I recently came across an article about an Australian Instagram star named Essena O’Neill who allegedly quit social media and admitted that a lot of it was a fake highlight reel of her life. She confessed things like it took her 50 takes for one photo, then she used Photoshop to fix it, and that this kind of thing was typical of all her posts.
This didn’t strike me as “news” or some kind of revelation about how social media works, but it was still interesting to read an article or two about this.
Her account seems to be completely gone since I originally wrote this in 2015, as are the embed images in articles from the time, but if you want an idea of what I’m talking about you could check out the Socialite Barbie Instagram account instead. This account makes fun of the near-perfectness of “authentic” social media posting.
That being said, would you believe me if I told you missionaries and ministers of the Gospel fall prey to the same type of thing?
Humblebragging and selflesslies as Jeremy Mangerchine told me to call it.
From time to time I have people ask me or imply that I don’t post enough about what I’m doing in Peru as a missionary. The idea is that if I’m a missionary I’m supposed to post a lot more missionaryish things on Facebook than I usually do. I totally understand this sentiment, even though an *equal* part of my ministry is the online things we do, and I hardly fail to share my latest blogs, podcast episodes, book releases and other promotions.
Considering I teach in a ministry school, we’ve been having a Bible study on a weekly basis in our home and my wife and I spend time chilling doing informal things with our disciples as well, I feel as though my day-to-day or week-to-week life can be a little…. boring.
Who wants to see pictures of that?
Am I supposed to update EVERY time I teach a class?
Am I supposed to Instagram every time I pray for someone or counsel someone or teach them something?
Should I post every single healing or miracle we see or find out about in our ministry to the internet the way some people take selfies with their food?
How Are You Presenting Yourself on Social Media?
Before getting to where I’m going with this, I need to point out that supporters may want to check in on the missionaries or the non-for-profit organizations they’re financing by checking their social media profiles and seeing what pictures they’re sharing, what updates we’re posting, and so on. Luckily for Lili and me, rarely do supporters of ours seem to care about that stuff [on social media] as we keep in touch with as many of them as possible on Skype and in personal email exchanges.
Once in a while someone approaches me with a concern for something I shared (or lack of newsletters) and wants to double-check on us that we’re OK. So, in that sense there’s some accountability and concern if we’re making jerks of ourselves online and giving off a public stench in the name of Jesus.
However, I personally may have swung the pendulum too far the other way to avoid shameless self-promotion, which I get accused of more often with my books anyway, and humblebragging on social media. That being said, I have to admit I am not really talking about that today.
At least not intentionally.
I’m talking about the “selfie ministry” that I’m seeing take place a lot more than I’m comfortable with.
I was prompted to think of this after a ministry I follow on Facebook posted a video of themselves going into a restaurant they were just in and blessing their waitress with some perfume she had indicated she liked the smell of. They decided to go around the corner, purchase this expensive perfume that the waitress couldn’t afford, and made her day when they surprised her with a bottle of it.
And of course, all on film so Facebook could know about it.
I don’t want to question motives, but what happened to when Jesus said not to do your good works to be seen before men (see Matthew 5:16 and 6:1)? Or not to let your left hand know what your right hand is doing when giving to the poor and needy (6:3)?
Can you imagine Jesus taking a selfie of everybody present on the day he preached the sermon on the mount? Or hashtagging something about feeding the 5000 thousand in real-time?
When Philip led the Samaritans to Christ in Acts 8, and word reached headquarters in Jerusalem and they sent Peter and John to follow-up and pray for all the new believers to receive the Holy Spirit, the reason they knew it happened wasn’t that Philip had uploaded a live video to his YouTube channel.
I’ve said if the Internet were available to the Apostle Paul, he would have used it to maximum effect in spreading the Gospel and giving God the glory. But I cringe more and more when I see the kinds of ways ministers of the Gospel are inadvertently, or perhaps intentionally, glorifying themselves “in God’s name” with their social media posts.
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1-4, NIV)
Perfectly-Timed Photo-Ops to Broadcast Our Humble Service
Now I’m not saying we should hide the ministry we’re doing in a false sense of humility about what the Lord is doing in us and through us. But sometimes I see people’s posts and the things they share and think “I wonder how many times they took a photo before getting that one?” Or, from my own experience in the first few years I lived in Peru, “did they do that just so it would look good in a social media photo” and make sure a camera was handy before doing that ministry?
