For the last two-and-a-half years I have managed our mission’s social media accounts. When I took on the task, I had no idea how complicated a thing social media can be. Social media platforms are undeniably useful tools for spreading (the) good news, but they are oh so easy to misuse, causing a surprising amount of conflict and giving occasion to many kinds of sin.
Here are a few of the things I have learned about using social media as a missionary. I continue to learn new lessons all the time (normally by putting my virtual foot in my virtual mouth once again), so I am preaching to myself as I write this. It would be interesting to distribute score cards to my friends, family, and supporters in the U.S., as well as my Peruvian friends, to see how well I hold up to my own standards. Any volunteers?
1. Be inclusive. Peruvians love social media. More specifically, Peruvians love Facebook. Not all of them, of course, but this is generally true of our host culture. The point here is that more people than you expect are noticing what you’re posting on social media, and depending on where you are serving, you may end up with as many contacts from your host culture as your home culture (or perhaps even more). This is why I have had to learn to be careful to post in both my native language and my adopted language. Every once in a while I will choose between them, particularly when something is obviously specific to one of the two communities (like plans for an upcoming special service at our church in Peru), but most of the time I try to post in both. I learned the hard way that it is all too easy to exclude others via social media. As missionaries, we are called to live incarnationally within the cultural/linguistic context where God has placed us. This applies to social media as well as to other areas of our lives. An additional takeaway here: Never assume that when you post in English only people from your English-speaking home culture will understand what you have posted.
2. Be considerate of your host culture. Adjusting to life in a new culture is an experience wrought with emotions, not all of them positive. Remember that most of the things you find discomforting, surprising, or downright annoying are well-accepted facets of daily life for members of your host community. Some of these things may indeed be sinful, but complaining about them in social media is not the best way to help your host culture change in ways that glorify God. Often, however, we complain about things that are not in themselves sinful, but are probably healthy means that God is using to teach us a myriad of necessary lessons for holiness (among them patience and contentment). In this light, we should probably be praising God for them instead of griping about them (not, I know, an easy thing to do). Also, remember that members of your host community may feel insecure about their culture compared with your home culture. Even expressing surprise at a cultural difference could be interpreted as censure. On the positive flip side, praising your new host culture in honest ways is a wonderful way to bless members of your host culture.
3. Don’t ignore the complexities of your calling. Because you are a missionary, your social media accounts have automatically become a means of communicating your ministry to your support base, whether or not you have chosen this to be so. It is true that your supporters know (or should know) that you are a human being and need some God-commanded moments of rest and time with your family. It is okay to communicate that you are doing these things via social media. In fact, I believe it is a ministry to exhausted missionaries everywhere to see that these are healthy behaviors, no matter where in the world you are or what in the world you are doing. Remember, however, that your support base is also eager to know what you are doing in ministry, in what ways God is at work, how they can pray for your ministry, and (not to put too fine a point on it) that their financial support is being well invested. To summarize, seek balance in what you post, perhaps tipping that balance toward “ministry-related” updates.
4. Be considerate of your team. Mission teams are as diverse as the Bride of Christ herself. We come from different backgrounds and have differing opinions concerning the way we interpret in our lives God’s commands in scripture. I’m talking about some of the minutiae here (some real-life examples include the celebration of certain holidays and choices in clothes). Remember that what you post online, even in your personal spaces, reflects on your mission team, whether or not that is what you intend, and will send a message to their support bases about their team. Ask yourself whether what you are posting would bring honor to the community you represent. Of course, if the issues are doctrinal divisions that are affecting your ability to minister as a team, that should require honest conversations among your team and with your team’s leadership, certainly not public posts on social media.
5. Be willing not to be a part of every discussion. Being on the mission field has taught me that I am part of a very diverse community: the body of Christ. This means that not engaging in some online discussions (theological or political) is sometimes necessary for maintaining relationships with fellow believers, particularly in our host country. I realize that others may disagree with me on this, but I have decided it is often better to take more controversial conversations to a more private setting.
One last comment is to let the Word of God be the ultimate authority on what you post: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). Replace the word “think” with “post”, and apply this to your current mission context. I believe that even the messy world of social media can be governed by God’s Word, and that with His grace, we can make great use of these tools for His kingdom.
If you are a missionary, what are some of the things you have learned about using social media? How is social media used in your host culture? If you are not a missionary, how could you apply some of these lessons to your own church community and ministry context?