|FTER GIANTS SUCH AS YAHOO, YOUTUBE, Windows Live, and Google, can you name the fifth-most-visited Web site on the Internet? If you guessed eBay.com, the huge auction site, you would be wrong; it is number 23. If you thought it was Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, that would be incorrect as well; it ranks number 9. How about Amazon.com? No, that is number 43. Microsoft.com? Wrong again; that is actually ranked number 18. The correct answer is the social networking site MySpace.com; and its competitor Facebook.com is close behind at number 6. In fact, four of the 10-most-visited Web sites are dedicated to social networking, with MySpace and Facebook being the two most popular on the Internet.1
Social networking Web sites are quickly becoming cornerstones of the Internet experience, at least for the younger generations, and it is no different for Adventists. As increasing numbers of youth flock to these sites and create online communities of their own, Adventist churches and schools are beginning to recognize the important role this medium is playing in the lives of their members and students.
A Whole New World
Doug Brown, principal of Lodi Adventist Academy in Lodi, California, recently expressed his concern about the insulated lives that youth currently lead. “When I was growing up, your parents heard your music, they heard your phone calls, and they knew your friends,” he said. “There was nothing your parents didn’t know. Now, the deal with iPods, Internet, cell phones, MySpace—kids can have a life completely separate from their parents. That’s a scary thing and some parents are at a total loss.”
The fact that Brown is not alone in his concern about these Web sites is just one indication of how popular online social networks have become. As with any medium, the potential for good walks hand-in-hand with the possibilities for evil. And with these social outlets gaining so much popularity, Adventists must examine the advantages and disadvantages of them.
The main purpose of these sites is to allow users to keep in contact with friends—a process requiring users to send a request and be approved to be a MySpace or Facebook “friend.” MySpace, with the slogan “a place for friends,” makes it easy for users to see what is happening in each other’s lives. Facebook, “a social utility that connects you with the people around you,” allows you to choose online groups you want to belong to, whether that is decided by school, geography, religion, etc.
While serious tragedies, such as suicide,2 have been linked to social networks, the vast majority of interactions seem to be enjoyable for users, and a lot of young Adventists, like their non-Adventist peers, have embraced these Web sites. Ask Adventist young people whether they have a MySpace or Facebook page and they might answer that they have one of each, with some probably able to tell you exactly how many online friends they have.
On these sites users can upload pictures, play music, show videos, leave each other messages, post blogs, and share their thoughts on various topics that include favorite movies, TV shows and books, interests, schools, dating status, sexual orientation, physical characteristics, hometowns, employment history, and of course, their feelings about religion. They provide users with the freedom to break out of their private spheres of iPods and cell phones and show the world who they really are.
A Witnessing Tool?
Pastors have recognized the opportunity to connect with their members in these online communities and started their own social networking pages. But seeing some of the candid materials people display on their pages can be shocking for ministers. Tim Mitchell, senior pastor of the Pacific Union College church in Angwin, California, checks his page about four times a week, and has been surprised on occasion by things that are posted. While some choose to display inappropriate material, others are very religious. Sometimes Mitchell finds a mixture of religious and secular information on their personal sites. “They walk in two worlds far better than we do,” he said.
While some of the content on their members’ pages might not depict a lifestyle that they approve of, this realm of authentic self-expression offers pastors an avenue to minister to the previously unknown needs of their members. “As Christians, we get so used to covering things up that maybe that’s one of the positives—people are messed up but they are honest about it,” said Jon Cicle, pastor of the Vallejo Central Adventist Church in Vallejo, California. “Real life is being shared and that can be a positive or negative thing.”
Tracy Baerg, associate pastor at the Lodi-Fairmont Adventist Church, has been part of the MySpace world for three years and checks his page multiple times every day for updates. He recognizes that kids are on these Web sites and so he uses it to reach them. “I want to be out there in the community where the youth are,” he said. “These sites are a tool.”
However, even though he’s a pastor, Baerg doesn’t believe his entire page has to be about Christianity. “I can use MySpace as a bridge. On my page, I show them the Christian stuff first. Some kids aren’t into anything Christian at all, so I use other items to give them something to relate to.”
Scott Ward, an associate pastor at the Lodi-English Oaks Adventist Church, is currently using his MySpace page as a bridge as well, not only to reach the youth at the local Adventist academy, but also those at a local public high school. “The MySpace site is part of the ‘community building’ aspect in our club. I go to students’ sites to learn more about them. When I add kids as friends, some of them get really excited about it and talk to me more at school, too. Because we’re ‘friends,’ it’s almost like an online visitation.”
Baerg strongly believes that churches, schools, and homes should get involved with these sites. He and several parents held a seminar about MySpace about a year ago. One participant explained how parents can start an account so they can be better acquainted with what their children are doing. Baerg emphasized that while these sites can be fun, some thought should be put into what people display. “Users need to think about what they are portraying.”
In, but Not Of
Involvement with these secular sites leads to necessary questions on how Adventists should portray themselves online and on how Adventism and secular themes should mix. “The question comes down to how to be in the world but not of the world,” said Cicle. “Everybody has to judge for themselves.”
