Angela Gorrell: Rejoicing and mourning online

Word cloud of emotions; "joy" and "anxiety" are largest

Illustration by Claire Doyle Ragin

Many Christian leaders want to make sure their institutions are using the right technology for ministry. But social media use is also a pastoral issue; social media spaces are places where people experience both joy and pain, writes an associate research scholar at the Yale Center for Faith & Culture.

I posed this question recently to a group of college students at Yale: “In general, what two emotions do you experience when using social media?”

As the students responded with their cellphones to an online survey, a word cloud of their replies displayed on a screen behind me. I’ve done this exercise many times -- I usually ask this question when I lead workshops, give lectures and teach courses about social media.

People type all kinds of things in response, of course. But no matter the group, two emotions have showed up in every word cloud: joy and anxiety.

As someone who uses social media, I resonate with both of those responses. I imagine many of you reading this do, too.

Like those who take my cellphone surveys, I have experienced deep joy when using social media -- feelings of connection and solidarity.

In November 2016, a high school friend was dying. He made two final status updates on Facebook: one dedicated to his favorite basketball team and a sobering post promising to watch over everyone and asking friends to let him know whom to say “hey” to on the other side.

In response to those posts, people said things like this: “With tear-filled eyes all I can do is look at the sun rising over the clouds and imagine the beauty you are entering. Well done, my friend, what a wonderful life you have led here. You are so loved.” And this: “Your strength, faith in God, and determination have changed so many lives.”

Hundreds of people had been using social media to stay updated on his cancer treatment, hoping that he would be healed. For most of the last months of his life, he was unable to leave his hospital room and could have only a few visitors. Social media was his connection to his friends and to the world.

Social media in this case was a source of joy, nurturing healing and Christian community, and extending Christian practices like truth telling and compassion from offline to online spaces.

On the other hand, there are many reasons social media causes people to feel anxious. Some of us are worried about privacy -- a concern intensified by the recent news about Facebook.

Another source of anxiety is what we view online. Like you, on too many days I am profoundly grieved by what I encounter on social media. I’m unsure of what to pray for and crushed by my seeming inability to do anything about, well, anything.

When I discuss ministry in a new media landscape with Christian leaders, most want to focus on how their institutions can use technology well.

And while I think it is vital for Christian communities to consider what technologies they will use and how, they shouldn’t neglect one of the most powerful questions of social media for Christian communities: How can we use it pastorally? How can Christian communities address both the joys and the anxieties of social media in a pastoral way?

On the basis of the research I have been doing for the Theology of Joy & the Good Life project and my upcoming book with Baker Academic, I’ve developed some suggestions for ways a Christian community can begin to do this:

  • Ask people to share stories about how social media makes them feel about themselves and others. Listen for pastoral concerns. Listen for joys, conflict, learning, laments, hope, anxiety, loneliness and connection.
  • Pray often about the development of technology and people’s social media use. This is an indication that these things matter to God and that technology and social media have meaning and power in people’s lives.
  • Use language in sermons, youth groups, meetings, planning, etc., that signals that the practice of faith includes new media (e.g., mobile phones, streaming services like Netflix), and be an active presence in social media spaces.
  • Engage in meaningful conversation about acting faithfully in the midst of difficult situations on social media such as disagreement, shaming, gossip, bullying and harassment.
  • Make connections between stories in the Bible, stories from history about technology and faith (e.g., the printing press, the Reformation), and contemporary stories about media development and engagement. Put historical and contemporary stories in conversation with one another, and ask the Holy Spirit to teach your Christian community what God is doing among you in the midst of this new media culture and how you might participate in God’s work.

It is my hope that actions like these will help us develop the practice of compassion online, as a way of continuing Jesus’ ministry in a new media culture. The healing practices of Jesus’ ministry can inform creative ways of using social media to embody Christian visions of the true life.

The invitation in Romans 12 to “rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15) is a beautiful way of thinking about the pastoral use of social media. How can we engage the practice of compassion online, both participating in others’ joys and acknowledging others’ grief?

One mark of the “transformed” mind (Romans 12:2) is a willingness to see others’ joy or pain and embrace it, recognizing it as our own -- recognizing that, as Father Greg Boyle says, “we belong to each other,” offline and online.

Christians understand that joy is not scarce but abundant. And when the joy of other human beings is embraced as our own and then returned back to them, it is deepened that much more, both for them and, mysteriously, for us.

Similarly, when we see pain and acknowledge it and get close to it and then take it on and share it, that pain is somehow transformed. It is not necessarily weakened, but it is seen for what it is: unjust, cruel, traumatizing -- and real.

Sharing in that pain says, “Your pain happened, and it matters to me. In fact, it matters so much that I am willing to offer my resources, emotional and otherwise, to confronting it with you.”

This is one way I imagine that Jesus might enter social media spaces: looking for people with whom he can rejoice and mourn.