Social Media as Sacrament: A Thought For Rachel

Rachel sent out this Tweet today. And since I'm not on Twitter or Facebook this is the only location where I can venture a thought.

My two cents, but I think burnout is often the product of expectations. And one of the expectations I think Christians get caught up in is that it's our job to save or change the world.

This problem isn't new to social media. I see it a lot in my college students and in my local church context. You get a passion, say, for the poor and start pouring your life into that issue. But the needs are so overwhelming and your time, energy, influence and bank account way too limited to make a dent.

So you pull away from the big global challenges and focus on local ministries that reach out to the poor. You make new friends. But these new friends start asking you for money. Or they tell you lies to cover for their drug addiction. Or they steal from you. Or they are just too socially damaged to reciprocate the friendship. You give and give and give. And the need out there--even in just one person--seems like a vast hole you're throwing everything into. And getting nothing back. Eventually, you burn out.

A lot of us started out on the Jesus-life as radical young idealists. And then reality hit.

And I wonder--and I am just wondering here--if something similar doesn't happen with social media. We start thinking our blogs or Twitter accounts are "platforms," locations were social media influence can be used to make the world a better place.

So that's what you try to do. And sometimes it seems to work. You write something and the world responds. Your post goes viral and the comments fill up with words of gratitude.

Those are good days. I think I've helped people, in all sorts of ways, with something I've written. Words can give life.

And yet, the opinions and positions out there in the world of social media can be so calcified and dogmatic that conversation feels like banging your head against a wall.

Add to this the fact that social media "debates" tend to be so impersonalized that our worst selves get drawn to the surface. (The lack of face-to-face relationality recently discussed by Jamie the Very Worst Missionary.)

Which all adds up to the feeling that all our social media activity and advocacy isn't changing the world much at all. It feels rather, as I said, like we are banging our heads against the wall.

And sometimes it feels like we are making things worse, that the more we argue on social media the more polarized and entrenched we're becoming.

We are not connecting or changing. We are drifting further and further apart in confusion and anger.

So we get disillusioned with social media, like we do with any sort of ministry that sets out to change the world. We start off as idealists but when the world doesn't change as fast as we'd like it to we end up tired, disillusioned and, well, burnt out.

So, what to do about all this?

I can only speak from my own experience, both as a blogger and as someone who is working hard to make friendships "at the margins" as a part of a local church plant.

I don't know how I can solve the problems of many of my friends. The issues are daunting. Chronic poverty. Drug addiction. Mental illness. Physical disability. Cognitive disability. In the face of all this crushing need for the first time in my life I sort of get what Jesus meant when he said, "The poor you will always have with you."

I can't fix it or make it go away. I can't change the world. I'm not the Messiah. But I can be a sacrament. I can be sign of love, a sign of life. I can be a friend. In a cruel and inhumane world I can be a location of kindness.

I wonder if something similar might be necessary for social media.

I don't think I can change people's minds. I really don't. I don't think people are all that persuadable. So trying to persuade people is sort of like trying to address world poverty with your own checking account. If the poor will always be with us so will dogmatists. Myself included.

So I'm wondering, as I'm learning with issues like poverty, if we might learn to Tweet and blog sacramentally. The goal isn't to argue, debate, call out or "win." Because that game, as best I can tell, isn't winable. Minds don't change on social media. I've never seen it.

The goal is to use social media sacramentally. To be a sign, a sign of life and grace.

Looking back, my blog has been at its best when it has been sacramental. I wrote a post that told a story about love and grace. I shared something that educated, shed some light, inspired thought or reflection.

True, sacramental isn't all that viral. But maybe it could be. Slowly and quietly. A flicker here and a flicker there. Signs and sacraments. Eventually. Everywhere.

Maybe that's the way the world changes.

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61 thoughts on “Social Media as Sacrament: A Thought For Rachel”

  1. Sounds slow. Sounds good. Thanks for first embodying the sacramental before you wrote about it. Words are often hollow if they are not first filled with our testimony and experience. This is why I'm a frequenter of your books and blog. Thanks, Richard.

  2. You could be on to something here Doc! :-) As Stephen said, "Thanks for first embodying the sacramental before you wrote about it. " I love your blog. Peace.

  3. "Words can give life." Agreed! On the flip side, words can also be easily manipulated and enslave, or become so inflated (everyone HAS to give their opinion on social networking no matter how well thought out) that words start to mean nothing. I started a personal blog this month and have a lot of things to say. I compile those privately on Evernote until the words and thoughts are purified enough to share without any burdens or expectations. BTW, I love your coverage on Stringfellow. As a lawyer and lay student of theology, I got it right away.

