Tag Archive for social media

Church Visibility or Church Publicity?

Church leaders find themselves today harangued and prodded to build an “online presence”. This usually means a busy Facebook page, a Youtube channel, a Twitter account, a static website, live-streamed services and more. Without these, we’re told, a church is mostly “invisible” to the world, and is “failing to reach its community”. It is even called a neglect of evangelism, a failure to connect, or hiding one’s light under a bushel.

In urban settings, it is true that the Internet has become the primary source of information. Gone are the days of the phone book, the classified sections in the print newspapers, the community noticeboards and the leaflets for the mailboxes. These still exist, but people looking for services, restaurants, directions, and, yes, churches, are likely to Google before they look to some other source. Therefore, I have no quarrel with those encouraging churches to use these means. Indeed, my church uses some of them, and will likely use more of them in the future.

I do have a deep concern that many who are pushing for “more online presence” have lost all sense of distinction between very different things: visibility and publicity.

Visibility is allowing those who are looking, and even those who may not be, to come across your church. In years past, this was everything from your church sign, to its steeple, to the bells on Sunday morning, to an ad placed in the community newspaper. Now, in addition to these, a church does well to enable those looking for churches through the window of a computer or cellphone screen to be able to find you. Visibility is simply gaining enough presence on the web for a “seeker” to come across your church as an option.

Publicity is a very different animal. Publicity is the work of marketers, advertisers, promoters, publicists, and those masters of hype and spin. Publicity is the creation of an image, a “brand”, to produce an impression of success, popularity, and customer satisfaction. When a church pursues publicity, it paints an idealised image of itself for its target-market. The church is a “relaxed atmosphere”, where all should “come as they are” and enjoy a warm welcome and a cup of coffee. Child-care is available, and plenty of parking, too. A nice “what to expect” page briefs the customer as to how to place this church on the spectrum of churches, so he can try before he buys. Photos of happy people abound, as well as pictures of the worship band, to assure you that there won’t be an organ.

Publicity works hand-in-hand with celebrity. The simple, but carnal, appeal to mass approval is supposed to confer importance upon the church. If the church’s social media has thousands of “likes”, followers or subscribers, if the pastor has his own radio or TV show or podcast (who doesn’t, these days?), if he has books published (preferably with his smiling face on the cover), if he is a sought-after conference speaker, then this must be hyped. The pastor becomes a brand, and if he has some particular spin or take on the Christian life, all the better. He can be marketed as the wild-at-heart preacher, or the ragamuffin Gospel preacher, or the Christian hedonist preacher, or the God-is-indescribable preacher, or the biblical-counselling man, or the current-affairs-and-prophecy man or you-fill-in-the-blank preacher. If you want celebrity, you can’t simply expound the Word each week: you need some unique schtick to distance you from the pack, and create hype around your personality.

Some Christians are so embedded in the celebrityism and exhibitionism of the web that they cannot see that these are hostile to the gospel. Publicity is the work of those wanting to sell something. It is a commercial animal, and it lives on the showmanship, competitiveness and shameless self-promotion of those hawking their products and selling their stuff. To treat your church, the gospel, or any man’s ministry in this fashion falls under the clear condemnation of Scripture:

“For we are not, as so many, peddling the word of God; but as of sincerity, but as from God, we speak in the sight of God in Christ.” (2 Cor. 2:17)

“But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” (2 Cor. 4:2)

Publicity does not simply create visibility for your church or ministry. It reduces Christianity to the level of every other product and service competing for customers. It speaks the language of consumers, and those Christians using it should not be surprised when those arriving in church have the attitude that the customer is king. It trivialises holy things by portraying the church as just one more accoutrement to the narcissistic secular man’s life. It seems to believe the opposite of what Jesus taught: “Woe to you when all men speak well of you” (Lk. 6:26), “wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it…narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matt. 7:13-14). It inverts these values and prizes what the Internet has trained us to prize: as many five-star ratings as possible, as many happy customer reviews as possible, and the endorsement of an “Influencer” with thousands of followers. It trains us to be exhibitionist instead of modest about our achievements, to praise ourselves instead of deflecting attention, and to hunger for online approval instead of seeking real-life faithfulness.

Yes, churches, seek visibility. People should know your church is there. But once you’re visible, that’s enough. Remember: He must increase, and we must decrease.

Sincerely Amused

It’s a supreme irony, or perhaps a sad blindness, that the present generation is supposedly in love with ‘authenticity’, ‘sincerity’, and ‘keeping it real’. After all, we’ve been doing everything but that for nearly a century. As Neil Postman pointed out in Amusing Ourselves to Death, we took a medium designed for amusing spectacle – theatre – and used technology to turn it into the dominant medium of our time. First film, then television, and now the web, have transformed the most serious moments of life into forms of amusement to be watched by a popcorn-eating crowd. Politics has gone from thoughtful debate watched by patient and intelligent crowds, into a cage-fight, with commentators, bookies, and sound-bytes made for TV and the web. The Courts have become reality-TV sideshows for us to laugh at the sassy judge’s replies. Warfare has become a televised sportsmatch, with blow-by-blow commentators and action replays. Counselling has become a bizarre exercise in voyeuristic curiosity, as we hear strangers’ problems, and watch the psychologist untangle other people’s messed-up lives. Education has become films of amusing characters, fun computer games, and amusing activities that suit each one’s “learning style”.

