Social Media & The Short-Term Missionary

We’ve all seen it, and some of us might not want to admit it, but we’ve been there. The perfect Instagram shot of a mission trip. It’s hard to distinguish between the purpose of the trip and the purpose of the post. Is this about “likes” or the Kingdom? There’s nothing inherently wrong with social media, but let’s dialogue a bit about the collision of social media and short-term missions.

One of the dangers of social media is creating a virtual life, separate from reality. We don’t often realize it, but we may use social media to numb or escape our boring or painful existence. The problem is, when we go on a mission trip, everything we feel in our culture (and everything we escape from) will be exaggerated because of the atmospheric change of the new culture. Social media can especially help us escape one of the scariest things in our society - silence. It’s hard to wait in general, but when we’re always connected, always hurried in the deepest parts of us, it’s really hard to stop, rest and be quiet. It’s hard to let our minds wander and be patient, but much of serving God, and much of other cultures are filled with natural places of pause. Wanting to escape will especially happen when we’re in a new place with new people, and missing faces or activities from home. Instead of the weight of figuring out what to do, it’s easier to pull out our phones. We might also be tempted because we don’t want to “miss out” on things happening while we’re away.

Social media is especially addictive because it lacks the “stop” triggers normally present at the end of a newspaper or an article. We can end up scrolling and scrolling… and spending way more time on things we actually value less. If we value being present and engaged, and if we know this is healthy, how can we set good boundaries on our screen time / social media use while on the field?

These are personal convictions, not mandates. We encourage prayerfully considering this, inviting accountability, and creating a new rhythm for your time on the field. The biggest argument against posting a bunch is not saying “no” to the “evils” of social media but a better “yes” to being aware and present. When we do this, we choose deep conversations, richer relationships, more intimacy with our team(s), and better personal tools as we learn to engage in awkward, difficult or new situations. We’ll develop longer attention spans, allowing space for creativity.  We desire most of all for you to be healthy, to use social media as a tool, but know how to connect and be present. Here are some rules as you think about using this tool to share and connect with others.

Examining motivation. 

Ask questions. “Why am I posting this?” “How does this make me look?” “Is this an accurate portrayal of the local culture or church?” “What story does this communicate about the local culture or church?” “Who does this honor?” This helps us identify unhealthy motivations for posting. If you’re still unsure, try sleeping on it or taking a few hours to consider if you really want to post.

 

Picking the hero. 

The more we can highlight local ministries and heroes, the better. Those are the real stories to tell. Your photos can tell stories about local church members or missionaries, who are doing long, faithful, sometimes mundane work, or who are stepping out boldly in faith in their community. This is an opportunity to not use social media as it’s often used - a platform to make much of ourselves - and instead, honor others serving the Lord, or even call for prayer for those we go to partner with. 

Use a post to teach or break stereotypes. 
Use a post as a teaching tool about missions or culture, especially when it broadens perspecive. In the DR, a post sharing about the local church leading in zeal and listening to the Holy Spirit could give better perspective of the Majority World Church. A photo of a typical after-church meal may reveal the beauty of collectivist culture blended with the church. Glimpses of “real” ministry are helpful for people – especially elevating relational ministry and listening over projects and tasks.

Call for prayer.
Social media can be a tool to unite, if we choose to use it that way! Prayer is a great uniter. We may get to see immediate impact because of prayer, or it could be an ongoing situation that we choose to stand in faith with those in the midst of it - regardless of whether we stick around to see results. Sharing a need, whether on your team or from the local church, can unite brothers and sisters around the world in prayer for God to move. Faith can be multiplied as we join together to pray. 

Don’t shame or pick a fight. 
Never use social media to shame or call out. Online conversation can easily dissolve into arguments. We forget people are behind online accounts, and hurt follows. You may be experiencing convictions or new insights, perhaps into American culture, during your time away. Creating a post intended to “jolt” everyone to your new reality may cause them to bunker down more in their way of thinking. People tend to have reactionary responses when engaging over the Internet. These conversations are best had in person. Social media is not a tool to change the opinions of others. 

If you do anything, just don’t do this.
Avoid posting pictures of [most often white] Americans with underprivileged people for the sake of a “like”. This narrative is so perpetuated online that avoiding it is most helpful. We understand you may build relationships with awesome kids during your time. You can both take and save photos for yourself, but if you’re choosing just a few photos to tell the story, these may get lost in the noise of typical missions trip photos.