Facebook, friendship and the Gospel

There has been a lot of debate about the effects that social media is having on our society and Christian community.

Tim Chester, a Christian author I respect a great deal, has recently written a blog series on the dangers of Facebook. In one post, he wrote this:

“Facebook encourages you to live elsewhere. The gospel encourages you to live life here and now.
You can tend your Farmville farm or you can get an allotment.

You can catch up with friends on Facebook or you can go out on a cold, dark night to see real friends…

You can build a new city on Sims or you can be the city of God set on a hill with your Christian community.”

Is he right? Is Facebook opposed to the gospel?
I know where he’s coming from:  there is a great temptation to spend time online.  It  can be more attractive, particularly to introverts, to withdraw from physical social interaction and correspond with friends by computer.  Because of the ‘false safety’ of the medium, there is a temptation to say online what you wouldn’t say to someone’s face. This can lead to online bullying or promote an accelerated intimacy which can spark affairs.

To his credit, Tim Chester really lives out what he speaks and is known for being a leader of a church community that genuinely seeks to share their lives with each other. I think this is commendable, and a challenge to the majority of us who don’t make the effort to engage in true Christian community. I deeply respect him for this.
However, I would like to challenge his claims. Like many others, he falls into the false dichotomy of online and ‘real’ relationships. He dismisses Facebook as though it is an hour playing video games rather than a way of keeping in touch with people. (Of course, he may have a point about Farmville, if that is how you are spending your time…!)

1. Spoken vs written
It is a mistake to think of Twitter and Facebook as ‘virtual’ as opposed to ‘real’.  They are real relationships with real people, they are just mediated in different ways. The contrast isn’t between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’, but ‘spoken’ versus ‘written’ communication.
It is generally much better to see people face-to-face. You can communicate more clearly through tone of voice, nuance, body language, facial expression. It is quicker to talk than to type. It would be silly to choose to communicate through computer when you could do it in person. But often that is not possible, and social media enables us to keep in touch with those who are geographically distant.
In a sense, there is nothing very new and revolutionary about social media.  There have always been friendships that have been predominantly mediated through writing.  The Apostle Paul’s letters  (some of which were written to people he hadn’t met) are a great example of this. The new and revolutionary aspect is that now is that you don’t have to wait quite so long for a reply!
2. Superficial vs in-depth 
Are social media interactions less authentic and superficial?
They can be.  Tim Chester astutely points out that having the ‘like’ button on Facebook means that you are much less likely to share the hard parts of your life because people won’t be able to ‘like’ those.  People tend to share only the positives or the funny on Facebook, which can lead to a skewed perception of reality.
He goes on:

Think about what you have written and read on your Facebook wall this week. Think about the tweets you have followed this week… I am guessing, but I suspect that most of what is written will be drivel. Trivia. Empty.

I would agree – but then aren’t most of the ‘real life’ conversations that we have with others also in this category?
We don’t spend the majority of our time talking non-stop Bible or theology or philosophy. In fact, outside of Oxbridge (where that is perfectly acceptable), talking like this is – well, a bit off-putting. (I speak as one who’s been labelled ‘intense’ on occasion – even in Oxbridge circles…)
Friendships are built upon sharing the day-to-day trivia with one another. Facebook is one way of doing that with a larger number of our friends than is possible by spoken communcation alone.

And it is not all trivia. Blogging and direct messages enable us to go deeper.
The best analogy I can think of is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The advantage of writing to someone is that you get to express a thought more fully than in general conversation. As is often the case with Jane Austen, the social ‘real world’ conversations in Pride and Prejudice are fraught with misunderstanding and cross-purposes – it is in the letters that the characters are really themselves and the truth is revealed.

3. Strangers vs friends 
What of Twitter, where typically most of the followers are people you’ve never met?
While most interactions are limited by 140 characters which is notoriously difficult to communicate anything other than soundbite or trivia, it can lead to more meandingful exchanges and theological debate by email or commenting on blogs. Through sharing ideas, friendships can form. Vicky Beeching argued as much here.
This too, has a more old-fashioned predecessor: penpals.
The film Julie and Julia subtly makes this link.  While the modern day Julie is blogging and corresponding with her online fans, the 1950’s Julia is in Paris, corresponding with her best friend who lives in America.  Halfway through the film we get the surprise revelation that she has never met this person she tells all her secrets to – they are penpal friends and meet for the first time when she returns to America.
Dangers of penpals – The Confessional Effect
When I was twelve I was a very dedicated correspondent.  I had penpals in 5 different countries and 4 in the UK.  The main danger of spending too much time on ‘penpal’ communications is what I would call ‘the Confessional Effect’.  When you are corresponding regularly with someone and looking for things to write, you can end up revealing a lot of your inner thoughts and processing. There is a danger that what you are really doing is not interacting, but merely using that person as a recipient of your journalling.  It can create a false intimacy. Cat Caird has written about this here.

