Punting Facebook…For Now

Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash

Today I made the decision to log out of Facebook. I don’t know when I’ll log back in.

From time to time, someone in my network has posted an announcement to their feed saying, “I’m out!” This may be an act of courtesy. In some cases, the intent is to display sanctimoniousness. In other cases, the tone is apologetic: “I’m sorry everyone, but I just can’t take it any longer! I know you’ve enjoyed knowing that I may or may not be monitoring your feed, as Facebook’s hidden algorithm allows or disallows, I’m not really sure, but I can’t stay any longer. Your posts about [insert topic, controversial or benign] are driving me insane.”

About three years ago now, during the season of Lent, I chose to log out of Twitter and Facebook for the season. I deleted Instagram from my phone. I initially returned to Instagram once per month. Facebook was a daily check, usually to drop my notifications to nil and to make sure I did not have messages. I still have a Twitter account. My blog posts push there. But I have no intention of returning. I think I’ve been better off without those voices in my head.

The pandemic resulted in my return to Instagram, at least for a stretch. I reinstalled the app on my phone and kept it there. I’d post videos and I made it a habit to share one image a week that I captured with my phone. I still enjoy photography. But I eventually would get sucked into the “Explore” tab, where I’d see videos that maybe caught my interest, but mostly that were not edifying. At the midpoint of the summer, or around then, I deleted Instagram from my phone.

Why am I punting Facebook?

I check it more than once per day, and mindlessly flit there via my browser.

I’m starting to scroll. I don’t think that is good for me.

I haven’t watched The Social Dilemma, but I’ve heard enough to make me want to run from social media.

I’m concerned about taking part in social media ecosystems that foster addictions in others. My presence in these digital spaces fuels the desire of others to engage in those spaces as well. I’m worried participation in these digital environments may violate the command to love my neighbor as myself.

I think social media engagement increases mental noise and prevents me from focusing, thinking freely, and expending energy on other, more productive ventures, like writing, art, and building.

I have reservations about chronicling the life of my family, and particularly my children, on services that are sucking up information about them, too. Maybe my kids don’t want my online “friends” to know certain things about them.

The written word is disembodied and can be depersonalized. If you know me, you know how I would say this sentence. You factor my character. You might even hear my voice. I’m connected to people on social media that I don’t know, or who I don’t know as well as I used to. I think this changes how I read. I don’t think I’m as charitable as I would be if these readings were complemented by in person interactions.

I think Facebook’s website has gotten slower, clunkier, less aesthetically pleasing, less user friendly, more cluttered, and isn’t as fun to use as it once was.

I think our technological overlords are not honest or transparent about the ways they monitor us, how they use our data, and what their products are designed to do.

So why don’t I deactivate and delete my account altogether?

It’s strange. First, I think there is a gospel imperative to seek connection and then maintain connections with others, even if that connection is by means of an imperfect vehicle. My Facebook Page keeps me connected to some who want to read what I write. So does my Twitter feed. I’d prefer that everyone subscribe to my site via email. But some prefer to collate information via social media networks. Some comment there.

Second, I’m trending toward a digitally hermitic life, but I’m not there yet. I’ve given serious thought to writing primarily at this website, posting photography here, making art and building other things at home which I may or may not share online. I like the web. I like having my own space. But I don’t like the social media ecosystems.

Third, like everyone, I experience the human desire for connection. There are certain high school friends, and even some teenage friends, that I’m glad I have loose ties with. When I see posts from my boyhood next door neighbors, my heart is warmed by the knowledge they are doing well, that they have found success or have family they love.

Lastly, at some level, social media does help me keep my finger on the pulse of trends–at least the trends the algorithms want me to see. That’s the trick, really. My feed runs through a value-grid, one I do not determine. Facebook does. Twitter does. Certain speech is buried. Some content is elevated. And I never know exactly why, or which, or even if it has happened.

I’m only left to wonder.

For now, I’m out.

