We’ve been warned that social media can distract us, shorten our attention spans, disconnect us from real-life relationships. Now a new study suggests that Facebook might also be making us miserable. I suspect there’s something to this, and it’s not just about Facebook. It’s about our churches.
Slate magazine cites a paper in a social psychology journal that started with an observation about how college students felt more dejected after logging on to Facebook. There was something saddening about “scrolling through others’ attractive photos, accomplished bios, and chipper status updates.” The students’ moods were darkened because they believed everyone else was happier than they are.
Journalist Libby Copeland speculates that Facebook might “have a special power to make us sadder and lonelier.” How can this be, though, when Facebook is generally so, well, happy, brimming with smiling faces and beautiful families? Well, that’s just the point.
“By showcasing the most witty, joyful, bullet-pointed versions of people’s lives, and inviting constant comparisons in which we tend to see ourselves as the losers, Facebook appears to exploit an Achilles’ heel of human nature,” Copeland writes. “And women-an especially unhappy bunch of late-may be especially vulnerable to keeping up with what they imagine is the happiness of the Joneses.”
Yes, Copeland writes, Facebook can chronicle cute kids, and warm moments, but that is never the whole, or even most, of the story of anyone’s life. “Tearful falls and tantrums are rarely recorded, nor are the stretches of sheer mind-blowing,” she writes.
Now, in one sense, I want to say, who really cares about Facebook. If you are that absorbed in comparing yourselves to others in this way, shut the computer screen and detox from the blue glow. But, it seems to me, the very same phenomenon is present in the pews of our Christian churches.
Our most “successful” pastors and church leaders know how to smile broadly. Some of them are blow-dried and cuff-linked; some of them are grunged up and scruffy. But they are here to get us “excited” about “what God is doing in our church.”
Our worship songs are typically celebrative, in both lyrical content and musical expression. In the last generation, a mournful song about crucifixion was pepped up with a jingly-sounding chorus, “It was there by faith I received my sight, and now I am happy all the day!”
This isn’t just a Greatest Generation revivalist problem either. Even those ubiquitous contemporary worship songs that come straight out of the Psalms tend to focus on psalms of ascent or psalms of joyful exuberance, not psalms of lament (and certainly not imprecatory psalms!).
We can easily sing with the prophet Jeremiah, “great is thy faithfulness” (Lam. 3:23). But who can imagine singing, in church, with Jeremiah: “You have wrapped yourself with a cloud so that no prayer can pass through. You have made us scum and garbage among all the peoples” (Lam. 3:43-45).
This sense of forced cheeriness is seen in the ad hoc “liturgy” of most evangelical churches in the greeting and the dismissal. As the service begins a grinning pastor or worship leader chirps, “It’s great to see you today!” or “We’re glad you’re here!” As the service closes the same toothy visage says, “See you next Sunday! Have a great week!”
Of course we do. What else could we do? We’re joyful in the Lord, aren’t we? We want to encourage people, don’t we? And yet, what we’re trying to do isn’t working, even on the terms we’ve set for ourselves. I suspect many people in our pews look around them and think the others have the kind of happiness we keep promising, and wonder why it’s passed them by.
By not speaking, where the Bible speaks, to the full range of human emotion-including loneliness, guilt, desolation, anger, fear, desperation-we only leave our people there, wondering why they just can’t be “Christian” enough to smile through it all.
The gospel speaks a different word though. Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). In the kingdom, we receive comfort in a very different way than we’re taught to in American culture. We receive comfort not by, on the one hand, whining in our sense of entitlement or, on the other hand, pretending as though we’re happy. We are comforted when we see our sin, our brokenness, our desperate circumstances, and we grieve, we weep, we cry out for deliverance.
That’s why James, the brother of our Lord, seems so out of step with the contemporary evangelical ethos. “Be wretched and mourn and weep,” he writes. “Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom” (Jas. 4:9). What would happen to a church leader who ended his service by saying to his people, “Have a wretched day!” or “I hope you all cry your eyes out this week!” It would sound crazy. Jesus always does sound crazy to us, at first (Jn. 7:15, 20).
Nobody is as happy as he seems on Facebook. And no one is as “spiritual” as he seems in what we deem as “spiritual” enough for Christian worship. Maybe what we need in our churches is more tears, more failure, more confession of sin, more prayers of desperation that are too deep for words.
Maybe then the lonely and the guilty and the desperate among us will see that the gospel has come not for the happy, but for the brokenhearted; not for the well, but for the sick; not for the found, but for the lost.
So don’t worry about those shiny, happy people on Facebook. They need comfort, and deliverance, as much as you do. And, more importantly, let’s stop being those shiny, happy people when we gather in worship. Let’s not be embarrassed to shout for joy, and let’s not be embarrassed to weep in sorrow. Let’s train ourselves not for spin control, but for prayer, for repentance, for joy.
Have a wretched day (and a blessed one too).
Dr. Russell D. Moore is the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.