The most serious, or sincere part of our TV experience is supposed to be ‘the News’, where men and women in suits and corporate-wear speak in sober monotones to “give us the facts”. Stories of human suffering, terror and tragedy are literally sold to us as a thirty-minute product paid for by advertisers, and consequently filled with stories that scare, enrage, or excite – the kind that garner viewers or listeners. No one notices the weird incongruity when we go from hearing about chemical warfare in Syria to fun commercials advertising cosmetics, diapers, cars and insurance. (Imagine King Nebuchadnezzar in his throne room receiving word of enemies coming from the west, and every few moments, a court jester running in singing, showing off something from Babylon’s market.) With the recent political shenanigans and the hysterical ‘news media’ that accompanied it, some of the makeup is beginning to drip off this pig. People are beginning to realise that ‘the News’ was always a sideshow masquerading as serious conversation, flattering our view of ourselves as thoughtful people, where in reality we were drawn in by the amusement of alarmism, and sold to advertisers. Nothing really sincere or authentic about all this.

It was inevitable, I suppose, that we should land up with Reality TV. When serious information is just one more show, we start pining for something without actors. Supposedly setting up a camera in a home, or on an island, or in a car, will make the ‘story’ more interesting, more ‘real’. Actually, it’s a sign of the law of diminishing returns. Once those shows that only mimic life no longer scratch the itch, we want life itself to be the show. Note, the move to reality television is not people wanting reality; this is people wanting reality-as-entertainment.

With the ubiquity of screens, cameras and social media, we’re all now in a reality show. So we have reached the place where people film themselves in a place or performing some activity, and only really enjoy the moment when it’s played back on a screen to them, or placed online. It’s as if the screen has become a priest, a mediator. We can no longer get at life through our five senses, we must film ourselves and then live vicariously through the act of watching ourselves again. Spectacle has become our perception of reality, and we even need to be spectators of our own actions. We cannot even enjoy the simple and the mundane on our own, we must publicise it for the entertainment of others on some social media platform, and only when they comment or ‘like’ or smiley-face it, do we feel validated. We have to entertain others or be entertained to even feel that such moments were real. Entertainment is no longer what people do when not engaged in work, it has become their means of perception, their source of identity, their very experience of reality.

So what should we make of all these cries for ‘authenticity’, ‘sincerity’, and ‘reality’? On the one hand, they are clearly preposterous. People gorging themselves on junk food are not yet serious when they talk about health, and people immersed in amusement are not yet serious when they talk about the real world. On the other hand, there is in them probably a true longing for something other than life-as-amusement, being ignorant of what it might be. When people are feeling bored with life, worn out by images, de-sensitised to shock-value, they aren’t sure if they need another shot of entertainment, or an emetic.

I’ve heard it said that millennials are particularly relational because of their social-media savvy. That, in turn, makes them more ‘authentic’ in relationships. If that means they actually spend time with people, put their phones away, stop instagramming and snapchatting every moment, look up from their screens and have meaningful conversations with the other person two metres away from them, then I’d agree. If not, then they are the natural descendants and logical consequence of a twentieth-century generation that made amusement its goal in life, only now its kids get to carry that once-bulky TV in their pocket, and watch it at every available moment. When I was a kid, we at least had the social experience of fighting over the remote. If self-absorption behind a TV has been succeeded by self-absorption while lost in social-media, not much has improved. In fact, the illusion of relationships taking place through these screens has only made the alienation from others more severe.

In truth, behind the lust for the amusement of spectacle is a profound selfishness, and even a narcissism. When seeking amusement, I do not seek to give, to share, to bless, or to grow. I seek only the merest titillation of myself. When this is the dominant form of cultural life, you are dealing with the most loveless generation to see the sun.

We can never become serious about ‘being authentic’ until we are willing to abandon entertainment as our mode of worship, communication, or education. Until we see that the spectacles we use to view the world have become screens, we will no longer notice the ubiquity of them. (I once went into a sports-themed restaurant, and counted around twenty screens from where I was sitting – I was told there were more. And the patrons still had their own screens on their tables in their phones and tablets. At what point do we call this a kind of madness, or sickness?)

If we really desire to “do life”, to “be authentic”, to “keep it real”, it begins by repenting of slavery to the god of entertainment, confessing that we have looked to it for life. We should repent that we have wished that worship, marriage, parenting, work, and obedience could be mediated to us through the mode of passive amusement. To put it another way, we should repent that we have kept ourselves at the centre of our lives, and loved our own amusement more than God or neighbour. The confession of evil works is the beginning of good works, and being real begins with turning away from the narcissistic insincerity of entertainment as the mainstay of our lives.