My Facebook Tug-o-War

I’ll be honest — re-imagining ministry in the Covid-19 era has been kind of daunting. On bad days it’s simply one struggle too much. On good days it fuels creative juices I didn’t know I had. The features that define priestly and pastoral identity and ministry, the means which nourish our faith, the joys that grow my love for God’s people, are all being challenged, forcing a rethinking and re-imagining. Right now it feels like everything is being reduced to a two-dimensional replica of the real thing, with likely the most painful one being the inability to gather for worship and to celebrate Holy Eucharist with God’s people (I wrote about this here).

Take the dive into the online deep. Without question, technology has been a huge saving grace in this time of physical distancing and self-isolation. So much communication is now possible because of FaceTime, Zoom, and all forms of social media. Even church can be beamed into our living rooms and kitchens. Beyond doubt, it is a gift no generation before us enjoyed in their collective times of crisis.

But I have to confess that my experience with social media, Facebook in particular, has been mixed; the risks of misinterpretation, superficiality and rash moralistic judgments are real. I’ve been in a tug-o-war with Facebook for some time, well before this global health crisis hit. I resent and resist FB’s pressure to decide who my friends should be and how I should interact with them. The subtle and not-so-subtle corporate ads on my newsfeed betray a blatant disregard for my privacy and ad settings.

I’ve stopped posting photos and anecdotes from my life, likes and dislikes, interests and ambitions, out of concern about having my personal information so publicly displayed. Watching The Great Hack (2019) reassured me that I wasn’t paranoid after all: multinationals and other outfits with questionable motives drool over FB’s storehouse of consumers’ personal data. Mutual beneficial contracts allow these corporate giants to harvest our personal data to their greedy hearts’ content, turning us ordinary Joe Blows into minions that help to line their bottomless pockets. Ever wondered how the ads on our newsfeeds seem so tailor-made to our interests?

Yet I still have my FB account, because I do discover worthwhile articles through it, and it links me to my churches’ group FB which is a worthwhile communication tool. I guess this is called a mixed blessing, offering both positive connections while requiring vigilance and prudence.

When preparing for our Covid-19 lockdown I decided to stock up on reading material. It so happened that I picked up a most inconspicuous second-hand book, published in 2009 by Jesse Rice’s with the title The Church of Facebook. Church and Facebook in one title — that grabbed my attention.

Already eleven years ago, Rice noted the startling rise of Facebook as the most extensive global social media platform. He also identified FB’s rather unholy alliances with the corporate world almost from the beginning. Rice even speculates how a FB generation, growing up on a diet of likes and dislikes with little depth, will develop the interpersonal skills essential for meaningful and lifelong bonds of love.

At the same time, Rice correctly showed how FB has been growing our sense of connectedness across the globe, greatly facilitating communications across distance, language and cultures. In the process, however, FB is also redefining community and communication in ways that could have far-reaching and potentially questionable consequences: Facebook is a well where thirsty people come to drink. We are thirsty for the kind of community where we can feel at home and like ourselves. … We experience enough of an emotional buzz to keep us coming back, even though we grow increasingly thirsty with every visit. (p. 187, 2009) The reason why we grow increasingly thirsty with every FB visit, according to Rice, is because online interactions can be callously void of all aspects that make for authentic friendships and community: intentionality and consideration, respect and humility, honesty and responsibility/accountability.

Question: What is your relationship with Facebook? How does FB fit into your daily routine? How does it define you?What needs do you meet through FB?

And yet, in this virus-stricken world Facebook has become a lifeline for countless souls feeling adrift in this season of self-isolation and physical distancing, for families staying connected across time and space. For pastors and churches Facebook has become a vital way to keep in touch with parishioners. Despite the very real online temptations to reduce friendships and community to trivial likes and dislikes, today’s expressions of faith and caring, virtual hugs and consoling words online all succeed in throwing a spiritual anchor to the lost and isolated multitudes. I admit this is a genuine life-giving development of online community. In my estimation, Facebook has redeemed itself somewhat. But it behooves us all to safeguard our right to remain the agent of our online interactions, and to remain vigilant that online trust in social media does not get betrayed or exploited — we can each do our part in keeping its virtual feet to the fire of scrutiny.

Question: How will you foster online personal vigilance and maintain online agency without letting yourself be controlled and manipulated by social media?

The tug-o-war with Facebook will remain with me for a good while yet, and that’s okay. FB is like everything else; its life-giving or destructive power rests in the hands of its users. While FB ministry has been growing in meaningful ways, doing my part to keep it that way, I remain acutely aware of a significant portion of the flock without any access to the digital world. Pastors are hard-wired to ensure that all feel included. Phone calls and paper copies, hand-delivered to doorsteps, have replaced face-to-face visits.

For my pastoral instincts, this distance-connecting amounts to yet another flattening of the 3-dimensional Body-of-Christ encounter. I find myself hanging on every word at the other end, to make sure s/he feels cared for, prayed for and included. Nothing can replace the holding of a frail hand. Nothing can replace the electric current of love, consolation and healing in a body-to-body hug. No amount of virtual communication can duplicate the energy exchange that occurs in looking into real-live eyes and beholding facial expressions, revealing wisdom and depth, sorrow and pain, humour and love.

Our physical distancing for the sake of our collective health is revealing in stark ways our bodily connectedness — not only across continents, but also in the intricate web of relationships close to home. We are embodied spirits; we need one another’s physical presence to grow and thrive. On the other hand, when one of us catches Covid-19, we are all at risk. No wonder God came to us in a human body — a body that laughed and cried, a body that reached out and loved, a body that hugged and healed through touch, a body that struggled and sweated, a body that suffered and died.

Facebook is here to stay; so far FB group pages seem less polluted by intrusive ads (who knows what lurks behind the screen). It’s important to realize that all online interactions are stored and harvested, and thus require prudence and vigilance. While Facebook definitely provides valuable connections, it can never become the real thing. We are embodied spirit, and it will always be thus, because the divine Word/Spirit has become flesh … in each of us.

  • For a very recent article on Facebook’s challenges with national privacy laws, click here.

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