The messages started popping up on my Facebook feed at about the time I should have been heading to bed:
“First miner is out in Chile! Thank you God!”
“Second miner has reached the surface. Praise God!”
“The miners are coming out one by one. Pray that they’re all okay.”
“Our prayers have been answered, the miners in Chile are going home!”
Until that moment, I hadn’t realized how closely our students had been watching the tragic situation in Chile, where 33 miners had been trapped underground for 70 days.
Intrigued by these messages, I looked at my Twitter feed and saw the same thing. Rejoicing students were sharing their joy over the rescue of a group of men they had been praying for but would probably never meet.
And who says that college students don’t care about world events?
Social media has revolutionized nearly every field and campus ministry is no exception.
Perhaps more than ever before, campus pastors are able to connect with the students they serve, and to respond to their needs and concerns.
Facebook and Twitter allow me to keep track of the pulse of the campus community. When students are struggling with homesickness, midterms or world events, I can easily keep track of what they’re feeling just by logging on to my computer.
Practically speaking, the experience of the Chilean miners changed the way we approached our Wednesday evening worship service.
A colleague of mine gave voice to the students’ concerns during our prayer time and several students shared their own prayers for those affected by the tragedy. (We usually say a few words at this service that tie into the evening’s message before we gather together at the table.)
That night, I connected the images of the joyful throngs who greeted the men as they surfaced with exhilaration. We imagined God rejoicing like the cheering crowd in Chile as we came to the table, surfacing from schoolwork to be hosted at this meal by Jesus.
There are so many ways that social media enhances ministry on a college campus, but it also creates challenges.
Although students are probably more connected to others than ever before, in some ways they are lonelier than ever before. That’s because virtual interactions cannot take the place of face-to-face relationships.
Ironically, social media can both create and undermine community, because in the virtual world, it’s easy to ignore those things that make us uncomfortable about interacting with others, but also give our relationships texture and meaningfulness.
Sites like Facebook enshrine our individual tastes and preferences, constantly tailoring our experiences according to what we like and dislike. The result is a sanitized version of life in which we only interact with like-minded people while ignoring or blocking those with whom we disagree.
And when our relationships are primarily based on personal preferences, they can easily become shallow, less challenging and, consequently, less meaningful.
In true communities we are stuck with each other, for better or worse. Think about that for a moment. Where would we be if God related to us in this way? If Jesus had interacted only with those he “liked,” and ignored all the rest? Would he have spent time with us?
But that isn’t how God operates. Through the incarnation of Christ, God committed to us and to our world in a costly manner. God had plenty of “skin in the game,” so to speak. And this is more than we can say for relationships that are strictly virtual.
Online relationships will never fully replace real face-to-face interaction.
Such relationships also affect the way we treat others. Social media has the potential to dehumanize others to the point where our interactions with them become merely products that we consume.
It’s too easy to forget that those with whom we interact online are made in the image of God. If you have ever read the comments at the end of an online CNN article, you know what I mean.
People (or in the online vernacular, “trolls”) will say things about others that they would never say if they had to look the person in the eye.
So I hope that social media enhances your face-to-face relationships with others but, keep in mind, it can’t replace them. We should take our cue from God, who broke into our world in flesh and blood to begin a relationship with us that is more meaningful than anything we can experience online.
It is there, in the mystery of the incarnation, that God models for us what real relationships look like — costly, dangerous and wonderful.