I discovered this when I was 12.  I met a boy on holiday (a Christian camp – it was all very tame) and we shyly agreed to be boyfriend and girlfriend. I think we may have held hands once, though we almost certainly didn’t have eye contact.
We corresponded faithfully for 5 months.  I used to bring the letters into school and sigh fondly over them. I wrote reams and reams and shared my life with him. Then his parents suggested to my parents that I came over to visit him – and I promptly dumped him.
I realised that my romanticised, letter-mediated image of him did not match the slightly more prosaic memory of hanging out with him on camp.  I liked the idea of him more than I liked being in his presence.
If those are the dangers, what are the advantages of having correspondence with people you have never met?

  • It broadens your world and perspective. When I was corresponding with penpals in different countries, the ‘trivia’ that they were sharing opened up my eyes to different countries, different languages, different ways of life.  On Twitter my eyes are being opened to what everyday life is like for people with substantial disability. I think more globally.
  • In my circle of friends I don’t know anyone who cares deeply about violence against women and the dangers of porn. Through my Twitter ‘circle’ I have become alert to these issues and I now care deeply about these issues and want to join their campaign. It prompts me to act justly and love mercy.
  • Through reading people’s blogs and discussions on Twitter I have sharpened my thinking on several theological issues.
  • I have chance Twitter exchanges with atheists on what it means to me to be a Christian. It gives regular opportunities to ‘give a reason for the hope that I have’.

These things are all profoundly pro-gospel, not anti-gospel.

I think the key to all this is balance. It is good to be intentional about how we use online media, and ask ourselves questions about the ways we interact with others.  So I offer you a checklist for self-evaluation:

  • Balance long-term friendships with new and local friends
  • Balance global community with local community
  • Balance written communicaton with spoken communicaton
  • Balance in-depth discussion with short exchanges (both spoken and written)
  • Balance planned interactions with spontaneous ones

For further reading: The concluding part of Tim Chester’s thought-provoking blog series  here

Kath’s brief response here

Cat writing on the dangers of false intimacy through online friendship here

My husband Jon arguing that social media actually reveals the real you here
Over to you:

  • What do you think about these things?
  • How is your balance in all those areas?

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13 Responses to Facebook, friendship and the Gospel

  1. Tim Beadle 31st May, 2012 at 10:04 am #


    Another thing for politically aware users of social media is, if you’re not careful (and don’t have a specific issue that affects you, like the cuts to disability allowance that you’re fighting) is the relentless jump from issue to issue to issue. Who can remember what we were angry about last week, let alone last month? It’s just a potential flood of rage.

    Some of us like to laugh at the Daily Mail and Express, who thrive on making their readers Really Jolly Angry on a daily basis, but the same thing happens on social media. We get our RageFix, calm down a bit, then move on to something else. I’m not sure either manifestation of All Rage, All The Time is healthy (is it akin to Orwell’s “Two Minutes’ Hate” in 1984?).

    Yes, there are issues in the world that should make us weep and get angry, but if we end up getting angry about too many of them, we may as well get angry about none of them.

    See also: 38 Degrees, Avaaz petitions.

    • Tanya 31st May, 2012 at 10:10 am #

      Yes – good points here. We can get ‘anger fatigue’ as well as compassion fatigue!

      I often wonder whether it promotes activism or just ‘slacktivism’. I think initially I was very dismissive of retweeting and Facebook postings as a form of political protest, but I’m increasingly thinking there is some power in these ways of communicating. Certainly it sometimes feels more productive than the letters I get from my MP that refuse to answer any of my questions! ‘Awareness’ in itself is not enough, but as the Arab Spring has shown, sometimes that will create just enough pressure to spontaneously combust into action.

      Here’s hoping, anyway!

  2. sandra delemare 31st May, 2012 at 8:43 am #

    Excellent post. The key is balance. I too have had interesting twitter exchanges with atheists. One twitter exchange led to me revising a blog post which led to a huge (for me) amount of traffic and many more online contacts. We can influence the world for good online. But we still need to meet person to person where possible.

