The church is not a social network. It might be a place where social networks are found or overlap into, but it isn’t one in itself. Let me explain.
Social networking is a phrase we always hear because everyone is supposedly always doing it. A social network can be built off a club, a product, or social media itself. Social networks can be helpful and good, but we need something more than social networks to thrive in life.
“Social network” is the phrase we use when we want to get something out of it: customers, ideas, help, notoriety, etc. A social network based on social media (like Facebook, Twitter) is helpful when connecting to friends and family who live far away, or staying in touch with people that you just would have lost touch with otherwise. The rise of Facebook allows us to have more friends than we ever have, but we’re limited as humans to really be connected well to thousands of people. A social network based on a club allows people with shared interests (like a sport, charity) to get together and do the thing they already like. A social network based on a product (like Apple fans, Porsche owners) allows people to gather together who get something out of a product they already bought. If these social networks aren’t working, or the businesses behind them aren’t worth it, we move on. We buy a PC and forget about our Apple era.
A social network creates tribes of individuals. Individual people using whatever service for their individual purposes. It’s a form of consumerism. It’s easy to leave (well, kinda, have you tried to leave Facebook? Still, you get my point.) We can choose what we see and don’t see and often the network itself controls this more than we know. We use the social network for what we want and when we don’t find it we move on. Again, I don’t think this is horribly wrong, social networks are helpful, let’s just not treat the church this way.
The same goes for a club or a product. If the club does something I don’t like, or if I just get bored, I choose a different one. If the product doesn’t come through on its services for me, I find a better one. This is good for clubs and products, but not good when it comes to all of life. We need to be part of something that demands something more from us. We aren’t made to be consumers only.
A family is connected to each other through a shared identity. The relationships might require a lot from us, it’s not always easy. Being a member of a family means caring about others more than yourself. Social networks don’t do this, they aren’t equipped to do this. A family is not voluntary like a club, it requires more. A family isn’t a product, it’s not there primarily to provide a service. A church might have people you are connected to socially, but it isn’t a social network.
A family member doesn’t hesitate to call up another member when they get a flat tire. Or when they need some extra money for rent. This isn’t just consumerism of a different kind, it’s called relying on each other (very different, by the way!). A family member is ready to listen, ready to offer care, and they know each other well. A family member in need knows others will be there for them because the family is actively seeking out each others’ good, often at their own expense.
A family is connected to something deeper than what they immediately get out of it. And, ironically, this is actually the best thing for us!
Wouldn’t it be weird for someone to describe their parents and siblings as their social network? It should be just as weird for us to call the church that, even more weird for us to treat the church like that.
The church is not a social network, though social networks exist within the church. The church is more like a family.
Social media is really good at about exhibiting how amazing we are, showing pictures of ourselves, talking about our lives (don’t you wish it was yours?). It’s easy to develop a guilt or at least FOMO (otherwise why are we tempted to check it ever my 5 secs?). In contrast, the church is a gathering of people who don’t have it together, who recognise that they aren’t enough and never will be by themselves. “Fine,” you say, “but I can talk about all those things on Facebook.” True enough. But social media can’t deliver real presence. Actual people. A group of people who are in each others’ lives constantly not for their own good, but for others. Do we really feel cared for when we’re on social media for long periods of time? Of course not, and that’s not its purpose, so let’s stop looking for something that isn’t there.
A church is more than a club as it’s not just a voluntary organisation for people with similar interests. It’s more than a product as people are called to give, not to receive. Treating the church like a club or a product is being able to worship the idol of consumerism but wanting to feel OK about it. It’s not how Jesus taught us to live together. The church is a group of people with a shared identity living their life together: people saved from their brokenness because God loves them.
The church is a reflection of God’s new kingdom on earth. Called to be an outpost of His character in this world. It’s so important to God that Jesus Himself is its leader. The church isn’t supposed to be mirroring the world around it, it’s called to reflect the new world that an all powerful, all loving God is on the mission of creating. This grand image of what the church is supposed to be comes about by acting like a family that loves each other well.
This family is created by a good Father who is always looking to adopt more. The pictures we hold up and look to aren’t of ourselves, or even our church family, but of one Image. The Image of Jesus, set above all. It’s His Image that frees us from our consumerism and self-obsession. The more we follow His Image, the more we are freed to love one another without expecting anything in return. It’s His Image that He is forming us into, and one day we will get to see His face. Until then, we live here on earth in imperfect-but-growing lives.
But you know what? We will all be tempted to use the church for our own individualistic and selfish means. We all want to relegate the church to social network status. It allows us to stay the same. But God isn’t scolding us, He has forgiven us. So when we realise we’re acting like this, we can tell Him we’re sorry (and maybe our brothers and sisters as well) and He forgives us. More than that, He’s given His Spirit to us that enables us to live in this radical more-than-social-network kinda way.
We aren’t perfect and aren’t expected to be. We are a church.