Forging digital tools

Facebook want to work with churches. Which shouldn’t surprise us, why wouldn’t they want to work with anyone they can show advertising too?

The surprising bit is that some churches seem to want to work with them too. As has been widely reported, some very large churches and denominations want to collaborate with Facebook on developing tools within the platform for churches.

The new Hillsong Atlanta seem to have gone so far as to ask Facebook for advice on planting a church during the pandemic.

Particularly in the early part of the pandemic lots of churches used Facebook to stream their services online. While this has diminished, at least in my anecdotal experience, with churches opting for YouTube because it’s all around better at what they want to do, Facebook isn’t going away. Every church is going to have a Facebook page, in the same way every church will be on Google Maps and have a website. To not is to not exist.

That might concern us, but it is the landscape we now live in. Of course, Facebook will be concerned by how much easier it is for churches to use YouTube because that video platform is owned by Google, their primary competitor for our eyes. It’s in their interest to help churches use their platform rather than a competitor’s because they would like to be the one to receive our data and sell the advertising space on our screens. Let’s never kid ourselves about their motives. Those are Google’s motives too, of course.


Before I get on my high horse and spam a bunch of Jaron Lanier quotes (who is worth your time reading, by the way, even if you don’t follow his advice and delete all your social media accounts), it’s worth considering these platforms as tools. They are tools. They have many positive uses. They have many negative uses. Ultimately, they’re tools. They can, with care and skill, be used well. In theory they can be used by churches to do things that churches should do.

I’m a proponent of this, we should be using all the digital tools at our fingertips to do the work the Lord has given us. But there are two concerns we should hold in our minds while thinking about this—and we must think about it rather than fall by default into Big Tech’s clutches and proceed along the paths they define for us as though that were Jesus ordering our steps.

Firstly, we must make sure that we are using them to do the work the Lord has given us. “Of course we are!” we cry happily because we decide which activities to do and pursue. Let’s be a little wilier though, wise as serpents (Matthew 10) if we can be, and notice that the methods, communication channels, and contexts of our content all affect its meaning and how it’s received by our people. “The medium is the message,” as Marshall McLuhan is oft quoted as saying. He’s right.

This is not an argument to not use digital tools, or even specifically to not use Facebook, but it is an argument to think from multiple angles about what you do and why. Think both about what works (naff digital content is a waste of everyone’s time unless that’s deliberate), and about how the medium shapes the message.

Using the tools with the wisdom of serpents: yes. This seems reasonable. But collaborating with Facebook? Honestly it sounds like Genesis 6 to me. The sons of God lying with the snake. Not to be dramatic or anything.

You may well feel out of your depth here and want help. Seek it! But as a caution, the temptation is often to go “young people, they understand social media!” Some of them do, yes, though less than you’d think.

I would say find instead someone of any generation who has thought about the effects these platforms have and bounce it around with them. And don’t make the classic mistake of assuming Gen Z know anything about Facebook, they’re on it because their parents are. It was first a Millennial platform—I was an early adopter as it was being rolled out University by University in Autumn 2005—but I’m not convinced I understand it anymore. I’m too young for it.

Safety Rails

Our second concern is related to that last point, if social media is a tool, treat it like one. If I want to knock down a wall, I’ll choose the right tool. For a stud wall inside I could do it by hand with a crowbar but I’ll probably pick a reciprocating saw with a demolition blade. For a block or brick wall I’ll stick a chisel in an SDS and have at it—but not until we’ve checked what it’s supporting, bought the right size steel if required and popped up some acrow props.

Whichever kind of wall it is, I won’t put the power tool in the hands of my four-year-old nephew, or even his seven-year-old brother. For some of them I wouldn’t do it, I’d pay someone with better skills.

I’m sure you can follow the analogy. Tools require careful use by skilled hands. Digital tools can be just as destructive as my big drill if not used appropriately. Since the potential damage is often less visible we can keep chipping away without a care not knowing what we’ve carved out.

I think it can tempting to assume all tools are value neutral. I know I’ve taught this myself. I was asked to speak on Social Media and the Bible seven years ago. It doesn’t seem to be online anymore, which may not be a terrible thing. Most of my message was on James 3 and was really about taming the tongue. I’m sure I’d agree with portions of it, but I think I was too kind on social media, describing it as purely something that we mess up with our sin. I don’t think it’s that simple.

You see, tools form us. They have a ‘liturgising’ effect, by which I mean that everything we do frequently changes how we see the world and therefore how we then act. You can root our hyper-individualism in a host of causes from the fencing of 16th century sheep fields in Britain to St Augustine to The Iliad in way that’s at least partially convincing, but one of the biggest factor is the invention and widespread adoption of the car. Our cars have changed us, and in turn how we view churches. We might decry people’s consumerism as they move around churches, but it’s only plausible because cars exist. Are cars evil? Readers might differ, but I don’t think so. I’m wary to call them ‘neutral’ though, they have a string of cultural effects, not all of which I think have been positive.