  4. I love the idea of viewing our social media interactions sacramentally. Do you think that this requires an intention toward peace - with ourselves, God, and others? The first thing that came to mind when I read this post was the following passage from Merton's "No Man is an Island:"

    "We have to learn to commune with ourselves before we can communicate with other men and with God.... It is useless to try to make peace with ourselves by being pleased with everything we have done. In order to settle down in the quiet of our own being we must learn to be detached from the results of our own activity. We must withdraw ourselves, to some extent, from effects that are beyond our control and be content with the good will and the work that are the quiet expression of our inner life. We must be content to live without watching ourselves live, to work without expecting an immediate reward, to love without an instantaneous satisfaction, and to exist without any special recognition."

  5. "Minds don't change on social media. I've never seen it."

    Maybe because you don't see the minds you change? You convinced me of universalism, for what it's worth. Mind you, I was partway there before I found your blog, but I wasn't there. I wonder if the people you convince--if there are more than a handful, obviously I can't speak except for my own case--just don't record their change of mind where you can see it or are likely to see it. I wonder if this is true for most people, of course, not just you.

    And maybe, if I can't change other people's minds by using social media, I can create an opportunity for other people to change my mind where it needs changing.

  6. That's true. I do think minds can change if minds are open, seeking and in a liminal space. And online world is full of people in that in between place on a variety of issues.

  7. For what it's worth, some of your blog posts have really "blown my mind." I know that's an overused phrase, but it's really quite apt for some of the things you've said. Your post about "Piss Christ" in prison was really amazing. I immediately shared it with my wife (also a pastor) and she was just as struck as I was.

    And I've also had my mind changed by interactions on other social media. Radically and even, at the time, painfully changed. But, looking back, it was worth it. You mentioned "liminality" below. Liminality has become more and more a reality for me over the past 4-5 years due to my life life situation and my coming to grips with my sexual orientation and gender identity. I think the internet provides a unique place for "liminal Christians." At least, it has and continues to do so for me. Especially your blog. Thank you.

  8. I think there is also a darker side to bloggers burnout. Few, if any, of our - us sinners’ - motives and actions, whatever the idealism, are pure. As the blog-hits increase, the “Likes” add up, and the gratitude and adulation expressed in the comments become more fulsome (with the trolls providing a bit of chiaroscuro), a blogger’s vanity inevitably swells, a sense of responsibility and indeed indispensability to one’s fan-base sets in, the need for its constant sustenance grows, becomes excessive, obsessive, takes you over - your very identity is now at stake - and then - bam! - you are blog-dependent, you’re a junkie whose habit has to be fed by more post, better posts, and the steady stream of visitors and veneration they elicit. The laptop becomes a syringe. The blog- buzz becomes subject to the law of diminishing returns. And, of course, all addicts eventually burn out.

    With Stringfellow, you could say that blogging too may be/become a Principality/Power, bloggers burnout a sickness-unto-death suggestive of possession. Bloggers in the grip of this demon need to be exorcised. Perhaps only fasting (from the keyboard) and prayer (“Pray for us bloggers …”) can deliver us from this particular pathology.

    I’m only half serious, but therefore very serious, not least about not taking one's blogging so seriously.

  9. Wonderful post Richard. I truly appreciate your dedication to this blog. I am one of the silent readers of your material: blog posts and books. Thank you for enriching my life.

  10. I agree with Richard that expectations sometimes drive us. We expect to see results. We expect that what we have to say 'must be heard.' And, most of the time we're talking to the walls. The folks over at have some good things to say about staying centered on God to avoid burnout. One of the things that I'm finding for myself is to remember that social media is first and foremost, "social." It's a place where relationships...friendships, can be built. Sometimes just being a friend to someone who's hurting is all that we can, or should, do.

  11. RIchard,
    I have to say, I've been thinking about the social media (specifically Facebook) and blogging for some time. I'm a English Literature student who has seen (a little), who wants to continue to see, and wants others to see the interrelation between Religion (specifically Christianity), the world of Literature and a little bit of Philosophy.

    I've done quite a share of reading about blogging and how to start one. And I remember that I looked into this blog some months ago. Back then it was because I was needed to do research on Bonhoeffer and his theology, and your blog was very very helpful in helping grasp his concept of "religionless Christianity" and "a world come of age". So I looked into your blog voila! I come upon this blog post.

    It has truly been insightful and served to pull me down to the reality of blogging. I guess I was riding on cloud nine thinking about all the possibilities my blog could achieve. What is the probability of me chancing upon this post - that gave me a much needed perspective? I'd say pretty low.

