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Social Media Is a Spiritual Distortion Zone

August 11th, 2023 | 5 min. read

By Ian Harber

People sometimes say, “Social media is neutral. It’s just about how you use it.” This is false. As we learn more about social media’s role in our national mental health crisis, it’s increasingly clear this technology is anything but neutral—and government leaders are starting to respond. In May, Montana became the first state to enact a total ban on TikTok. Arkansas enacted a similar law that requires minors to have parental approval to create an account on certain social media platforms.

Christians know well that social media’s harmful effects also extend to our spiritual formation. As authors like Chris Martin have noted, social media has become our chief discipler. It conforms our minds to the patterns of the content we consume (anxious, outraged, fearful, and numb), reengineers our habits with its liturgical practices (opening, scrolling, swiping, liking, and commenting), and asks us to offer our bodies as living sacrifices (posting content for consumption by others and profit for the corporation through advertisers).

Social media acts as a spiritual and cognitive distortion machine that warps our view of reality and bends our will away from God. It’s the systematic, corporately incentivized inversion of Romans 12:1–2. Instead of our minds being renewed by the Spirit of Christ, they’re shaped by algorithmically curated delivery of the particular patterns of the world that best play to our unsanctified desires. They beckon us into conformity with the world by drawing our hearts and minds away from God.

Social media isn’t a neutral player in our sanctification. It’s an active agent working against our becoming more like Christ.

This doesn’t mean social media is entirely irredeemable. Our media intake has the potential to form us both away from Christ and toward Christ. It’s because algorithms mirror our desires that the possibility of redeeming social media exists. The more our desires are for Christ, and the more content we seek out to aid us in our desire for him, the more the algorithm will be bent toward Christ-centered content that benefits our discipleship. The very tool that can pull us away from Christ has the ability to be re-formed to push us toward Christ.

New Categories of Christian Social Media Users

While we need to be wise about our engagement in the spiritual distortion zone of social media—and for some, that might mean stepping away entirely—we also need new categories for thinking about it Christianly and modes of operating that glorify Christ and help others flourish in a digital Babylon. Here are four categories to consider.

1. Discipleship through content creation.

We underestimate the formative power of the steady drip of content consumption over time. If consuming digital content can form us away from Christ, then it can also form us toward Christ. But we need faithful, intentional, intelligent Christians creating this content and using best practices to reach their intended audience.

Churches have a unique opportunity to do this for their particular congregations. More and more, as pastors are replaced by podcasts and average church attendance drops to once a month, churches can meet their congregants where they are throughout the week by producing local digital media that keeps people connected to their local congregation.

If consuming digital content can form us away from Christ, then it can also form us toward Christ.

There are some early examples of this already happening: Immanuel Nashville uses Substack to write short, daily devotionals for their church. An Arizona church planter, Trey VanCamp, has used his YouTube channel for years to pull back the curtain on his ministry, recommend books, encourage others in their devotional practices, release videos of workshops he’s led at his church, and more. The Crossing Church produces a weekly devotional podcast called Ten Minute Bible Talks that walks through books of the Bible.

2. Replacing influencers with missionaries.

What if instead of seeking a large platform to make a name for themselves, individual Christians made niche, interest-based content for specific audiences, seeing themselves as missionaries to those people?

Instead of the Christian media landscape being dominated by a handful of celebrities, small to midsize Christian content creators—rooted in their local churches—have the opportunity to speak to their niches in helpful ways and minimize the attention given to those who represent evangelicalism with their platform but not their character. What might this look like?

One example is Gavin Ortlund and his YouTube channel, Truth Unites. Gavin makes clear, helpful, and irenic videos defending Christianity (and Protestantism specifically). Another example is Elijah Lamb (@doctrinewithlamb), a young Christian TikToker who regularly takes on tough doctrinal questions for his audience of over 70,000 on a platform more friendly to those leaving faith than those keeping it. Both these creators have taken up the task of apologetics in a form that’s native to the digital platforms they’re on and are finding an audience meaningfully engaging with their content. In their own ways, they’re digital missionaries.

3. Curating the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Not everyone has it in them to create original content. It’s a taxing process in terms of time and mental effort. But curating content is another way to put beneficial resources in front of people to help them grow in their Christian walk. Pastors can do this by creating webpages to accompany their sermon series that point to additional resources for their congregation to take a deeper dive. Pastor John Houmes did this with his congregation for his sermon series on a Christian view of the body. I have tried to do this with both a Spotify playlist containing over 100 hours of music and podcasts to help someone reconstruct their faith and a website curating documents from church history for devotional and intellectual growth.

4. Resisting by leaving.

For some, the answer really is to delete your social media. Not only does this move often lead to increases in happiness and spiritual health but it also functions as a form of spiritual and cultural resistance. Sometimes our Christian witness is through abstinence rather than engagement. Some Christians stand out by using social media differently than others; some stand out by not using it at all.

The goal of leaving isn’t primarily negative. Instead of merely subtracting social media from your life to help your mental and spiritual health, you’re abstaining with the goal of adding thicker embodied relationships in your community.

Role of Churches

What would it look like for churches to identify and support people in their congregations who are gifted content creators and communicators, who might be called to the mission field of social media?

Some Christians stand out by using social media differently than others; some stand out by not using it at all.

Maybe churches could create opportunities for content creators in their congregation to connect, collaborate, and encourage one another. Maybe churches could allocate a small monthly stipend to help “digital missionaries” cover software or advertising costs, similar to how they help other missionaries. Could the creators, under certain circumstances, use the church’s cameras or microphones to save money on gear?

Churches should also encourage and support people in the fourth category—those who opt not to be on social media at all. When the refugees of the spiritual distortion zone find their way to a local church in search of a loving God and caring community, they’re going to need healthy, clear-eyed, well-adjusted, spiritually mature people to meet and welcome them in with open arms. If a church makes digital platforms its primary ministry, then it won’t be equipped to receive these social media refugees. Churches need to ensure they have in-person ministries such as home groups, Bible studies, equipping classes, pastoral care, and more to receive those who opt-offline into rich, thick community.

Sometimes these categories will overlap, and other times they’ll be entirely distinct. But both churches and individual Christians should seek ways to actively counter the social media deformation machine. If we don’t, the dark tendencies of the social media landscape will only get darker, and the algorithms will spiritually corrupt more and more of our friends, family members, and loved ones.

Let’s be proactive in thinking through how we bring gospel hope and reformation to this deformation space. How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news, both online and offline.

NOTE: This article was originally published on The Gospel Coalition.

Ian Harber

Ian is a marketing manager at Endeavor and is a digital marketing practitioner with 10 years of experience. He has written about faith and technology, deconstruction and reconstruction for The Gospel Coalition and Mere Orthodoxy as well as appearing on podcasts such as Reconstructing Faith, The Alisa Childers Podcast, Love Thy Neighborhood, The Living Room Disciple, Everything Just Changed, and more. Additionally, Ian has contributed to the book, Before You Lose Your Faith: Deconstructing Doubt in the Church (TGC, 2021) and is the author of an upcoming a forthcoming book about deconstruction with InterVarsity Press (2024). Ian lives in Denton, Texas with his wife, Katie, and son, Ezra and is a member at The Village Church Denton.

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