The Kingdom of God In an Alien Digital World

I have a new book coming out in June; it’s called Editing Jesus: Confronting the Distorted Faith of the American Church. In the ramp-up to the launch of the book, I’m trying something new. I’ve asked my college-age daughter Emma to do what she does best—post teasers about it on my social-media accounts. I’m actually paying her to do this for me one hour a week through the book’s release.

In her first week “on the job,” Emma posted on my Instagram account a carousel of images with some sobering stats about church disillusionment drawn from the book. Then she re-posted that carousel to my Facebook account—not a digital space she frequents, because it’s “for old people.” Within seconds one of my Facebook followers commented on the post, pointing out a typo in one of images and asking how a lifelong writer and editor could have missed something so obvious. I saw the typo, sent a note to Emma asking her to fix it, then offered a lighthearted response and a thank-you to the post-er.

My daughter saw the original comment, then texted me this: “Did you see the person’s comment on your Facebook post? I can’t believe how mean people are on Facebook—you’d never see that kind of response on Instagram!” Emma was implying that the younger-skewing digital landscape of Instagram is more forgiving and supportive than the older-skewing Facebook. And maybe she’s dead-on about that. But her reaction emphasized a disorienting truth…

Never before in our history have so many young people lived in an immersive, forming environment that is effectively protected from adult oversight. She knows little about my world, and I know little about her world.

This reality was underscored for me by a carefully researched New York Times piece called “Our Kids Are Living In a Different Digital World.” Writer Emily Dreyfuss, herself the parent of young children, is author of the book Meme Wars: How the Fringe Conquered the Mainstream. I’m offering a few bulleted excerpts from the article, with two questions to mull as you immerse yourself in her observations:

1) How can I help parents move from digital outsiders to digital insiders?

2) How can I help parents find ways to connect with their kids, offering a Kingdom-of-God perspective on the influences they’re experiencing in this alien digital world?

  • “As a longtime tech reporter, I thought I was well acquainted with the dangers of the internet. I co-wrote a book about them. I don’t let my young children even know about YouTube. But I was stunned by the vast forces that are influencing teenagers. These forces operate largely unhampered by a regulatory system that seems to always be a step behind when it comes to how children can and are being harmed on social media. Parents need to know that when children go online, they are entering a world of influencers, many of whom are hoping to make money by pushing dangerous products. It’s a world that’s invisible to us, because when we log on to our social media, we don’t see what they see. Thanks to algorithms and ad targeting, I see videos about the best lawn fertilizer and wrinkle laser masks, while [my son] is being fed reviews of flavored vape pens and beautiful women livestreaming themselves gambling crypto and urging him to gamble, too.”

  • “Maybe the best way is to explain just how different things are in the social media era from when today’s parents were teenagers. Take me, for example, an Xennial who came of age with grunge and Nickelodeon. This was the ’90s, when magazines ran full-page Absolut Vodka ads in different colors, which my friends and I collected and taped up on our walls next to pictures of a young Leonardo DiCaprio—until our parents tore them down. This was advertising that appealed to me as a teenager but was also visible to my parents, and—crucially—to regulators, who could point to billboards near schools or flavored vodka ads in fashion magazines and say, this is wrong. Even the most committed parent today doesn’t have the same visibility into what her children are seeing online, so it is worth explaining how products like Zyn [a new form of packeted nicotine you slide under your bottom lip, suddenly popular with young people] end up in social feeds.”

  • “[Influencers] aren’t traditional pitch people. Think of them more like the coolest kids on the block. They establish a following thanks to their personality, experience or expertise. They share how they’re feeling, they share what they’re thinking about, they share stuff they like—and sometimes they’re paid by the company behind a product and sometimes they’re not. They’re incentivized to increase their following and, in turn, often their bank accounts. Young people are particularly susceptible to this kind of promotion because their relationship with influencers is akin to the intimacy of a close friend. With ruthless efficiency, social media can deliver unlimited amounts of the content that influencers create or inspire. That makes the combination of influencers and social media algorithms perhaps the most powerful form of advertising ever invented.”

In what ways can you help parents in your church navigate, cope with, and bring redemptive presence into these online influencing spaces? If you would like help as you explore what that might mean for you and your congregation, reach to connect with a Vibrant Faith Ministry Leadership Coach. Just CLICK HERE for more information. Coaching is an intentional process that moves you forward into the future you long for.  

Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following JesusHe’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible and author of 40 books, including The Suicide Solution, The Jesus-Centered Life and Jesus-Centered Daily. In the Spring of 2024 his new book Editing Jesus: Confronting the Distorted Faith of the American Church will be published. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.







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