    So thank you for persevering, thank you for being an encouragement. I think the wonder about Christian service and ministry is that we don't know whether we'll succeed, we might not see the fruits of our labour - but that is not what Christ calls us to. He calls us to faithfulness, and with our faithful, sometimes quite service of writing and sharing the Gospel - "slowly and quietly. A flicker here and a flicker there... the world changes".

    Grace be with you! =]

  12. Oh! And I quoted you in the essay I wrote. I scored a distinction for that paper, just an encouragement to keep up the good work! :)

  13. Thanks for the reminder. We should post to raise people up and encourage, to be FOR something instead of AGAINST. we could bring messages of peace, and comfort and praise, and compassion. Yeah, right: that stuff usually doesn't get re-posted!

  14. I'm honored.

    Yes, faithfulness. And I'd add joy. Find a way to blog (or do anything really) that is sustained by joy and not on results.

  15. Some of that is a matter of scale and where a blog sits in the social media ecosystem. Once your blog hits a certain size trolling becomes a problem. The initial warm cluster of friends finds itself dealing some fairly abusive party crashers. That can be hard on the heart. The early shine wears off pretty quickly.

    I feel this myself. I rarely get trolled, but when I do it bothers me. And I think I'm pretty psychologically well-adjusted. And still it bothers me. A trolling comment will stick in my head and I'll carry it through the day, like a thorn in my mind. And all the while I'm saying to myself, "Richard, why are you caring about what a hostile and unsavory person who you don't even know thinks about you? Plus, you know Richard, this is exactly why they did this, to get a rise out of you. So don't give them the satisfaction." And still, it'll be hard to shake! I think it's a psychologically issue. The mind is very attentive to negative feedback, especially social feedback. And that's adaptive and healthy. If you're doing something to offend people you better attend to it very quickly.

    But when that sensitivity gets imported into social media it creates real problems. Due to the depersonalized and anonymous of online interactions our exposure to abuse increases exponentially on social media. And yet our sensitivity to negative social feedback hasn't changed. Our interpersonal sensitives have evolved to handle face-to-face relationships. But with the rise of social media those sensitivities, highly adaptive in one relational ecosystem, take a beating and lead to psychological distress and dysfunction in another social ecosystem.

  16. I agree. I think social media is a lifesaver for liminal Christians looking for conversation and community. It's why I started blogging. I have a lot of unusual ideas and beliefs (especially given where I live and my faith tradition) and seven years ago was feeling spiritually and intellectually isolated and alone. But I found companions and friendship through this blog. I've never met most of my readers, but most of us are soul-mates. I don't feel alone anymore.

  17. Experimental Theology may or may not be changing the larger world, but it is certainly changing my world!

    In embracing evangelicalism as a young adult, I rejoiced to discover a personal, concrete understanding of the gospel. But soon I struggled with the evangelical understanding of inspiration and inerrancy. For the usual reasons. After 20 years of gnawing doubt, I discovered Timothy Beal, NT Wright, and now Richard Beck. The three of you gave me courage to build a new foundation for belief, one that depends on scripture, but doesn't resort to the "semi-science" of inerrancy. As you say, our main struggles are theological, not exegetical.

    And if that wasn't enough, you introduced me to Wendell Berry! What a gift! The Port William novels are remarkable.
    (I think Wendell Berry echoes William Stringfellow in places. Or is it the other way around?)

  18. "We are not connecting or changing" I think this is the statement that is truest for me right now. I haven't posted since (I think) early December and that's a natural part of my blogging pattern -- to take a breath -- but am not especially pulled back to it yet and it's almost the end of January. I am busy with other things because when it comes right down to it, my blog does zip. I can count the people who regularly comment on my blog on one hand, still have fingers left over, and one of them is my mother! More importantly, the connection seems tenuous and we don't really have much of a conversation as a result of a blog post (perhaps because i refuse to polarize) so *shrug* I don't know what to do with it. Currently.

  19. I'll add too, that I've been enriched by the presence of *Experimental Theology*.

    And not just the Stringfellow project (of which I have just about caught up -- due to having already read *An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens…*). The thoughts from your posts on "purity" (and reading your book) are still rattling in my cognitive chambers.

  20. Let me also add this. I think my post might leave the impression that a blog post, to be sacramental, has to be all sweetness and light. But prophets are sacraments as well. In our world and in Christianity dissent is often a sign of life. I think a good blog rant can be very sacramental and life giving.

    Wouldn't it be awesome if, say, John the Baptist had a blog? That'd be one epic blog.