The Internet’s Effect on Real-World Relationships

Image by amrothman from Pixabay

In Daniel J. Levitin’s The Organized Mind, he writes about ways we engage with our “social world,” noting a handful of ways the internet is changing those interactions.

While he concedes that matchmaking has been around for centuries, when turning his attention to dating and relationships Levitin observes:

The biggest change in dating between 2004 and 2014 was that one-third of all marriages in America began with online relationships, compared to a fraction of that in the decade before. Half of these marriages began on dating sites, the rest via social media, chat rooms, instant messages, and the like. In 1995, it was still so rare for a marriage to have begun online that newspapers would report it, breathlessly, as something weirdly futuristic and kind of freakish.

p. 130

I wonder: what are those numbers today? This 2017 study by a Stanford sociologist found that online dating is now the foremost way most U. S. couples meet. What has led to this immense shift? Levitin states, “This behavioral change isn’t so because the Internet itself or the dating options have changed; it’s because the population of Internet users has changed.”

In other words, the internet is where people live. Molly and I didn’t meet on the internet, but we became better friends because we corresponded via email and chatted on AOL.

Pros and Cons

Levitin concedes that “the Internet has helped some of us to become more social and to establish and maintain an larger number of relationships.” But that’s not all. “For others, particularly heavy Internet users who are introverted to begin with, the Internet has led them to become less socially involved, lonelier, and more likely to become depressed.”

When we’re online, we miss a lot of cues, a lot of signals that we learn to interpret and respond to as we build relationships with others. Maybe we’re adapting. But maybe not. How has this effected young people? Levitin writes, “Studies have shown a dramatic decline in empathy among college students, who apparently are far less likely to say that it is valuable to put oneself in the place of others or to try to understand their feelings. It is not just because they’re reading less literary fiction, it’s because they’re spending more time along under the illusion that they are being social.”

I’ve been debating and thinking about the effect of the web on human relationships for a while, making applications to the church. I don’t think the internet is going away, and I see a lot of positives. I wouldn’t be connecting with you right now if I hadn’t learned how to publish to the web.

But I also see the negatives. I think social media, on the whole, is toxic, a corrosive acid that eats away at the social fabric. Our dependence on the smart phone and our addiction to notifications keeps us in a constant state of shallow thinking and distraction. Face to face, in person relationships are richer. Conversations are better when phones are in another room, and not in the middle of the table or on top of the desk.

Discerning the Times

As I said, however, the internet isn’t going away, and our use of various web based tools is currently rewiring the human brain, redefining the boundaries of our relationships, and making connections possible that could not have happened in another age.

We need to understand what’s taking place right now, and offer wisdom that is applicable to our times. Awareness of ways the internet is changing us is step one.

Doomscrollers

Photo by ROBIN WORRALL on Unsplash

Doomscrolling. Now that term does a lot of work.

What is it? Doomscrolling is that thing we do when we open social media, flick fingers and thumbs, caress our screen upwards and downwards, tactile, gentle, eyes fixed and looking, looking, looking upon all that is horrible, no good, and bad. Sure, we occasionally land on a cat meme or an uplifting video. But more often we look for things that upset us. We look for things that confirm our deepest suspicions that the world is unwell. We look for things that outrage us. We look for DOOM. No, not that Doom.

I have been a habitual doomscroller. I’m a little better now.

The human brain is wired to fixate on problems. The internet is a portal to all kinds of bad news. Social media aggregates everything that is wrong with the galaxy. With so much disaster at our fingertips, with so much that is hideous, loathesome, sickening and offensive, we find we can’t look away. We all love a good pile up; we compile car crash videos.

Doomscrolling drives up anxiety, we’re told. Let me simplify. Scrolling drives up anxiety. Social media drives up anxiety. News drives up anxiety. The big problem is that most of us carry around a little device in our pockets that keeps all of that anxiety right within our reach. Wait, turn that around. We put ourselves right within reach of all that anxiety. We let it grab us, usually with red little circles with numbers in them, though even if we’re not looking at our phones, we feel them calling out to us, telling us to unlock our screens, and check to see, to stay current, to scroll and scroll and endlessly scroll, world without end.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro offers a few gentle guidelines for slowing your doomscroll. She says we can: 1) set a timer, 2) stay cognizant, and 3) swap vicious for virtuous cycles.

