In October of last year, 33 states sued Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, alleging that the company has “concealed the ways in which these Platforms exploit and manipulate its most vulnerable consumers: teenagers and children.” The lawsuit further alleges that the company “repeatedly mislead the public about the substantial dangers of its Social Media Platforms.” The most recent lawsuits make it clear that churches, that are operating large numbers of social media accounts, must do some soul-searching about whether they should stay on platforms that are causing harm to young people.
I am a pastor who has spent the past decade serving churches in Illinois and Massachusetts. Currently, I serve as the lead pastor at Lake Street Church of Evanston in Illinois. Eight years ago, I made the decision to leave Facebook for one reason: It was killing my spiritual life. Drawn in by the visualization of friendships and instant access to people I knew from across the country, I soon found myself scrolling through feeds with no enjoyment. Instead, I compared myself to others and was constantly left feeling empty. I felt less happy, less focused, less grateful.
While that decision made sense for my spiritual life, the churches that I pastored during that time have always had a Facebook page — some have even had Instagram handles. I think that is unlikely to change regardless of the lawsuits, so I think it’s imperative that we figure out how to make our presence on a flawed platform as edifying as possible. The goal is to limit the amount of harm done on these platforms while accentuating the positive effects of social media engagement when possible.
Although it may seem that there is some tension — or even hypocrisy — in not having a personal account on these platforms but operating accounts for the sake of my church, it turns out that operating a social media account is a lot like trying to do good in a flawed world. If you isolate yourself from the world, you can trick yourself into believing that you remain “pure” from the world’s sin. But remaining “pure” from the sin of the world by opting for an isolationist approach only guarantees that you ignore the world’s problems instead of working to solve them.
I look at it the same way I look at my church’s activism on behalf of the unhoused. Many of the solutions we have advanced fall short of free or affordable housing for everyone in our city, but those changes we have been able to make — acquiring more shelter beds, lengthening the hours for our cold-weather shelter, and building more affordable housing — are important steps in the right direction: housing for everyone who needs it, as opposed to a speculative investment.
The church I currently pastor has decided to keep using its social media accounts for now. I asked associate minister at Lake Street Church of Evanston, Jillian Westerfield, who operates the account, why she thinks it’s worthwhile for us to maintain a presence on Facebook. “I think that it’s important to meet people where they are,” she told me, “and if we leave, what will fill that vacuum? There’s a lot of hateful, divisive rhetoric online and in person today, and if the church just gives up on the digital town square, we give up our ability to influence our part of it.”
There are both dangers and benefits to using social media. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I wrote a blessing for receiving the COVID-19 vaccine and shared it on the church’s Facebook. Several people ended up using that blessing as they received their first doses of the vaccine, and I heard from people of faith around the country who expressed gratitude for having a liturgy to say upon receiving the shots.
Similarly, during the racial justice protests in 2020, the main source for local organizing was through Facebook. Without it, fewer members of my church would have shown up to stand for racial justice.
But while Facebook served a positive purpose in terms of helping us organize, we have to contend with the fact that it is also preying on vulnerable communities and spreading misinformation. The lawsuit’s allegations are damning, outlining in painstaking detail how Meta has used social media to harm children and teens. Combined with the fact that misinformation, especially in the form of images, is rife, we are just beginning to truly wrestle with these platforms’ deleterious effects on our society and personal lives.
Those churches that do decide to leave will do so for good reasons and with my admiration, but I think it is likely that most churches will remain on the platforms as they try to reach wider audiences amid declining attendance. For those that stay, ground rules are needed.
It’s clear that social media platforms are flawed, but dealing with flawed systems is not a new experience for Christians. We live in a flawed world and many Christians affirm the words of the prophet Jeremiah who controversially urged the people of Israel to seek the good of the city Babylon, even if the city was imperfect (Jeremiah 26:1-11; 29:7). Is the online world so different? What seems clear to me is that if churches abandon the digital space, they will simply give up an important platform to connect our faith to everyday life in ways that could be beneficial to the same populations that have been harmed by Meta’s platforms.
In my church’s case, the main ground rule for keeping our social media is that we use it to encourage those who come across it. That does not mean that we are posting inspirational quotes, but it does mean we strive to lift up voices that connect faith and justice. For example, we use our online platform to support mental health services like therapy as well as medication from a faith-based perspective. Research conducted in 2022 by the Pew Research Center and cited by the Surgeon General’s advisory on social media use demonstrates that social media use can have positive effects on youth mental health, with teens reporting that it helps them feel more connected, creative, supported, and accepted. If churches are going to keep their social media accounts, it’s important to create ground rules for how and why it is used, and to base those ground rules off of scientific research.
Such research can help churches in understanding how to relate to and serve younger generations. In church circles it is common to speak of Generation Z as the least religious generation, with nearly half identifying as “nones,” but that is only part of the story. They are also more politically engaged than their Millennial and Gen X peers were at their age, and they’re more likely to rank racial justice and gun violence as top concerns. They are also likely to say that inaction on those items is affecting their mental health. My church is committed to using our platforms to engage issues that young people care about while highlighting the voices of young activists along the way.
We may leave Facebook in the future, but for now, we will seek the good of the online environment in hopes of helping people make positive connections between faith and the everyday.