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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Facebook is a Place of Prayer

My little congregation[1] routinely provides me with the richest spiritual moments I’ve ever experienced. Each Sunday we gather for prayer, study, and worship, and each Sunday I am confronted by the ever-challenging reality of God by the words of my friends. Just this last Sunday a friend at the table referred to Facebook as “a place of prayer.” I’ve been thinking about that statement and my own experience in social media and I’m convinced that my friend is correct – Facebook is certainly a place of prayer.[2]

Social media is nothing new, and in fact Facebook is already considered “for old people” by middle- and high-school students now. I am not a social media native – I was included in the launch of Facebook when it came to Baylor University in 2004 and have been a participant since. Those who have been born and raised in the post-Facebook era are more at home with Twitter and Instagram today, although surely even that will quickly change. 

The transformative power of social media is undeniable. We have only to look at the Arab Spring[3], the Boston Marathon Bombings[4], and even today’s news concerning the New England Patriots[5] to realize that something has changed in the way we find information and how we relate to the world as individuals. I wish the most sincere “good luck” to all those sociologists and PhD dissertation writers who are tackling this new way of making society – we’ll surely need you in generations to come.

How can we speak of Facebook as a place of prayer? One doesn’t have to dig too deeply to find postings of the most vile, evil things in our world. There are plenty of good things in those News Feeds too, though, things that warm the heart and cause the soul to sing. Good evidence for both can be easily found today in response to the Supreme Court decisions concerning the Defense of Marriage Act. [6]

The specific posts or comments are not the essence of the Facebook-as-sanctuary idea, though. Instead, Facebook is a community, a society, and an environment that is conducive to the prayers of the people much like our individual churches. Facebook has become something like the old Prayer Meetings of my youth – a gathering of people voicing their concerns and petitions alongside their words of thanks to God. We would listen to these concerns and then wrap them up together in a prayer together, collectively binding together the burdens of our hearts into one voice.

When I read my News Feed I often think of those “popcorn” requests that come from all over the sanctuary. In that way I am constantly thrust into something that resembles constant prayer. It seems with every breath I have a reason to ask for God’s mercy in someone’s life or to utter a silent “thanks be to God” when good news come across the wire. In that way I think we practice that Biblical admonition to “pray without ceasing”[7] and to “bear one another’s burdens.”[8] I don’t have to wait until Wednesday or Sunday to hear of God’s grace in my friends’ lives; I am present to the news.

Rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep is the essence of what Facebook becomes in many cases.[9] It is an opportunity for our scattered relations to offer words of support and Christian love to one another in real time. These are not mere words – they are an instance of believers being the Presence of Christ in the virtual world.

The very existence of social media is a testimony to the fact that we need each other and we need to be heard by one another. There is a sense in which a status update is a shout into the darkness: we declare our thoughts or feelings or needs in the hopes that someone will read them and understand. We yell in faith that someone will respond. Such is the act of prayer. We do not scream into the darkness, though; we speak words of true emotion and of our true spirit into the world, as well as to God.

What we believe about prayer will certainly color how we treat Facebook and other social media. I find that prayer is a posture of the spirit toward God on the one hand and the world on the other.[10] The content of prayer is not as critical to me as the spirit behind that prayer; sometimes words aren’t the point at all.[11] In our openness to God through prayer we are often “disoriented”[12] and see ourselves less selfishly, becoming open to the world for which Christ died. We, through the vulnerability that comes with prayer, participate in the sacred communion with God that is so essential to sustaining a life of faith in this world.

I was raised in the era of “quiet time,” which compartmentalized Biblical study and prayer as something of a holy diversion early in the morning. This was a helpful introduction into daily Bible reading and intentional prayer, but it did little to develop in me a sense of prayer as a posture throughout the day. Believers are encouraged to maintain both a sacred time of spiritual solitude for communion with God[13] as well as that ever-elusive command to “pray without ceasing.” Facebook helps me practice just that. As I read the needs and concerns of my friends in my News Feed, and as I see the many, many exclamation points when they are rejoicing (grandma came through surgery!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) I am thrust headlong into a holy moment of prayer.

It is true that not everything said on Facebook, especially by believers, is holy and righteous.[14] We need to be better stewards of the Fruit of the Spirit on Facebook. We need to be people of kinder, more careful, and certainly less contentious speech. We need to be more thoughtful in what we say, what we “like,” and what we re-post. There is nothing inherently evil about Facebook, Twitter, or other social media. Just like every other way in which people gather and speak there is good, bad, and ugly within it. However, there is a sense in which Facebook is good for my prayer life, and for the life of my congregation. Thanks be to God for Facebook, I think. I’ll have to pray about that one.

[1] You really should join us one Sunday soon: 502 Gluckstadt Road, Madison, MS.
[2] Thanks to Al and Dede for beginning this conversation with me. I couldn’t imagine a better group to do church with.
[5] I reference this story because the Patriots announced that Hernandez had been released from the team on Twitter before anyone else knew. Twitter has become the de facto media outlet for many major organizations.
[7] See 1 Thessalonians 5:17.
[8] See Galatians 6:2.
[9] See Romans 12:15.
[10] Thanks to Richard Foster for helping me with this idea. See his Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey into Meditative Prayer, Downers Grove: IVP, 2011.
[11] See Romans 8:26.
[12] See Brueggemann, Walter, The Spirituality of the Psalms, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001.
[13] See Daniel 6; Matthew 6:6; Luke 5:16.
[14] The bad language and pornography notwithstanding, believers often attempt something like character assassination on each other on Facebook. 

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