Ten minutes a day is enough doom for anyone. Don’t you think?

When you’re scrolling your feed, remain focused on why you opened the doom portal in the first place. Don’t fall down a doomhole or chase a doom trail.

Share a photo of a beautiful sunset, not a doomrise. OK, doomer.

Or, better yet, delete all social media, or at least buffer your updates. Ditch your feed. Reach out to friends directly. Call people on the phone. Have conversations. Don’t carry your phone everywhere. Turn off notifications. Change your home screen to grayscale.

Does the prospect of abandoning social media terrify you, fill you with dread, evoke a sense of inevitable and impending doom?

Doom to the left of you, doom to the right. Here I am, stuck in the middle with doom.

iPhone Addiction

Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi on Pexels.com

I’d rather be addicted to this than addicted to a phone. But sadly I’m showing the signs.

What are the symptoms of phone addiction? Read:

  • Using your cell phone for longer than initially intended
  • Spending a great deal of time using and recovering from excess cell phone use
  • Inability to cut down or control cell phone use despite trying to do so
  • Urges or “cravings” to be on your cell phone
  • Using your cell phone in situations that make it physically hazardous, such as texting while driving
  • Continued cell phone use despite adverse physical or psychological consequences of use
  • Withdrawal symptoms when not using your cell phones, such as restlessness, anxiety, and anger
  • Feelings of panic or anxiety about losing your cell phone
  • Feelings of irritability, anxiety, stress, and other mood changes when unable to respond to or receive messages
  • Checking your cell phone obsessively for emails, calls, and texts
  • Using your cell phone in inappropriate places like church or the restroom
  • Missing out on social opportunities and face-to-face interactions so you can use your cell phone
  • Loss of interest in favorite or long-held hobbies and activities
  • Frequent and constant checking of a phone within very brief periods of time
  • Using your cell phone frequently to achieve satisfaction and relaxation, or to counteract negative moods
  • Thinking you may have heard your cell phone ring or felt it vibrate when it hasn’t

I carry my phone everywhere, check it too often, use it to cope with boredom, and fall down too many rabbit holes. It’s my camera, my radio, my encyclopedia, my news source, and my direct line to friends (and strangers).

Here’s a few fun stats:

– The typical cell phone user touches his or her phone 2,617 times every day. 2,617 times!

– Most people, on average, spend 3 hours and 15 minutes on their phones each day.

– Half of all phone pickups happen within 3 minutes of a previous one.

Joshua Becker, Seven Proven Ways to Break Your Cell Phone Addiction

I was reading John Mark Comer’s book The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry and he mentioned in passing that setting your phone to grayscale could help you break the addictive habit of checking it impulsively, so I’ve given it a run. This Wired article tells you how to do it.

I also deleted Instagram from my phone after installing it shortly after the start of the pandemic, and I’ve kept to my rule of having no more than one screen with which to interact (no swiping). My main application use is for listening to podcasts, tracking nutrition, staying disciplined with fasting, and for phone and text. I haven’t had an email app on my phone in years. I keep notifications off. That decision made me a happier person. Most of the time my phone is in “do not disturb” mode.

So much of life is being present, aware, and focused. Cell phones are energy-takers. Social media applications are designed to consume more and more of your time. And most of what I can do on a phone I can do on my browser, at a computer, when I sit down to work.

Thus far, the change is working. But I still have more paring down to do. The goal is a simpler life. Less stress. More room for the expansiveness of thought, creativity, and soul.

Online Theological Education

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Not everyone is called to seminary or divinity school. In fact, I’ve long contended that the local church is the center of theological education. Everyone can get serious there. I think you can learn more about ministers from the churches they’ve been part of than you can from their educational pedigree.