    Still, while the prophets call for repentance, and even hope for it, they know that their vocation is going to be more lonely than "effective."

    The point is, if I do a blog rant I'm not really expecting anyone to change. A rant is too polemical for that. The rant isn't intended to persuade but to "give voice to the voiceless," to let the oppressed or marginalized or lonely know that they are not alone. The blog rant isn't an attempt to persuade but register a dissent to a status quo that is death-dealing. The rant is a haven of safety carved out with prophetic rhetoric. The rant is trying to give life to those feeling lost and alone, to let them know that there is "a voice crying out in the wilderness" and that voice is calling them home.

  21. " media debates tend to be so impersonalized that our worst selves tend to get drawn to the surface."

    A long time back I recall being weirded out by this simple comment that you made: "I think I see what you're up to with that [comment]..." I was taken back by the idea that there was anything to be "up to" except seeking the right answer, the "truth."

    Now I have learned a great many true things through this blog, but far and away the most important thing I've learned could not be credibly argued for with a single post, or even series of posts: that we can choose to allow the human heart--in the best sense--to guide our search for truth, and that the search for truth is not "harmed" by giving the heart its say. It's an idea that has to sink in over time by being demonstrated again and again--at least in my case. And so when you recently posted the autobiographical "I Chose the Tears," I was ready to understand what you've been up to all along, and to accept it as jot only a valid "method" to use ("method" in the sense of letting the human heart guide one's intellectual journey), but I've come to believe that that "method" is how Christian truth, per se, should be understood. After all, if Jesus represents "truth" for Christians, what can that possibly mean, if not that we allow our hearts to be softened to the point that we view truth through the lens of the Christ modeled in the NT?

    In fact, now I'm weirded out that I didn't see that--obvious to me now--when I first began reading your blog about seven years ago.

    So, yes, your blog has been sacramental to me, And it had to happen "Slowly and quietly. A flicker here and a flicker there."


  22. Seven years ago I started looking for social media outlets for my disillusionment/"liminal-ization" with all faith communities. I used to follow a large number of blogs. Now only this one, simply because your posts and essays are the only ones out there that resonate with me and there are 100's of 1000's of faith blogs out there. Maybe blogger burnout is a function of this fractional-ization (can't you add "-ization" to any word, and it's automatically a verb? Damn these spell-checkers). You can't change or even influence the entire blogosphere but you can influence your community. I feel a Merton quote coming on... .

  23. :) I've been reading for about 3 years. Still fun for me, too. And a huge influence in my life (for the better, I think.)

  24. I think this problem may be unique to social media where the desire for 'views' (attention) compounds the initial hope for change. The promise of increased traffic is a killer.

  25. A little about NT Wright though, his study of the Resurrection of Jesus is definitely very helpful. However, some Bible scholars disagree with his support of the "New Perspective on Paul".

    Richard, where do you stand on NPP?

  26. “And afterward,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
    Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your old men will dream dreams,
    your young men will see visions."
    Joel 2:28

  27. Oh wow, Richard! Thank you for blogging a response to my question! This is really helpful and insightful. I often have to tell myself: Don't write for your critics, Rachel. Write for the people you want to help feel less alone. This was a beautiful reminder of that original calling. I love thinking about blogging & social media as sacramental.

    (Though I will say, I've seen people change their minds about women in ministry/gender equality based on a series of blog posts. Which makes me think it's possible. Which is probably why I'm burned out. Ha!)

    As always, grateful for you.

  28. Rachel...thank you for that "write for the people you want to help feel less alone". I consider myself a writer, and started back into the blog world a few months ago. I don't have hundreds of people flocking to my posts, but I DO have a lot of self-doubt. Even still, I write because I feel moved to, and because if my words make one person feel less lonely or more "normal", mission accomplished. I was doubting myself just now (basically bc I'm not you or Glennon Melton or Jen Hatmaker or...), but your comment made a beeline for my heart and sunk in there deep. Thank you for the reminder.

  29. thanks richard. love your insight here. feel so blessed/lucky to listen to you teach on sunday morns.

  30. Well, if there was a blogger who I felt could change the world it would be you.

    Keep fighting the good fight. Just remember to rest between rounds. :-)

  31. to Rachel and Richard, you two are the only blogs I read everyday. I absolutely read your blogs sacramentally. I'm a writer myself and I know the pain of trying to make a blank page come alive. You both impress me tremendously. And you both make me feel less alone for sure!

