Some people tell researchers they feel more connected to others by using social media.
Others say the online space makes them feel anxious, depressed and isolated from others.
The difference in these online experiences, theologian Angela Gorrell said, is determined by how Facebook, Instagram and other social media outlets are used.
And the implications are significant for people of faith, said Gorrell, assistant professor of practical theology at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary.
“What we share in status updates and how we talk to other people – what we rejoice over and what we lament – says something about what we believe about God,” she said.
In addition to her divinity school teaching, Gorrell leads workshops and retreats on topics including how to infuse social and other media spaces with Christian values and vision.
She also is the author of the 2019 book Always On: Practicing Faith in a New Media Landscape.
Gorrell said her and others’ research, and her own experience, shows that people shouldn’t worry as much about how much time they spend on social media, but how they spend that time.
Actively engaging with others in positive and encouraging ways builds rapport and even intimacy with those encountered online, she said. Feelings of gratitude and empathy often result from that approach.
But spending that time consuming large quantities of content while passively scrolling other people’s posts – basically being a digital voyeur – can lead to depression and feelings of jealousy.
“The difference is how we spend our time online,” Gorrell said.
That experience is borne out by some ministers known in part for their social media presences.
An instinct to connect
Rob Lee said social media can positively impact evangelism and personal relationships when posts are authentic and transparent.
“The most courageous thing you can do on social media is be yourself,” said Lee, the senior pastor at Unifour Church in Newton, North Carolina.
“There’s a certain relevancy to social media because the base human instinct is to connect,” he said.
Lee’s primary social media outlet is Twitter, where he has close to 34,000 followers. His openness about his own mental health struggles and support for social causes has landed him with appearances on MTV and on the television show The View.
Lee, who is a descendant of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and the author of two books, including one about racism and Southern heritage, said much of his Twitter activity revolves around helping others.
“I try to lift up voices that are marginalized,” he said. “It’s important that it not always be about me and my thoughts.”
When it is about him, Lee said, he thinks carefully before tweeting.
“I ask myself, what is the good in this? A lot of times I’ll just erase it because it was just going to be me pontificating.”
Lee said he agrees the time spent on social media isn’t the important factor.
“One of the problems that I struggle with is not being on Twitter all the time, but Twitter being on my mind all the time,” he said.
But he keeps at it because there are often tangible benefits to being on social media – including a handful of people joining his church after encountering the minister on Twitter.
“Evangelism is a possibility with this tool,” he said.
‘Why we are here’
Courtney Willis said she has seen similar benefits from her steady use of Instagram.
“I am very intentional in my social media usage to be vulnerable, to be honest and to be clear about who I am,” said Willis, associate pastor for faith formation and congregational care at First Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Willis said she is also transparent about why she’s using social media. Her motivations are pastoral, to share her faith and to help members of her church and community get to know her.
“I am not typically using Instagram to say hey I had this delicious dinner tonight,” she said. “While there are some of those for fun, what I am mostly doing is communicating something that can help someone or telling people about me.”
And that’s important because it builds trust in online relationships just as it does in-person.
“Being in relationships is why we are here,” she said. “And as our lives become more distant from one another, social media is a way we can stay in relationship and connect with others.”
Gorrell said that online interactions and relationships are authentic, despite the belief of many that virtual is somehow unreal.
It’s why she urges Christians to take the medium seriously as a tool not only for evangelism, but also to address the loneliness and depression so many people feel on- and offline.
“A lot of my work is helping people understand that what we do online is real and a reflection of who we are and what we think and the faith we are practicing,” she said.
Gorrell added that her own research shows that most churches, across denominations, have not reflected on these issues.
But it is important that they do so because “media is definitely related to what it means to be a Christian.”