Is Social Media Our Ministry’s Friend?

I wrote last week about my enthusiasm for online ministry, and my view that one good result of the current crisis is that it has forced us to sharpen our online presence—while it has also given us the opportunity to do so.

This is not to say, however, that there is nothing worrisome about the current approach that many are taking to online ministry.

One trend that has been very striking to me is how churches have relied on posting their messages and services on Facebook and YouTube.

I am an enthusiastic supporter of this concept in terms of making the content available and interacting with the unbelieving world. I definitely think that we should make use of these outlets for as long as we can—“redeeming the time, because the days are evil” (NKJV, Eph. 5:16).

However, I am severely skeptical of depending upon these websites as trustworthy channels for Biblical communication for much further into the future.

Why you ask? To answer with another question from the pen of Isaac Watts:

“Is this vile world a friend to grace,
to help me on to God?”

The cautions against taking such an approach can be seen all around us, like flashing yellow (or even red) lights.

I confess that I am not an expert in technology or the trends on social media, but it does not take too much foresight to see which way the cultural winds are blowing. Just recently there have been two chilling examples.

One relates to Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, who announced casually that the website would be pulling down announcements of rallies against state shutdowns, labeling them as “harmful misinformation.”

Zuckerberg did not challenge the accuracy of the details supplied. He also did not offer his credentials to evaluate public policy during a pandemic. But in our current state of dystopia, labeling such posts as “harmful misinformation” and removing them from public view just seemed like a good idea for the world’s most influential website.

Facebook later clarified that only illegal rallies would be banned.

Perhaps even more disturbing is the case of YouTube repeatedly removing a video of California Drs. Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi speaking at a press conference—providing alternate views regarding a proper response to the coronavirus pandemic. Here were licensed physicians holding a formal discussion—which was censored by the operators of the world’s most significant video-sharing website “for violating YouTube’s Community Guidelines.”

So, apparently, such social media sites are in the business of arbitrating truth (not simply judging facts) and deciding what we will be allowed to watch, hear and read based on their operators’ worldviews. Keep in mind that these are matters of legitimate opinion—not of vulgarity or obscenity. And these two illustrations only scratch the surface. We have all heard of people being forbidden from posting to Facebook for a variety of reasons.

In fact, on Wednesday of this week, Facebook sent me three notifications telling me frantically—as if I would be relieved to know—that a story I passed along last week from the Christian legal organization Liberty Counsel was “rated partly false.” Space does not allow a complete rehearsal of the details but, needless to say, I was unimpressed with the sanctioned critique of the article—and never asked for their opinion to begin with!

Do we truly expect these kinds of websites to continue as our primary vehicles for the proclamation of Biblical truth? If physicians can be censored, how long before such standards will be routinely applied to pastors?

We in the Christian community must seek or create more reliable means of broadcasting truth through the Internet.

Personally, I have found SermonAudio.com to be an incredible blessing, and I recently launched my own page there (SermonAudio.com/pscharf).

I was first introduced to this amazing resource by Dr. David Brown of First Baptist Church in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, when I served as his pastoral assistant. He was an early adopter of online ministry in general and of SermonAudio in particular, joining it in 2003—three years after it launched.

That connection led me to recommend it to Dr. John Whitcomb later that year, and I have overseen the Whitcomb Ministries page on SermonAudio ever since. We are now nearing one million sermon downloads there.

In addition to having a distinctively Christian focus, SermonAudio connects your content to a built-in audience that is searching for new material and offers a wide range of easy-to-use resources. It is amazing to see how the site has grown over the years that I have been involved with it.

There are other alternatives for accomplishing the same goals, and it is time that we begin to investigate them.

If something like the current shutdowns are initiated again—which many believe we may reasonably anticipate—we have no guarantee that communicating through secular social media will continue to be an option.

Paul Scharf 2019 Bio


Paul J. Scharf (M.A., M.Div., Faith Baptist Theological Seminary) is a church ministries representative for The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, serving in the midwest. He also assists Whitcomb Ministries and writes for “Answers” Magazine and Regular Baptist Press. For more information on his ministry, visit foi.org/scharf or email pscharf@foi.org.

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

First, I have nothing against SermonAudio.com, and for ministry purposes they may well be a better alternative to some of the more popular platforms.

I have a different take on YouTube's response to COVID misinformation, though. I don't think their efforts to remove what they see as harmful to their users as being "arbitrators of truth." Rather, they are, inherently, arbitrators of what they want people to do with their service.

As far as I can tell, they're trying to be responsible with information, which is more than I can say for a lot of Christians lately.