    • Tanya 31st May, 2012 at 10:05 am #

      Thanks for stopping by again! I think one of the things that I have appreciated about Twitter is the fact that I am forced to engage in almost constant dialogue, and really have my opinions challenged. It’s a bit like being in university again! I think it’s healthy to keep challenging ourselves in this way, and I feel like I really benefit from interacting with others’ blog posts and worldviews.

  3. Paul 31st May, 2012 at 12:19 am #

    Tanya, thanks for sharing this. I like your checklist about balancing online and in-person contact. I’m in contact with people I know in person and online through Facebook and Twitter, and I serve with an online ministry. But I try to spend face time with friends and family, attend a regular, in-person church on a regular basis. Facebook, when used to retain contact with people, is a valuable resource. And some of the best people I’ve ever met I first discovered on Twitter. Simply put, I think it is to our peril to ignore either reality – the one tangibly around us and the one we have to access through electronic means.

    • Tanya 31st May, 2012 at 10:03 am #

      Thanks very much for stopping by, Paul. You sound like you have a really healthy balance in life!

  4. Jackie Davie 30th May, 2012 at 7:11 pm #

    The post I wish I’d written. I agree with much of what you’ve said here. Social media has a huge impact on my social life and on my spiritual life as it is difficult for me to leave the house on my own, never mind meet friends socially, and it can often be hard to get to chuch. I have recenctly written a post on how twitter enhances both these things. I thought this might interest you are you say social media has helped you become aware of broader perspectives including people with a disability. You can find my post here. http://bigbible.org.uk/2012/05/growing-your-faith-when-youre-semi-housebound-by-our-newest-digidisciple-jacksdavie/

    I agree balance is absolutely the key, although social media can provide opportunities where is not possible such as a friendship I formed on facebook with a Christian woman who is also housebound.

    • Tanya 31st May, 2012 at 10:02 am #

      Thanks for stopping by and for your kind words. I read your blog post with great interest – it seems we have much in common!

      I think that social media is a useful tool for everyone, but for those of us who are housebound it is something of a lifeline. I too have formed unexpected friendships which have been a great encouragement.

  5. Anna Wood 30th May, 2012 at 7:02 pm #

    Great post Tanya – I agree with everything you say.

    The other difference between written communication and spoken, is that there is more time for reflection – so it can lead to deeper discussion (although not necessarily) than you often have with spoken communication.

    Jon’s post is interesting too – especially as academics tend to talk about how we are obsessed with how we present ourselves on-line and that it isn’t the real us. I think Jon has a point – however hard we consciously try to portray a certain image, we probably end up much closer to our real selves than we realise!

    Interesting too that he is involved with selection – my Mum does that for Lichfield Diocese!

    • Tanya 31st May, 2012 at 10:00 am #

      Thanks anna – yes, I thought Jon’s point was a really interesting one too! It’s a good one for self-reflection…

  6. Tim Beadle 30th May, 2012 at 3:47 pm #

    Good post, Tanya. In addition to the funny and the positive, social media, for many people, is also about posting stuff that makes them mad (politics from either side, other people’s behaviour etc. – this still gets a ‘like’ on FB; it’s passive aggressive by its very nature, I guess). I see this as a cycle campaigner from both sides of the perceived cyclist vs driver “war”.

    On the false dichotomy of real vs online, it’s good to have a balanced media diet as well as a balance food diet 🙂

    Oh, and have you heard of the term “ambient intimacy”? It describes exactly the results of how FB, Twitter et al operate. Here’s a blog post by Leisa Reichelt from 2007 describing the phenomenon. http://www.disambiguity.com/ambient-intimacy/

    • Tanya 31st May, 2012 at 9:57 am #

      Thanks for stopping by, Tim! Yes – I know what you mean about the propensity for social media to raise the blood pressure…! It is good to know when to step away and think about fluffy happy things instead (sometimes I need reminding of this!)

      Hadn’t heard of ambient intimacy – interesting term. Thanks for the link.
      Hope you have a good day!


  1. Finding and Growing Community by @jacksdavie - 3rd July, 2012

    […] for everyone, but surely we have to do something? I wholeheartedly agree with Tanya Marlow in “Facebook, Friendship and the Gospel” that a balance has to be struck between using social media like Facebook and being face to face with […]

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