Nonetheless, institutions are important, and it does make a difference if someone has been trained at a reputable school. Two or three years of intensive theological study helps, and it is true that local churches can be limited in terms of depth, scope, and concentration of study made available. You can learn a great deal in the local church, but it helps when other avenues for learning are available.

Throughout the years I’ve come to know many people who have been well trained in their local church and are excellent leaders. You may be one of those friends, someone whom I consider a saint, a co-laborer in the good work of God’s kingdom. You might not be, too. This website is free and open to the public! You might be someone who found this post with a Google search. Glad to connect! But there’s another possibility (please read the following while imagining me with a wink and a smile): we may only be acquaintances, or someone I’ve been praying for for a long time.

What I’ve learned through experience is that there are those I know who could benefit from further training. We could do a lot in the church, but we couldn’t do it all. With the help of a designated course of study, these leaders would be helped to grow in biblical and theological knowledge, gain some outside perspective, learn pastoral ministry skills, and be better equipped to serve in their local contexts. More education would complement and strengthen what has been and is being received in the local church, and thus, by helping the individual grow, the local church would become stronger.

One of the cool things I learned after joining the staff of Truett Seminary is that we provide a form of online theological education. Truett’s Online Certificate Program is for bi-vocational ministers, congregants who serve as lay-ministers, deacons, Sunday school teachers, youth ministers, children’s ministers, and other ministry volunteers. The online courses are complemented with a few opportunities each year to receive in-person instruction during short on-campus seminars. David Tate directs the program. He’s great. And they have great staff who help to teach and facilitate these courses.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “That’s me!”, what are you waiting for? Check it out!

Another online option I’m familiar with is the Tony Evans Training Center. I have done curriculum development work for Urban Alternative, and while the TETC isn’t a seminary institution, it does provide opportunities for learning, growth, and online community, with a strong emphasis on the study of Scripture.

Other institutions offer online instruction as well, but these are the ones I know. If you are interested in broadening your biblical and theological knowledge, make a choice and pick your resources, dedicate yourself to the task, and get to work. By God’s grace, the church is strengthened when her servants are in pursuit of a deep, passionate, thoughtful, and active faith. Take the next step.

Online Church: It’s the Relationships

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Photo by bongkarn thanyakij on Pexels.com

This then is the one thing everyone needs to know about online church: It’s not the technology. It’s the relationships.

[ . . . ]

Today, we tend to think of a building as church. Likewise, people tend to think the online platform is church but neither of these are church. Church is a localized assembly of the people of God, dwelling, with a task.

I was so concerned about this that I listed all of the ways people would confuse technology with online church (i.e., the building for the body). [In SimChurch] I wrote:

It is critical that we do not confuse an online church with, say, a website of a real-world church. An online church is not a website (building or place), a podcast (ritualized institution), or a blog (fellowship or activity). An online church is a place where people professing to have faith in Jesus Christ gather regularly to be in meaningful community appointed to build up the kingdom—or more specifically, an online church is the confessing people gathering in a synthetic world.

When my pastor called to speak to me about online church, this was the advice I offered: Don’t worry about the technology right now (yes, it has to work, and be decent, but most people will understand if it’s not perfect), focus on building connections between people. Focus on making sure people can respond to worship, and respond to each other.

– Douglas Estes, writing for The Center for Pastor Theologians, “The One Things that Makes or Breaks Online Church

The reason that I think my online Sunday school and online teaching experiences have been moderately successful thus far is due to the relationships that were already established prior to the outbreak. The creative challenge before church leaders, I think, is to consider how online technology can deepen existing connections while, secondarily, opening avenues for connection with those who are a new to a particular, localized expression of the body of Christ.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

But if there is a silver lining in this crisis, it may be that the virus is forcing us to use the internet as it was always meant to be used — to connect with one another, share information and resources, and come up with collective solutions to urgent problems. It’s the healthy, humane version of digital culture we usually see only in schmaltzy TV commercials, where everyone is constantly using a smartphone to visit far-flung grandparents and read bedtime stories to kids.

