I distinctly remember reading Malcolm Gladwell’s piece Small Change almost 5 years ago. I remember where I was, and what the weather was that day. I generally read articles and move on, but this one stuck with me. Certainly Gladwell is an engaging, wildly successful and insightful writer, but I generally don’t remember articles, so this one was special.
The basic premise of the piece was that social media (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, ahem) talk a big talk, and appear to promote social change, but they pale in comparison to real, genuine protests or campaigns waged by the social activists of previous generations. He opens the article with an example of four young black students going into a segregated diner and asking for a cup of coffee. They were protesting, and physically there to do it. You can imagine the comparison: Does a tweet “Such and such is outrageous in our day and age #justice” effect the same explosive power of protest? Hardly.
The main crux of the article comes in the closing paragraphs, though I’d encourage you to read it.
It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient.
That is to say, if social media is one’s choice medium of cultural protest, you’re protesting from the comfort of your couch. More often than not, there is no real skin in the game. No teeth in the bite, nobody cares in the end. I recognize that there are qualifications here and that this is not a universal law. One of the appeals of Gladwell is that when he unfolds an issue, it somehow seems so obviously simple – too simple, in fact. There are people for whom social media engagement is an outflow of their skin being on the line. However, in most cases, I don’t think that’s the case.
And yet, the Church.
To my mind, in contrast to all of that, stands the Church.
I am not one to say that the church is a protest to the world, or buy into those type of arguments. We are called to be holy – genuine, real holiness. And true holiness, like the Holy God, pursues and loves a lost and broken world. Holiness propels us towards the world, not to retreat from it.
Which leads me to simply point to the article with a reflection: The church is not a social media campaign for spiritual activism by #hashtag. Personally, I am deeply disinclined to buy into and support social media campaigns of any type because they are cheap, and require very little of me (might they in fact be cheap grace Herr Bonhoeffer?).
In contrast to cheap activism, the church is called to genuine love. Should we want real change – change without an agenda for personal comfort – then we must obey the simple command to love our neighbors. I’m often left wondering: Do our tweets and posts substitute for obedience to “love thy neighbor as thyself”? The church, in contrast to Facebook shares, is a family of people seeking to make new disciples by love, for love, with love – doing so by real, physical presence with their neighbors.
Tweets and blogs decrying this or that cause, this or that leader, this or that church or organization for supposed or real infections of love or justice – most are not brave. It is brave to press into the life of the church. It is requires grace to put your skin on the line, stay in the hardship, and commit to the long-term change of grace that only the Gospel can produce. The Gospel is the only change agent that produces real change in real people’s lives over time together. To use Gladwell’s language, if we want our lives and passions for Jesus to have an impact, we have to choose the harder path. The church, not twitter. The church is the mission of the real God, with real people in real community. The church is not a tweet.
To end, let me commend to you Malcolm Gladwell’s piece Small Change for your cogitation and brooding.