individuals are saved by grace through faith. The Reformation also restored the personal relationship between the individual and God devoid of any mediation by priests to the cornerstone of Christian thought and teaching. Much of this was made possible by a technological and media change that dramatically enhanced mass access to the written word. Social media is similarly altering the way we discuss spirituality by taking it out of the hands of scholars and clerics and placing it in a domain where it can be discussed and dissected.
The church must reclaim cyberspace as a territory for evangelical action. In order to witness effectively, we must change certain things. In the age of social media, we must shed our desire for unquestioning obedience and engage in a more interactive and conversational approach to promoting our values. We should be creating forums online and on social media where people can candidly discuss spirituality and values in ways that are not possible in the four walls of a physical church. We must relinquish our desire for control and act more as fatherly facilitators of spiritual dialogue. In short, we must see the multitudes in cyberspace as Jesus would have seen them – as sheep without shepherd desperately seeking guidance, direction and nurture.