Already, social media seems to have improved, with more reliable information than might have been expected from a global pandemic. And while the ways we’re substituting for in-person interaction aren’t perfect — over the next few months in America, there may be no phrase uttered more than “Can someone mute?” — we are seeing an explosion of creativity as people try to use technology as a bridge across physical distances.

– Kevin Roose in The New York Times, “The Coronavirus is Showing Us How to Live Online

Roose’s claim that “the virus is forcing us to use the internet as it was always meant to be used” assumes that the internet’s reason for being at its genesis was to foster connection, sharing, and problem solving. Then, the trolls moved in and divided us, unleashing chaos and infecting all of us, turning the web into an accelerant for hatred and strife. Now, a crisis is moving us back toward paradise. The internet has now been restored, and is being redeemed–for the moment.

Creation, fall, and restoration, precipitated by a crisis. There’s a mythic structure to this story.

But that misunderstands the nature of the internet, or of any broadcasting tool, which is more of an amplifier and signal booster. Tools like the web show us what was already there. During periods of crisis, we fixate on expressions of creativity and compassion. We look for light in the darkness. During periods of stability and comfort, we fixate on the problems and we increase in our despair. We notice the darkness rather than the light.

This shouldn’t be surprising to Christians that a crisis would precipitate a shift in the online mood. We claim, after all, that human beings are created in the image of God, and though fallen, God’s grace still is active even in those who may be alienated or cut off from fellowship. The clues we experience–our longing for connection, our desire to care, our compassion for those that are hurting–are resonances that point us to the divine, to God. When the normal means of pursuing those longings are removed, we seek other avenues to meet them.

We’re marveling at how this global pandemic is causing people to connect, care, and solve problems. But perhaps we should reflect as to why, apart from such a crisis, things get so nasty. The crisis draws our attention to the light. But in times of stability, perhaps we should be more focused on casting out darkness.

Is a Livestream a Worship Service?

As we walk through this season of church under quarantine, I think our approach should be much the same as John’s as we instruct our congregations. We ought to pursue continued communication and teaching using the technology available to us. I thank the Lord that we have been able to gather to watch sermons on Sunday morning. Our family has benefited from short updates from our pastors on Instagram and Facebook. I’ve appreciated the chance to FaceTime with students at our seminary. But we all recognize that these interactions are limited.

We can see each other, but we can’t be with each other. There is a big difference, and we feel it every time we log on. I’ve also noticed that many pastors are preaching shorter sermons and sending out short updates. This is because we recognize that a lecture on a screen is, quite frankly, not the best medium for teaching and preaching complex theology or calling people to deep reflection on the gospel. Since we are not gathering as the people of God communing with each other and the risen Christ, I don’t think we should call our Sunday livestreams a “worship service.” We can use a livestream to call our people to worship and to teach from God’s Word, but we have to be honest enough to say that the television in our living room is designed for amusement, not for deep musing on the things of God, let alone a replacement of the means of grace that God has given to his gathered people.

– Chris Bruno writing for The Center for Pastor Theologians, “Real Presence and Social Distancing

Bruno’s underlying point is the correct one: what we’re experiencing now under quarantine is not the ideal means of gathering together as the people of God. The television, the tablet, the screen is a layer of mediation we are better without. But for the present moment, it is the best medium we have.

Contrary to Bruno, I think it is permissible to name what we are doing via livestream or prerecorded webcast a “worship service,” for it is an avenue by which we can be invited to worship God. But it differs from “church” in the sense that the people called church are literally “the called out ones,” the assembly, the gathered fellowship of the saints. Yes, the church is bound together invisibly as a spiritual reality. The church is universal, dispersed across time and space and geography. But it is also expressed locally and personally, physically and tangibly, when bodies come together, joining in one voice, to lift up praises to God and give thanks for the manifold gifts we have received through the gospel.

