Richard Beck, a professor and experimental psychologist at Abilene Christian University, offered some interesting and personally challenging insights about online social networking in a recent blog article. You can read his article by clicking here (warning: some of you may find the article dangerously boring…but I am a nerd, so I enjoyed it).
To sum up, the subject Beck was addressing was the impact of Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of social media on social activism. In other words, does Twitter help organize efforts to feed the poor and correct other social injustices, or does it only serve as an outlet to vent frustrations over injustices without providing the connections and motivations necessary to fuel the real, difficult work of actually feeding the poor? Will Twitter move people to work on the problems, or just talk about them?
Beck brings in references to psychology research suggesting that real social activism, such as the Civil Rights movement, only takes place when the activists are not only invested in the activism, but also in one another. Activists with strong relationship ties to other activists are more likely to stick with it. It makes sense.
However, social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook are built on “weak” relationships. Our Facebook “friends” are largely acquaintances. And, according to Beck and the research he cites, these are not the kind of relationships that sustain social activism.
Now, take these observations into the realm of Christianity. We know that we are supposed to be carrying on the work that Jesus Christ started, the work of loving the weak, sick, poor, outcasts, and lost. We also know that this is difficult work. We also know that the Church as a whole struggles with fulfilling this work.
Why do we struggle? There are obviously many answers to that question, but one piece of the puzzle is that we do not develop strong enough relationships to sustain the work. Beck observes that the majority of the attendees of a typical church service are only loosely connected as acquaintances. He compares it to Facebook, in this regard. You may have a few close friends on Facebook and many more acquaintances. The same is likely true at church (which is why Beck also argues that Facebook killed the church, because Facebook offers a social outlet that used to be filled by going to church).
So, Bob and Sue serve soup at a homeless shelter once a month, but they struggle to get anyone else involved, though everyone else would agree that it is a good cause. The elders at First Street Church kick off a program to visit the area nursing homes, but the program is quickly dropped due to lack of committed participation, though everyone agrees it is a good cause.
But, the work is difficult, and the workers need encouragement and support from close friends who are also working. So, when most people at church are merely acquaintances, the support is lacking, the motivation is lacking, and the work begins with an initial enthusiasm, but fails to continue.
However, God gave us the inspiration and support we need to do the work He has given us. That support is other Christians. But, most of us are merely acquainted with most of the other members of our churches.
So, I conclude with some of my personal observations on why that is, why we are just acquaintances rather than family:
-We are too busy for one another.
-Our society increasingly thrives on weak relationships (business networking, social media, worth that comes from number instead of intensity of relationships, etc.).
-Our society implies that it is a feminine or homosexual quality for men to have close same-sex friends (especially among our younger generations who deal with the unique social environment found in our schools).
-We are content with being isolated and socially unchallenged.
-We are too self-reliant.
-We are too impatient with the failures of others.