Social Media Can Foster Real, Meaningful Relationships

“Teenagers today don’t even know how to form a complete sentence because of technology.”

“People who use social media all the time don’t know how to engage in ‘real’ relationships.”

“He took his own life because of Facebook.”

“140 characters of evangelization? More like 140 characters of narcissism.”

I recently attended an in-service about using technology to pass on our faith and I was more shocked than I should have been at the vitriol (sorry, sometimes the English major in me really cannot pass up a great vocab word) that poured forth from my peers.

I shouldn’t have been shocked because I’m aware it’s out there – I hear it occasionally from parents, parish staff members and other adults I know. I was shocked partly because I’m so immersed into the culture of the inter-webs (as my grandmother still calls it) and social media that I can often be blind to its downfalls, but also partly because I just flat out disagree with so much of the criticism.

Authenticity

One critique I hear is that the anonymity of the Internet allows us to try on different personas and different attitudes in different places. This may have been true even 2 or 3 years ago, but today? Today, my Facebook and Twitter accounts are linked to my blog. My LinkedIn account talks to Google+ and any photo I take with Instagram gets posted on all my social networking sites. In other words, today it’s all connected.

Instead of fostering deception and masks, social media today challenges us all to a new level of authenticity. If I post something politically controversial to my Twitter account (which is more public and contains a lot of people I don’t know in real life), it’s only a short matter of time until my real life friends on Facebook are calling me out on it. If I make my way to a blog ‘s combox and start trolling away – posting hate and judgement, the people there can, with just one click, discover that I am a Catholic who actually works for the Church.

Now, that’s not to say that the whole “trying on of different identities” doesn’t still happen. It certainly does – but it happens outside social media as much as it does inside it. After all, I’m a little different with my Catholic friends than I am with my old bartender friends, and I’m a little different with my family than I am with the teenagers I serve…and I’m not naive. I know that the teens I work with are a little (sometimes a lot) different when they’re at our youth group than they are with their friends, and that they’re different with their family than they are on Facebook.

As Catholics who are using social media and technology, however, we are called to a greater authenticity – and we are called to challenge our brothers and sisters to that same authenticity when we see inconsistencies. We can only do those things, however, if we are actively engaged in using social media to build those relationships.

Meaningful Relationships

That challenge to build relationships within social media leads to the most common critique I hear: that technology has impeded our ability to form genuine, meaningful relationships. I understand where this criticism comes from. When you enter a room full of teenagers (or youth ministers) to see them all staring down at the glowing blue screen, fingers flying, but not actually looking at (let alone speaking to) one another, it is easy to jump to conclusions…and some of those conclusions are justified.

Before you jump to those conclusions and blame social media for all of society’s ills, let me present you with a different perspective.

When I started as a youth minister, I was young, fresh out of college, and unmarried. I am not any of those things any more. I’m old(er), just completed a Master’s degree and married with three children. However, most of the youth ministers I know are still young and unmarried – it seems to be the way most youth ministers start.

For a long time I struggled because I felt like, while I had some great friends and colleagues, I couldn’t truly relate to any of them. I didn’t have anyone I could talk to about the demands of balancing an active call to ministry within the Church with my primary vocation. They didn’t understand how torn I felt when I had to pass of our Bible study group to another adult in order to honor my time with my family…or worse, how heart wrenching it was to say no to have to leave a sick child at home to go on the Confirmation retreat.

We could talk about ministry in practical terms, tell funny stories about our teens, and laugh together as we shared our lives and our dreams with one another. But no matter how much I tried to build up those relationships, it always felt like there was something missing.

Then 7 years ago (holy cow, I really am getting old), I traveled to the mountains of Georgia to meet, dream, and vision with some of the greatest and holiest Catholic youth ministers in the United States.

Important clarification...they are great and holy, I am not ... in fact, I'm not really sure how I ended up in this group and I keep hoping they don't find out that I am, in fact, a giant fraud who does only adequate ministry, often forgets to pray, and is not even remotely graceful.

At Camp Covecrest, I finally found what was missing. I found youth ministers who were married with young children – who weren’t just doing youth ministry as a side job to bring in a little extra pin money at home, but who felt actively called to live out their baptismal call to serve the Church…and who shared in the joys and sorrows of this secondary calling in light of the demands of our primary vocations. I made some of my greatest and closest friends in those Georgia mountains.

LifeTeen's Camp Covecrest in Tiger, Georgia.

Here’s the thing – this gathering happens only once each year…and some years our family demands keep us from being able to attend. Each of recognized the treasure we had found at that gathering, and we realized that the true Christian fellowship and accountability we needed and wanted could not happen if we only met up once a year.

So we took to social media. We took the relationship seed that had been planted in our face to face encounters and nurtured it with technology. We challenged each other, prayed with and for each other, and we always looked forward to our annual retreat together. I have found some people with whom I am able to be vulnerable and weak, but also witty and fun. They like me, and I like them. We enjoy the virtual time we spend together and look forward to regular updates from one another.

We briefly considered creating a commune together. I think they think I'm kidding when I bring it up...

Social media did more than just enhance our relationships. It allowed us the freedom to create real Christian fellowship outside of the constrains of time and distance. Social media prevents people from having meaningful relationships? Ridiculous! Social media has formed and shaped some of the most meaningful and important relationships of my life.

To be clear, social media does not completely replace the joy of face to face interactions - as I type this, half of our TCR crew are on our yearly retreat together at Covecrest. We've been eagerly anticipating this since last year, and are sad that half the crew couldn't make it this year.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows

Social media hasn’t caused all of society’s ills, but I don’t labor under the delusion that it can cure them either. Like any tool, social media and technology can cause as many problems as it can overcome. However, instead of dismissing it as unimportant – or worse, rejecting it altogether – let’s work to create a standard for use that fosters the kinds of relationships I was able to find and develop there. Let’s hold one another accountable to an authentic life, allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and enjoy the freedoms that this medium allows us.

Just like St. Paul used the signs and symbols of the Roman empire to convert and enter into relationships with the early Gentile churches (Acts 14:8-20 and 17:16-34), we can use social media to enhance our relationship with Christ and with each other.

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