If you have a Facebook account it is probable that you, like me, belong to a Facebook group. Worldwide, there are more than 2 billion monthly active users on the network, and more than half of those users belong to one or more Facebook groups.
According to Facebook, 100 million people described the groups they belonged to as “meaningful,” or those that are the most important aspect of their experience on the global network.
Mark Zuckerberg believes in the importance of Facebook groups so much that, in June 2017, he announced at the first Facebook Community Summit the company’s new mission statement: “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”
Zuckerberg also implied that Facebook groups are like churches.
“People who go to church are more likely to volunteer and give to charity—not just because they’re religious, but because they’re part of a community,” Zuckerberg said. “Think about it. A church doesn’t just come together. It has a pastor who cares for the well-being of their congregation, makes sure they have food and shelter.”
Zuckerberg’s connection between Facebook and religion is warranted, especially for users who spend more time on their Facebook feeds than their spiritual formation. The number of Facebook users is approaching that of Christians in the world—2.3 billion, according to the Pew Research Center.
As a Christian invested in Facebook groups, I think such groups can create community, but we should be hesitant to compare the community fostered by online groups to the church as defined in Scripture. And as the number of Facebook groups increase and grow in membership, it is important to recognize and communicate their differences and similarities to the ekklesia of Christian fellowship.
The Undercurrent of Facebook Groups
Users can request to join Facebook groups, and each group has administrators (people who oversee the groups) and specific privacy settings. Groups usually focus on topics that range from social justice and theology to video games and cats. The possibilities are endless, and the motivations for joining such groups varied. Someone might join a group to lose weight, learn more about racial reconciliation or discuss current events, for example.
The basic premise of Facebook groups is to bring the world closer together, but they have the potential to create an undercurrent of division. This might not necessarily be true of a Facebook group about cats, but in groups that emphasize weightier matters such as social justice or theology, there is a temptation toward some form of “groupthink” or conformity to certain beliefs, standards, and behaviors. As Christians, this should give us pause, because these online groups have the potential to create a false sense of community.
The average person spends two hours on social media every day. If 100 million people camp out in their “meaningful Facebook group” for a large portion of that time, then it has a great impact on how they perceive the world.
Christians do not live in a vacuum, but social media sometimes deceives us into thinking that we do. As with any type of groupthink, our ability to disagree well diminishes when our favorite Facebook group consistently reaffirms our worldview.
We become prideful, believing we in the group have all of the answers while they outside of the group do not. We are surprised when those in the non-virtual world, including brothers and sisters in our local churches, disagree with us. If our Facebook group is the only place where we grapple with complex ideas, this wreaks havoc on our relationships.
Social media is also deceptive in that it can make us think our fingers are doing very much through our online activism when they are actually doing very little. Proverbs 14:23 says, “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.” If the knowledge we receive through online communities never impacts our local communities, we must question if we are truly living out our mission as the church.
Online Community and the Church
Facebook groups can, however, be a sanctifying experience for Christians who seek to apply what they learn in their local communities elsewhere.
For example, Facebook groups have the incredible ability to mobilize thousands of people around good and just causes. When White supremacists showed up for a “Unite the Right” rally last summer in Charlottesville, Virginia, Charles Holmes Jr. tweeted: “It won’t be enough to just preach against white supremacy tomorrow. We must mobilize people to pray globally and engage locally.”
I have not forgotten his statement, and I think that Facebook groups, particularly ones emphasizing some aspect of God’s redemptive vision for mankind, are helpful for people who want to act but need direction. I am personally in a group that discusses racial justice and reconciliation through the lens of the gospel. If it were not for that group, I would not know what steps to take to engage in racial reconciliation at a local level in my church and community.
Facebook groups also create a sense of empathy if we are truly open to entering those digital communities with a diversity of opinions and perspectives outside of our own. This is particularly helpful for those who might live in more homogeneous communities.
In a healthy Facebook group, respectful dialogue and even disagreement will be encouraged. When this happens, it allows us the opportunity to step into another’s experience.
Theologian Millard Erickson calls this the emic perspective.
“This requires a genuine sense of empathy,” Erickson explains in Truth or Consequences: The Promise & Perils of Postmodernism. “An emic perspective or approach is an understanding of reality from within the worldview of those who participate in that reality or behavior. It involves seeing what they see from where they see it, feeling what they feel as they feel it. The emic then is participant-relative.”
This kind of empathy is not observant-relative, and it is the kind that Jesus Christ embodied as he lived incarnationally among people.
Facebook groups can even expose us to where we are wrong or have blind spots. Although they should never replace the local church, these groups provide another way in which we can “work out our salvation with fear and trembling,” as Paul writes in Philippians 2:12.
Rather than a landing place, Facebook groups can be a launching pad from which we carry what we learn back to our local churches—the communities that matter most to us as believers. As we ask God’s Spirit to separate truth from falsity in our Facebook groups, this new knowledge can equip us to engage in our offline communities, resulting in meaningful change.
In this sense, Zuckerberg was right when he said, “We need to give people a voice to get a diversity of opinions out there, but we also need to build enough common ground so we can all make progress together.”