Some of my earliest forays into writing about church leadership and ministry was to argue against online “church” for the very reasons Bruno cites. I was thinking about this stuff ten years ago. I was a strong proponent of presence as witness, congregation as demonstration, and baptism and the Lord’s supper as vital events for the people of God and in time, acts of testimony, formation, and narration that remind, renew, and root us in the good news that Christ has come, died, redeemed, risen, and now reigns as we await for that day he will return.

In moments like the one we’re in, let’s see online vehicles for gathering and connection as temporary measures that can sustain us until such a time we can once again gather face to face. Let’s develop a deeper appreciation for human connection, for flesh and blood realities, for encountering the other.

Via digital interface, we only see one another in part. When gathered, we see one another face to face, body to body. Via the internet, we know only in part, but when gathered, we are more fully known, until that day comes in which we shall know fully, even as we are fully known (1 Cor. 13:12). The web helps us to remain connected. When we reconnect, present and in the flesh, let us then rejoice.

Postman’s Advice on Living

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Neil Postman is one of my favorite thinkers, changing much about the way I think about media and modern society, with varied applications to the church, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death. His “Advice for Living the Rest of Your Life,” a lecture delivered by Postman, is something I stumbled upon via Austin Kleon (his books!).

The complete lecture can be found here (delivered initially in 1989, and again with revisions in 1993). Kleon cited his favorite bits. I went back to the full manuscript, and decided to quote Postman’s list in its entirety. If you want Postman’s commentary, you’ll have to go to his text.

  1. Do not go to live in California.
  2. Do not watch TV news shows or read any tabloid newspapers.
  3. Do not read any books by people who think of themselves as “futurists,”such as Alvin Toffler.
  4. Do not become a jogger. If you are one, stop immediately.
  5. If you are married, stay married.
  6. If you are a man, get married as soon as possible. If you are a woman,you need not be in a hurry.
  7. Establish as many regular routines as possible.
  8. Avoid multiple and simultaneous changes in your personal life.
  9. Remember: It is more likely than not that as you get older you will get dumber.
  10. Keep your opinions to a minimum.
  11. Carefully limit the information input you will allow.
  12. Seek significance in your work, friends, and family, where potency and output are still possible.
  13. Read’s Law: Do not trust any group larger than a squad, that is, about a dozen.
  14. With exceptions to be noted further ahead, avoid whenever possible reading anything written after 1900.
  15. Confine yourself, wherever possible, to music written prior to 1850.
  16. Weingartner’s Law: 95% of everything is nonsense.
  17. Truman’s Law: Under no circumstances ever vote for a Republican.
  18. Take religion more seriously than you have.
  19. Divest yourself of your belief in the magical powers of numbers.
  20. Once a year, read a book by authors like George Orwell, E.B. White, or Bertrand Russell.

I plan to heed numbers 1, 2, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 18, and 19. Number 6 does not apply. I’ll consider numbers 3, 13, 16, and 20. I have no intention of applying 4, 14, 15, 17, and 20.

Satan’s Work

You see, I believe the Internet is the work of Satan.

– Kinky Friedman, Texas Hold’em: How I Was Born in a Manger, Died in the Saddle, and Came Back as a Horny Toad, 115

Kinky published these words, in this book, in 2005. He added, “If you require information on a certain subject, go to one of those places, I forget what you call them, with a lot of books inside and two lions out front. Pick a title, sit on the steps, and read between the lions.”

Sound backwards? Kinky knew you’d think so. “This may seem a little like a rather Neanderthal method of education, but at least you won’t be tempted to pretend to be someone you’re not and you won’t get carpal tunnel syndrome. In fact, the only things you’re liable to get are a little bit of knowledge and some pigeon droppings on your coat–which most people will tell you, and most computers won’t–means good luck.”

Twitter was founded on March 21, 2006.

Kinky also argued that “computers contribute to the homogenization of everyone’s brain. The technological revolution is not bringing us closer together–it’s merely making us more the same.”

That was prescient.

And I fully embrace the ironic fact that I’m relaying these thoughts via a computer, on the internet.