But the other side to that coin is that a lot of us know all too well that when you’re doing ministry off in another culture, social media can be a very instant way you can ask for prayer support and let people know exactly what you’re doing. So, I’m NOT begrudging or judging that at all.
Please hear my heart.
But with regard to the humblebragging and selflessies I see ministries and short-term mission teams post all the time (“hey, look how humble and Christlike I’m being by doing this and posting about it!”), I mentioned some similar thoughts in a past article of mine I called “Confessions of a Millennial Missionary”.
I’ve also been with other seasoned missionaries in settings in Peru who have had as much a keen eye for good photo ops as I’d expect of any politician. One time, a missionary pointed out to me a deaf child and told me “Steve, take a picture of that kid and put him in your newsletter — people loooooove giving money when they see deprived children“.
When I was transitioning into the missional community I’m apart of now, another advisor in my life at the time warned me that “people don’t like giving money to organic disciple-making, they want to see you building a church, school or an orphanage, or running a feeding program”.
If that’s the nature of the mission and non-profit beast, then I accept that.
But I’ve vowed to not let it define what and how I share content on social media.
You Know Who Are Good at Crafting Great Photo Ops? Politicians
During the Canadian election we just survived, I saw a video on our now-former Prime Minister Stephen’s Facebook page of him going into a Tim Horton’s to meet with elderly people to have a down-to-earth meet and greet. I resisted the urge to comment on the video and point out how great it was that he would do that — with all his entourage and video crew to film and use it in his campaign and on social media.
The day after Justin Trudeau won the election and became our new Prime Minister, a video surfaced on social media of him at a local subway stop in his Montreal riding, shaking hands with commuters on their way to work and thanking them for voting for him. Conveniently enough, while people were posting this and gushing over how down-to-earth of a thing this was for him to do, he was surrounded by well-placed cameras that just happened to already be rolling as he came in and captured it all on film.
Politicians on both the left and the right know how to make the best of well-staged photo opportunities. Unfortunately, ministries and missionaries fall into this trap, too.
Can’t we do things for our neighbors or people we come in contact with on a daily basis without humble-bragging about it on social media?
Can we do these things even if they remained a secret for nobody to know about but our God in heaven who sees what is done in secret and says He will reward us (Matt 6:4)?
Do we only do things to receive the praises of men on Facebook?
I was talking to someone on Facebook the other day who told me the following:
“I see this A LOT, especially among short-term missionaries, but there are also some problems with long-term ones as well. We recently found out about a mission that really only exists in photo-ops. The “missionaries” actually live in the States and only come to [our country] once a year for a big to-do with lots of photos and gifts for the locals for participating. They make their living like this. In one project we headed up a few years ago, we made a decision that when short-term teams came, they could volunteer, but they could not take pictures, because that’s basically all they were doing. This kind of thing is a big problem, an elephant in the room for sure.”
I’ve seen short-termers post photos on social media over the years and thought “wait, what?” in the same way — having done less in reality than they portrayed in their Facebook photos and statuses, but the photos would make you think they got to walk a mile in Mother Theresa’s shoes for a week while they were here and that they personally ended world poverty.
But to be honest, I’ve always kinda sucked at Instagramming my life and posting selfies of what I’m doing all the time. Every time I sit down to write a newsletter, I struggle to find appropriate pictures to use because of the old adage that people who read newsletters want to see lots of pictures, but I often have few appropriate ones to include.
I get that.
And I feel like after 7 plus years of this I should be better at taking missionary selfies.
Steve, What’s Your Point?
Long story made short, the Lord asked me something many months ago when I posted an update about the latest neighbor of ours we led to Christ: “Steve, are you posting that update so you can show off, or because you want to glorify me and celebrate that someone who was once lost is now found?“
I have to admit, I felt like I was caught with my hand in the cookie jar. I definitely thought “this will get lots of likes” but now I felt like my true motives and desires were exposed.
This has had a genuine impact on the type of content I post on social media, and even how I write newsletters or describe things we’ve seen the Lord do here in Peru.
Can I close this post with a simple challenge for you?
- Can you do that good deed of yours without Instagramming it?
- Can you wait at least 30 days to tell the world about it?
- If it is too difficult to resist the urge to broadcast it, ask yourself why.
Don’t use social media to impress people; use it to impact people. Make a difference.
— Gav Black (@GavinBlack_) October 27, 2015