During a sermon in November 2007, Dwight Nelson, senior pastor of the Pioneer Memorial Church in Berrien Springs, Michigan, underscored the point that users of these social networks must be careful how they present themselves on these sites. “Do you realize how much you are exposing yourself to the world by the pictures you post on MySpace?” he asked. “Do you understand? The world sees.”
Some Adventists believe that it is almost impossible not to be of the world if one is a member of secular social networking sites. Tony Nxumalo, along with other youth from the Stratford Adventist Church in London, England, started Adventplanet.com as an Adventist alternative to secular sites. The purpose of Adventplanet is not solely to escape from the potentially scandalous nature of the other sites, but to intentionally promote spirituality among its members. “Many of our Adventist family, both male and female, represent themselves on their social networking profiles in scantily clad fashion or allure the profile reader with provocative and seductive language and poses,” said Nxumalo. “The Bible teaches us to be humble, but we found that many of our own were online for self-glorification and it was very distracting when looking to share spiritual companionship.”
In a short survey of Adventists who do use these types of secular Web sites, respondents, a majority of whom wanted to remain anonymous, expressed strong opinions regarding how Adventists should use these sites. Their responses mirrored different attitudes that can be found in each user’s unique site.
Some believe that these social networking sites are only about connecting with friends and there should not be a component of evangelism involved. “I think it should be used to help socialize among each other, not necessarily to push a certain belief system,” wrote one.
“Social networks are just a way to keep in touch with friends. If you’re bringing the friend to Christ, then great. But the role of these sites is just to link friends,” wrote another.
Some mentioned the positive feature of connecting with Adventist youth, considering that some live in places where there aren’t many. “I think it’s a great way to connect with my old friends who are no longer close enough for me to see consistently. There aren’t a lot of similar-aged Adventists in my area, so it’s a great support,” said one MySpace user who checks their page every day.
Stephanie Jordan, who helps coordinate young adult events at the Adventist church in Berkeley, California, added, “Social networks should help Adventists from everywhere connect with each other.”
There are other users who are supportive of the direct opportunities for witnessing that these sites provide. “Social networks should complement our lifestyle and be an effective tool for witnessing,” wrote one MySpace user.
“Christianity is a lifestyle, not a once-a-week habit. Social networks are an automatic part of one’s lifestyle, and if a person is Christian, their social networks should reflect that,” wrote another.
Another response came from a person who utilizes MySpace, Facebook, and Friendster (another social networking site): “For the Web it’s a great way to witness. If you’re trying to reach other people while sharing about yourself, it helps to stay consistent so that other people know what you stand for, plus people don’t become confused about what you believe.”
Just as Mitchell referred to the two worlds that the youth walk in, 83 percent of the respondents believe there is nothing inconsistent in displaying both religious and secular materials on one’s page. Yahea Abdulla checks his MySpace and Facebook pages every day and he wrote, “Secular stuff isn’t necessarily evil. If there are things that do go against your values on your social network page, perhaps the priority should be to get it out of your life rather than just be a hypocrite online.”
While Abdulla believes it’s healthy to mix some Christianity with secular subjects, another respondent offered the opposite point of view: “If you put on the Web page that you are a Christian or Seventh-day Adventist and you have other images, music, or type that really lead one to think that maybe you aren’t a Christian, [this can] possibly cause them to wonder if Christians are what they say they are—people living for God.”
Amanda Newton, who works for Glendale Adventist Medical Center in Glendale, California, sometimes includes religious references on her Facebook page. But she thinks people don’t have to make a choice between one or the other. Rather, it’s about the type of secular items you include. “Just because you are a religious person doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy secular things that are in keeping with your beliefs,” wrote Newton. “We’re supposed to be in the world, not of it. So I think that plays into having interest in secular things, but not allowing them to define you.”
Baerg makes the same distinction in his talks with youth. “Things become inappropriate when it comes into conflict with our relationship with Christ.” Though it’s been hard for him to see some of the content on their pages, Baerg is getting involved to change that. “We’re going to try to impact the community in a positive way,” he said. “These sites just happen to be a tool that needs more accountability factored in.”
It is evident that social networking sites do have some drawbacks, but they are also powerful instruments for good—from the simple task of staying connected with friends to the divine commission of spreading the gospel. And with the ever-increasing popularity of these sites it is becoming imperative that one must be aware of the unseemly things that exist on these pages, but remain focused on the incredible positives that this relatively new medium brings to the gospel work.
“It’s easy to focus on the scandalous, but I’ve read some really great stuff, things like revelations that a young person had on a mission trip—[discoveries] that are so deep,” said Cicle. “It gives us a lot of insight into the multiplicity of our lives. If you are looking for scandals, you will be scandalized. If you are looking for the inspirational, you will be inspired.”
2Christopher Maag, “A Hoax Turned Fatal Draws Anger but No Charges,” New York Times, November 28, 2007, www.nytimes.com/2007/11/28/us/28hoax.html?_r=2&oref=slogin&oref=slogin; accessed March 20, 2008.
Stephanie Kinsey serves as the communication director at the Northern California Conference. Tyler Kraft, communication assistant there, will be leaving to attend the seminary at Andrews University this fall. This article is dedicated to Sharon Kraft, who lost her battle with cancer last November and would have celebrated her next birthday on the date of this issue.