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"For we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not of ourselves."

What every parent should know about the Internet:
Part 3 - The Social Network Revolution

by David Clark

In Feb 2009, the Daily Telegraph reported that Kimberly Swann, a 16 year old from Clacton, posted on Facebook that she thought her job was boring. She was called into her manager's office and handed a letter that cited her Facebook comments as the reason for dismissal:

"Following your comments made on Facebook about your job and the company we feel it is better that, as you are not happy and do not enjoy your work, we end your employment with immediate effect."

Unbecoming Behaviour

Stacy Snyder wanted to be a teacher. By the spring of 2006, the 25-year­old single mother had completed her course and was looking forward to her future career. Then her dream died. Summoned by university officials, she was told she would not be a teacher, because she had posted a photo on the Internet showing her in costume wearing a pirate’s hat and drinking from a plastic cup. This was deemed to be behaviour unbecoming of a teacher.1 Stacy considered taking the photo offline. But the damage was done. Her web page had been catalogued by search engines, and her photo archived by web crawlers. The Internet remembered what Stacy wanted to have forgotten.

Presidential Warning

Even President Obama, in a September 2009 televised address to American schools, advised them to "be careful what you post on Facebook. Whatever you do, it will be pulled up later in your life."2 None-the-less, social networks have emerged as one of the most popular recent web phenomena. The best know social network is FaceBook, though there are many others including MySpace, specialist networks such as LinkedIn for business users, or even GovLoop for US government employees.

The 2009 Oxford dictionary ‘Word of the Year’

For most people, who started talking to others on the Internet using Instant Messaging (IM), social networks provide a much richer set of capabilities. Not only can you ‘chat’ to your friends online, you can also see messages they post about what they are doing, pictures, events, birthdays, or even play games together. A network is made up of people who have applied to ‘join’ up with you and become ‘your friend’. It is possible to set up a network so that only ‘friends’ can view your pictures or see what you write on your ‘wall’ etc. Should you choose, you remove people from your social network at any time. To remove someone is to ‘unfriend’ them, a word that, as reported in the Independent newspaper, was adopted as the new 2009 ‘Word of the Year’ by the Oxford Dictionary.

Social networks are useful for making contact with people you may have lost touch with, such as school or university friends. It helps keep family and friends abreast of what they are doing, without having to write, email or call.


John Steley is a Christian psychologist with a particular interest in the use of the internet by overseas mission and aid workers (www.interhealth.org.uk). John provided some helpful insights into the way that people relate to each other on social networks: “What comes to mind is the idea of ‘power and vulnerability’. Social gatherings make people vulnerable - they can be rejected. Online situations do not expose people to the same level of risk. They feel safe in communicating.”

John went on to explain that online, people can project a different persona from the one they really have. “People can have a fantasy about who they wish they were.  There is no way of knowing who you are really dealing with. There is no way of really evaluating them.”

John concluded by saying that “If you really want to know someone, then one possibility is to go on a beach mission with them. You will see them under pressure, first thing in the morning, last thing at night, and dealing with difficult teenagers.” None, of this, of course, is possible on a social network…


Dangers

However, there are also dangers with social networks. It is not always clear that others outside the approved network of friends can see what is posted if security levels are not set correctly. In any case, messages posted on a social network can easily be passed on to others in a kind of electronic ‘Chinese whispers’.  These networks can also be addictive. Because women outnumber men on FaceBook (57% to 43% according to the Wall Street Journal3) the term ‘Facebook Widower’ has been coined!4         
Not only can social networks be addictive, but they can also lead to creation of unhealthy relationships (something we will look at in more detail in another article), the projection of unrealistic persona and the feeling that we have relationships that don’t exist in real life.

“Doing church” online

The problem comes to the fore particularly when looking at a special kind of social network, the “online church.” This kind of church is not simply a web site, or a way of downloading sermons (whether audio or video), or even simply live streaming of a church message. It is far more than this, and is intended to replace conventional churches with online equivalents. The online church web sites provide social networks so that those listening or viewing on their computers can ‘chat to one another’ during the service, share thoughts or ideas, or receive support from a pastoral assistant at any time.

All you need is online

In a blog post for ChristianityToday.com5, Bob Hyatt, a pastor who leads a brick-and-mortar Evergreen Community Church in Portland, Oregon writes that calling an online church a virtual church "gives people the idea that everything they need is available here."

This is precisely what Craig Groeschel, senior pastor at LifeChurch.tv - an online church - says in a CNN interview: "we were blown away at how people could actually worship along [online]," he says. "The whole family will gather around the computer, and they'll sing and they'll worship together. Instead of trying to get people to come to a church, we feel like we can take a church to them."6

Below: An image from the LiveChurch.tv website showing online ‘worshipers’ at a Sunday serviceText Box: A image from the LiveChurch.tv website showing online ‘worshipers’ at a Sunday service

In a book entitled SimChurch, just published by Zondervan, author Douglas Estes says that “today a new community of the people of God has begun... A change is occurring in the Christian church the likes of which has not happened in centuries...This type of church is unlike any church the world has ever seen. It has the power to break down social barriers, unite believers from all over the world, and build the kingdom of God with a widow's mite of financing . It is a completely different type of church from any the world has ever seen.”

What does the Bible say?

We can imagine the benefits of such an arrangement for some - for example, the Christian in an Islamic country, or a missionary isolated from any other believers. However, there are significant dangers for whose who could otherwise attend a Bible-believing church. As with other social media, relationships are not real, but based on the comments and persona that each online user projects. How can an elder “shepherd the flock of God,”7 if they effectively know nothing about them and could never meet with them? How can church discipline be applied, or the encouraging word given? It is only after the Thessalonians had spent time with Paul, Silas, and Timothy that they could become “followers of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit” and so also become “examples to all in Macedonia and Achaia who believe.”8

Practical Advice

The dangers with social networks are those of addiction and lack of self-control. There are clear Christian principles here, including self-control, and avoidance if necessary. There are simple steps which everyone should take, such as making sure that security settings on social network sites are such that only friends can access information. Similarly you should always “think before you type.” In general, if you would not say what you are planning to write to someone face to face, you should not post it. Remember, that the Internet never forgets!

With respect to online churches, it is difficult to see how replacing a local church with an online one is ever justifiable. Perhaps we need to examine ourselves to see what kind of local church we belong to? It is possible to have the same problems locally as exist online, barely knowing one another, even when we meet together every week. Rather, a local church must remain first a place where Christ is central and worshiped, and also one in which the gospel is communicated clearly and in a way that can be understood. The church is to recognise that the world is changing. As the 16th century reformers put it -  “Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda” (“the church reformed, always reforming”).  Reformation was their strategy, all in accord with the plumb line of God’s infallible Word and for the glory of the Triune God.

The next article will look at the dark side of the Internet, particularly at online pornography, concluding with practical, helpful and positive advice.

 1Quoted in ‘Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in The Digital Age.’ By Viktor Mayer-Schönberger.

 2Quoted in the Washington Times, Sep 8, 2009.

 3See http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2009/10/07/women-outnumber-men-on-social-networking-sites/

 4The Urban Dictionary defines a Facebook Widower as “a man who is neglected because his wife or partner spends so much time, addictively, on Facebook” - see http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Facebook%20widower

 5see http://bobhyatt.typepad.com/

 6See http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/11/13/online.church.services/index.html

 71Peter 5:2

 81 Thess 1:6-7

Read previous articles on the topic of What Every Parent Should Know about the Internet, by David Clark:

Overview

Communicating with Internet Technology

 

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Last Update: 2013-08-12 16:41