  32. "I can't fix it or make it go away. I can't change the world. I'm not the Messiah. But I can be a sacrament. I can be sign of love, a sign of life. I can be a friend. In a cruel and inhumane world I can be a location of kindness." I work at a school with 10 year olds. This is all I can do. And it's a blessing to get to do this.

  33. Behaviorally, I don't think it looks different. Like I try to sketch in the post, it's about expectations. About who I'm writing for (audience) and why I'm writing (motivation). Along with expecting blow-back. When you write something prophetic you aren't tying to change the world. You are "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable." So you expect a polarized reaction. And that's sort of the point. No banging a head against a wall.

  34. "Too many of us dissipate our energy by being 'for all good causes,' attending meetings and passing resolutions, organizing and presenting petitions — all this effort to change others, when if we really got down to it we could use this energy to change ourselves… We become tired radicals because we use our weakest weapon: the ballot box, where we are always outnumbered, and refuse to use our strongest weapon: spiritual power."--Ammon Hennacy, The Book of Ammon

  35. I love these thoughts so much. Thank you for writing this! I particularly like the part about social media and blogging being a sacrament, a sign, not the whole picture. I blogged about part of this "quitting the internet" conversation this afternoon at
    Thanks again for this insight! As a young blogger and social media user I always appreciate hearing conversation like this!
    -Carlee Lane

  36. This is a very helpful word. As a blogger, who doesn't accrue a lot of comments, though enough traffic to know that I'm being seen, being able to see what I'm doing as sacramental -- as a sign of grace is helpful.

  37. I like the notion of using social media sacramentally, i.e. to be the vessel of at least a fleeting image of grace. That is what I've been trying to do for the past several months. Trying to win an argument or advance a point-of-view on Facebook is often futile, and it only contributes to greater polarization. That is why I am very selective about which posts I comment on. I am trying hard to limit my occasional in-your-face moments, Fb friends...I really am!

  38. Wow., this covers a lot of ground. My "project" for 2014, which started as an Advent project, is to basically avoid online arguments about political issues. I'll continue to express my views on social justice issues, etc., but instead of getting caught up in frustrating, and enervating debates, I'm going to concentrate my energies on sort of improving myself from the inside-out and acting in the world in ways that convey my convictions.

    I think a lot of times when we get into intense debates, we end up lost in the need for "immediate reward," "instantaneous satisfaction," and "special recognition" - to make our point, to be "right," and to convince the other person of these things.

    p.s. I'm quite excited to have discovered your blog Trischa - it's right up my alley!
    p.p.s. To Richard, and Rachel - thanks for all the ways you continually enrich my life and light to the world.

  39. I found your post such a informative and useful post,thanks for sharing the post. Know More

  40. I've read this three times and even teared up a little… I just want to thank you so much for the sacrament of your blog. I love it when you take all the pieces of everything I'm thinking and feeling and make such a beautiful mosaic that helps me sort things out and make some sense. Yeah. I just really love that.

  41. Thanks very much for this. I shared it on my Quaker listservs and facebook pages. A Jewish Friend send me the following:

    "Jews have a saying (of course): 'Save one person’s life and you’ve saved the world!' Imagine if EVERY Christian saved one person’s life? That would be Billions of people helped! Instead of saving souls, get folks to work on saving one person’s life!"
    Mike Shell

  42. So well said Mary. I too am remiss. But Rachel's blogs, and Sarah's are "soul strengthening" in a community which not so much denominationally tries to press believers into molds, but certainly culturally. Encouraging to have these fresh voices. Thank you.

  43. This, this is something to remember. The work I'm most proud of has been written in the quiet morning moments, filled with grace and contemplation. They feel like whispers, unnoticed, but they are what matter most to me. It's so easy for me to want the flashy and the viral but I really do believe its the signs and sacraments will change the world. Thank you for articulating this for me. And thank you for the encouragement!

  44. This sounds like an interesting idea but I'm in the dark about what 'sacramental' actually means. The idea of things being 'sacramental' to be cropping up a bit lately, particularly amongst evangelicals who are interested in orthodox traditions - could it be becoming a new addition to the lexicon of Christian jargon?

  45. I sincerely hope that if it is added to the lexicon of protestant christian jargon, that it be used in the right manner.

  46. Beautiful. On my blog (freedhearts) I advocate for the LGBTQ community, and on the good days (as you said), I know I am really bringing the love of Christ to these marginalized people Jesus died for. But sometimes I do feel I'm hitting my head against the wall. This is a really beautiful remembrance to me of what I'm here for. God may change someone's mind through my work -- I think he has -- but HIS work really makes it happen. That's a comfort to me. Thank you, Richard.

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