They're going to get it wrong sometimes, but I don't think they did in the case of Erickson and Massihi. Well, they sort of did.

  • I think they were right to see E & M's earlier videos as confusion-spreading and potentially harmful
  • I'm not at all confident that pulling videos like those is a good strategy. To a certain mindset, getting banned or silence or whatever is a badge of credibility, not a discrediting. Since Facebook continued to allow the video, YouTube's ban made them even more popular as martyrs.

But YouTube's claim that the original E & M video lacked context rings true... because videos from these guys are still all over YouTube in modified versions (example).

I would add that these media platforms are not government entities, and the first amendment does not apply, as some (not Paul here) are arguing. People are free to use other platforms, and that's how it should work.

As for Erickson and Massihi, I don't see them as victims in this. They were very sloppy in both their collection of their data, drawing conclusions from it, and in the spreading of what they thought it proved, which in the situation we're in, is not an entirely harmless thing to do. (And please see some debunking here and here among many other places).

Speaking of victims, I have a growing concern about the tendency of Christian ministries in recent years (spiking since March) to be way too quick to see themselves as victimized. Many definitely seem to have a chip on their shoulder. I don't believe this helps the cause of Christ or the cause of freedom.

If SermonAudio.com is a better option, I don't see any reason to think it's because YouTube and Facebook are oppressive or are going to be oppressive. Maybe that will happen. A good approach is probably to use the tools where most of the people are, but be ready to switch to other tools if the need arises... or use them all simultaneously and be ready to shift focus.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

T Howard's picture

Moving to your own "media platform" may not solve the issue. From what I understand, Sermon Audio could be shut down by its domain host if the domain host believes SermonAudio is deleterious to its business. We saw this occur with white supremacist websites. As far as I know, most web hosting services are businesses (e.g. GoDaddy) and as such do not provide a free speech guarantee.

Paul J. Scharf's picture

Aaron, thanks for running the article!

I think your main point goes back to the old question of whether social media sites are publishers or platforms. It seems that they want it both ways, in many cases, depending on what's good for them. Perhaps they grew too big, before the question was settled, to do anything about it now. Unless something begins to change quickly, however, to be thrown off of Facebook, in today's culture, is very similar to losing your First Amendment rights.

For instance, I may be free to go out in my backyard and scream my lungs out, but if I am forbidden from speaking in the town square, what good does it do? It probably was not smart, but somehow, without most of us noticing, almost every aspect of life has moved onto Facebook.

T Howard - I fear that you are correct! I am not an expert in these areas, and also wonder how the transfer of the Internet out of US hands in 2016 (something that I am afraid I will never understand) ties into all of this. All I can say is that Christians had better get really busy, really fast—or else pray that these "tribulation-like" scenarios do not begin to unfold before the Lord returns to catch the church up. Things could get very interesting!

Church Ministries Representative, serving in the Midwest, for The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry 

JBL's picture

Facebook is most decidedly not a neutral platform, never has been, and anyone who thinks that it is or should be is naive.  Personally, I'm disappointed that so many Christians (really anyone for that matter) are on this.  The simple fact of the matter is - if you're on Facebook, YOU are their product.  YOU have personally and willingly consented to be censored, marketed, and discriminated against.  If you don't like it, blame the person in the mirror.

I'm also very sympathetic to the idea that Facebook is a publisher, not a neutral platform.  Since it is a private organization, it is not subject to First Amendment laws in terms of how it regulates its content.  As a staunch supporter of First Amendment rights, I shudder at what would happen if Facebook is deemed a public good.  What would then prevent any Christian publication from also being deemed as such and hence be subject to have to publish anti-Christian rhetoric?

My advice? Get off Facebook.  If you're unwilling, use it for what it's worth - but don't depend on it as your sole ministry social communciation tool and have a plan to abandon it at a moment's notice.

John B. Lee

Bert Perry's picture

I don't know that this is that new, really, as we've had gatekeepers to the "airwaves" ever since the federal government started allocating bandwidth for radio back in the 1920s, and we've had gatekeepers to book publishing ever since Gutenberg.  You had to own a printing press to take advantage of that, no?  For the internet, it's been that way ever since it was a little project of DARPA.  

You make your choices.  Want to send things--maybe just fairly innocuous things if current trends hold--out to lots of people?  Like it or not, you're probably dealing with Zuckerberg et al.  Want a bit more freedom?  Yes, perhaps SermonAudio might be great, but you've still got "GoDaddy" and such. 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

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