Kranzberg’s first law of technology is:

“Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.”


Everything forms us

Tools form us. J. K. A. Smith’s work on ‘Cultural Liturgies’ in his trilogy of difficult books by the same name is helpful here. Everything we do is like a liturgy we might encounter in church. All of it has a forming effect on us. If you’ve been following my work, think of it like this instead: everything we do tells a story, and everything we encounter is bound up in a nexus of stories. Those stories shape and change how we live, what we imagine is possible (what Charles Taylor calls a ‘social imaginary’), what we think our stories are, and how we assess whether a story is good or bad.

Everything forms us like this. Everything.

Protestantism—and I’m assuming most of my readers here are Christians in Protestant churches—was only plausible because of the invention of the printing press. No Gutenberg, no Luther. Protestantism is tied together with books. We should note that at the invention of the printing press, mass-produced books were decried in similar language to social media: it’ll rot your brain!

It would be easy then to dismiss any concerns in a similar vein. They weren’t wrong though that books changed us, for the better and the worse.

All of which is to say that by definition the ‘Facebook church’ is necessarily a different place. The mediums, the tools, change the message and the messengers. This is inescapable. So, we need to see how we’re changed.

Social media fallout

Social media use has been directly linked to unhappiness, the effect kicking in after 2 hours use a day. Taking a break from Facebook has been demonstrated to make adults significantly happier, less lonely, less depressed, and less worried.1 On top of that there is an anxiety epidemic among Generation Z2 for which phone usage is a strongly indicated contributory factor.3 Janis Whitlock described smartphones effect as ‘a cauldron of stimulus’ that can’t be escaped.4

So, should we ignore the whole thing? Leave the machine behind and go to live in virtual skelligs in the wild? Or leave the whole world to live in the real one, surrounded by rocks and trees not coded by human hands? This is the right question. A digital monasticism is an option, and I think should be pursued by some. ‘Monks’ who abstain from the digital to wholeheartedly embrace the physical should be welcomed and lauded by every church. Are there any of these people in your church? Are you making it easy for them to live out this calling? Speak with them. Read Paul Kingsnorth’s work on what he calls the Machine.

But most of us won’t engage in digital monasticism, even if it’s a good idea. In the height of medieval monasticism, the percentage of society that sought out that life would have been small—it’s never been a path for all believers. Trying to suggest everyone withdraw from social media in all its forms is probably unworkable. I don’t think most would manage it. But limit it? See what it’s doing to us? Fast from it at times? Develop practices that help? All of this is very possible.

Some should withdraw for the sake of their health and their souls though, and churches should include this idea in amongst the mighty armoury of discipleship tools. For some, when discerned with wisdom, this will help.

For churches though? I doubt it. It’s ceding the terrain entirely. I do think that we should aim to operate as lights in a digital wasteland. But to do so we must think and think well. The terrain changes us too. Have we noticed? It changes our message: our grand proclamation of victory won.

Train a hand to hold a knife before you set about to butcher a pig. Train a heart to use social media, before you set them loose in digital Babylon.

I’ll pick up the story of Facebook and the churches they’re collaborating with next Monday, and look more closely at the tools being offered.

1 Seemiller, C. & Grace, M., Generation Z: A Century in the Making, Routledge, 2018, 32. Lin, L. et al, ‘Association Between Social Media Use and Depression Among U.S. Young Adults.,’ Depress Anxiety 33:4 2016, 323-31. Lin, L. et al, ‘Association Between Social Media Use and Depression Among U.S. Young Adults.,’ Depress Anxiety 33:4 2016, 323-31. Twenge, J. ‘Making iGen’s Mental Health Issues Disappear’, Psychology Today, 31/08/2017. Twenge, J., iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy– and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, Atria, 2017, 77-80

2 e.g. Generation Z, 120, 148-150. Young Woman’s Trust Annual Survey 2016. Lukianoff, G. & Haidt J., The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, Allen Lane, 2018 150-151. iGen, 97, 103. American Psychological Association, ‘Stress in America: Generation Z’, 2018

3 Generation Z, 44, 150-151. Sayers. M & Comer, J. M., This Cultural Moment 2:2, June 5 2018.

4 Whitlock quotation from iGen, 102.

Photo by Hannah Gibbs on Unsplash

To subscribe and receive email notifications for future posts, scroll all the way to the bottom of the page.

Would you like to support my work? You can give using PayPal or Cash App.