The world is now firmly in the grip of the marketing industry. We dress the way we are told to, we read and watch what we are told to and we eat what we are told to. I even had a conversation recently in which someone told me fruit is bad for us, the information that convinced them came from a supplement company’s marketing department. If you can market well people believe you.
Of course this isn’t a new phenomenon at all. We’ve lived with it for decades it perhaps not on this scale. It pervades every part of our lives. We carry an ever refreshing, internet connected billboard in our pockets that bombards us with ads carefully chosen by an algorithm that knows us so well (or at least knows our search history.)
Of course, churches and Christian organisations are engaging with this world as well. Some of this is great and just part and parcel of modernising and communicating to the cultures we find ourselves in, but there is something about how we handle the sharing of certain stories that I think we need to be careful with.
I will start by admitting I’ve done it but as I say, I want to stop. Here are two examples of the kind of thing I want to stop doing.
1. Tweeting ‘Loved being able to provide Jane and her daughter with food for the week. #nameofchurch #feedthepoor #greatcommission’
2. Facebook status ‘Amazing time at group tonight, new member gave life to Jesus after I preached. #evangelism’
I’ve written things very similar to both of these tweets. Now, at first these seem innocuous and are so commonplace that the web savvy Christian won’t even notice them but I think there are some questions to consider.
Now of course Jesus didn’t have social media accounts but how did he celebrate and share the good stories? It is good to celebrate these things. It is good to be thankful every time someone discovers Jesus; but is this the best way to celebrate? When Jesus did these things He often tried to calm the reaction. He asked people to keep miracles quiet. He told Peter to keep his idea of Jesus’ Messianic identity to himself.
Is it our story to tell?
I worry that when we see someone finding faith we often share it as if the story is ours to tell. We share it widely and often don’t consider how the person at the centre of the story feels. Are they ready to go public with their story? How will Jane feel when she recognises herself on your timeline? Sometimes it feels that we share stories of bringing food, possessions and relief to the most poor as a victory for our cause and forget that, in a culture that idolises self sufficiency, for the recipient there can be a deep sense of shame in receiving charity. Of course we mask their names or omit a surname but we cannot assume that they are okay with it being shared.
What if the person who comes to faith at our event and then finds themselves the subject of a Facebook post is not ready to tell others? It’s the spiritual equivalent of dragging someone out of the closet before they’re ready to tell the world.
We are in danger of using real people as props in the propagation of our message. If we are sharing their stories without their explicit permission, we are at risk of dehumanising them to nothing more than a statistic in our grand project. I don’t think this is the Jesus way.
Jesus was amazing at giving people back their dignity. People crushed by the wheels of religion were set free. Broken bodies were healed, outcasts were brought inside and the hungry were fed. Jesus repeatedly leaves people with control over their own story. We don’t see them cropping up elsewhere in his teachings.
Just in case we missed his example he even goes on to tell us to practice our ‘good works’ in secret. Matthew 6 is a slap in the face for the kind of social media policy we can be tempted to run within our ministries. It flies in the face of the accepted wisdom that we must publicise ourselves. Jesus let the truth of who he was and what he did find its own way.
We are all doing this with good hearts. We want to reach more people. We want to engage more people in social action, but I sometimes wonder if it is at the cost of the dignity of those who should be left to own their personal stories.
May we rage against the injustice in our world and share widely the good news of Jesus, but let us allow people to choose how their role in the story plays out. Let’s celebrate, but let’s celebrate well.