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An emoji is not enough

social media, apps, facebook

The news in the past several months has been troubling, especially for those in the evangelical world. From the heartbreaking sudden death of a Christian leader, to polarizing feelings expressed over the refugee crisis at the southern border, to big-platform Christian leaders leaving the faith, these are some of the stories creating conversations for those of faith. These events have elicited sadness, tragic loss, shock, confusion, and anger.

Yet as we scan and skim the headlines or the character-limited summaries online, we are left feeling that some essential piece to the existential puzzle is missing. Simply expressing our reaction to the news with an emoji seems uncomfortable and incomplete. One of the primary reasons for this is the platform on which the news is being circulated.

To be clear, there are positive aspects of communicating through social media, including efficiency and the ability to broadcast a message across oceans along with the sheer breadth of people. Social media has done a lot of good for many.

Yet, we must have an honest conversation to discuss the pitfalls of communicating over these platforms.

Grief, conflict with fellow human beings, and the nature of faith are all issues that are both profoundly human and incredibly complex. Both, the mind and emotions are involved. Yet, when the complexity is reduced to soundbites or a few paragraphs, we cannot help but feel a sense of emptiness. This is because the very nature of this news was not meant to be worked out and wrestled with on a screen. Embodied experiences were meant to be worked out in embodied ways. But in the short time since the dawn of smartphones and social media, we have slowly become okay with explaining embodied experiences through disembodied one-dimensional ways; we’ve become all-too comfortable with doing human things in very non-human ways.

There is a cost to the fragmented ways in which we communicate with each other. The unpaid bills of misdirected emotions and careless correspondence will have to be cashed out at some point. In this case, merely a cursory view of the endgame shows us having incredibly shallow expectations of civility and even lower expectations of what it looks like to live out real friendship and community. The cost carries the potential to impact us at a human, relational, and societal level. We need to communicate in a manner that enrichens our humanness, not cheapens it.

The way in which we express ourselves in relationships—the joys, struggles, and mundane—must be done in a way that reflect the richness of those relationships. When we communicate emotional truths about ourselves merely through the screen we not only diminish the richness of our personhood; the very nature of our relationships become cheapened in the process too.

If we want to live in more human ways, we need to cultivate practices that reflect our humanity. The question then becomes, how do we do that?

Here are my four tips for taking steps in that direction.

  1. We need to be aware of what technology cannot do. Technology is not bad. The issue, as MIT professor Sherry Turkle has pointed out, is that technology has the power to change our way of being in the world. When it comes to relationships and expressing ourselves in relationships, we should not eliminate technology, but rather become aware of what it can do and what it cannot do.
  2. We need to reclaim human engagement. The engines of social media and digital technology are limited when it comes to expressing issues that are emotional in nature. In our friendships, we are longing to be understood, accepted, and listened to. Coming to grips with this reality I have made it a principle to meet with friends without my phone. By removing the phone, I find myself more engaged and present in those social moments.
  3. We need real community. The sense of incompleteness or lack of closure we feel in processing hard stories points to our need for community that works with and understands complexity. Social media does not allow us to emotionally process what is needing to be done in person and face to face.
  4. We, as Christians, should model community. We should ask ourselves whether we are demonstrating a patience, love, gentleness, respect, and acceptance in the way we process hard and difficult things with our friends. Are we modeling a better way, a holistic way of living out what we need in community? Are we showing and making space in our community for people who struggle with doubts, unanswered questions, perhaps unanswered prayers, and complex life issues?

So much of the answer to this surface-level tech issue is a discipleship and evangelism issue. We long for community and friendship, and we are substituting technological solutions in the place of something far more holistic and humane in nature. There is an opportunity for the church to be the welcoming haven that she was intended to be—the type of home where people on the inside and outside are encouraged to share their brokenness and be restored. We can be a people who process embodied events in embodied ways. By doing so, we can model human ways of being human. In the end, this is what we all want. It is what we need.

Nathan Betts is an itinerant speaker at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and speaks frequently across the U.S. and Canada about the interface of faith and culture, and technology.

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