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Presence, Hospitality, and Facebook

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Presence. Hospitality. Facebook.

These three words are not normally typed in sequence, nor are they naturally associated with one another. Yet, is it possible that Christians can practice both presence and hospitality on Facebook?

Facebook has over 845 million users, 483 million of them visiting daily. 1  There are multiple forms of online social media. However, given Facebook’s pervasive use, it is worth thinking about theologically. While Facebook may not continue to be the online source of communication, youth workers can still use Facebook as a way of talking with teens about the ways following Jesus can be part of their Internet relationships.

Shaping Culture

At first, finding presence and hospitality through social media may seem trite or strange in comparison to face-to-face social interaction. However, Facebook holds the potential to create an environment in which we can practice presence and hospitality.

Often our temptation with online culture is to make sharp distinctions between “real life” and the “online world.” Distinctions like this usually keep people from thinking critically or theologically about their online interactions. While Facebook is definitely different than face-to-face social interaction (and we certainly need to help young people and adults alike continue to engage in quality face-to-face presence), it is still social interaction.

Robert Fortner is a professor of Communication Arts and a specialist in media ethics. Fortner explains why thoughtful, theologically-informed communication matters:

Just as what God did mattered—bringing order out of chaos or earth, sky, sea, and living creatures ex nihilio—what human beings do with their God-likeness invested in them (what they make through the various means of communication at their disposal) also matters…it is through our communication activities that we make our own world a heaven or a hell for ourselves and others in the societies we construct. 2

Therefore, because it is a means of communication and relationship-building, Facebook is a space where what Christians say and do matters.

Practicing Presence

The practice of presence is grounded in the Incarnation, the fact that God became human and lived in a particular time, place and context. John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” Jesus walked with people. He took time to listen to them, to eat dinner with them and extend compassion to them. This is evidenced in Jesus’ interactions with both Zacchaeus and the woman at the well. 3  The practice of presence with the other becomes a way to embody Jesus Christ. There are several practices that youth workers can share with students to aid them in practicing presence on Facebook.

1. Prayer
We need to teach teenagers that presence with another on Facebook should begin with prayer. Initially, it may seem strange to pray about the people God might want us to interact with on Facebook. Yet, how is this different from praying about anything else? Jesus came into contact with lots of different people in his earthly ministry. Even Jesus was not able to interact directly with every person who listened to him preach or followed him around. Jesus was intentional, listened to the Spirit and reached out to specific people in specific contexts. 4

2. Friend Lists
Last year Facebook gave users the ability to group friends into “smart lists” by commonalities. Obviously, this does not give Christians the leeway to discount all others on Facebook, but friend lists could be a helpful way to intentionally practice presence and pray for others.

3. Listening
Presence is really about listening. In his book On Presence, Ralph Harper writes, “A life that lives for itself…makes no difference in the world…Real living is defined more by listening than by speaking.” 5  We can invite teenagers to consider new ways of listening on Facebook. For example, if a student notices that someone needs to be encouraged or affirmed and realizes that everyone else is just responding to a wall-post, that student can take the time to message the person. There is a noted difference between a one-sentence reply and a paragraph response that starts with the person’s name.

4. Openness
Presence is also sensed when people are approachable, honest and slow to judge. Again, Harper explains, “What truly makes a person human is his or her capacity for being open to others.” 6 Christian teenagers can use Facebook to be open with other people. Our profiles are a means for exhibiting openness. The memes, 7 videos and status updates that we post reflect our viewpoints and our approachability. Pictures and images are used to convey everything online from relationship status to friend circles, political viewpoints, worldview, celebrations, humor, and causes we support. 8

5. Consistency
The greatest way presence is felt is by consistency. Harper’s conviction is that “We want to be able to count on someone.” 9 On Facebook, Christians can be present with others by being consistent in our recognition that the information available is not merely for consumption, but rather is a vital part of other humans’ lives. Christian teens have an opportunity to use Facebook to be reliable. Similar to face-to-face interaction, people hope that others will consistently respond to them and care about the details of their lives. On Facebook, presence will be sensed by going the “extra mile,” which means listening, initiation, openness and consistency.

Practicing Hospitality

The practice of hospitality 10  or care for and solidarity with the other is also essential to the very nature of the gospel. 11 Jesus became a servant to all, emptied himself and was crucified on a cross. 12 In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus encourages his followers to take care of others, that they might in fact actually do something for God. 13 Apparently, it is in solidarity and care for the other that we practice God’s love, grace and peace. Hospitality allows others to see God’s light in us and can actually nurture others’ desire to worship God as well. 14 The parable of the Good Samaritan 15 suggests that being a bystander to someone else’s pain is not an option for followers of Jesus. Rather, Christians are to aid those in pain. There needs to be a movement from our expressive individualism into covenant practices where we see hospitality not as an “evangelism tactic” but as a way of welcoming the stranger. 16 There are several action steps that youth workers can share with young people to aid them in practicing hospitality on Facebook.

1. Servanthood
Teenagers can look for persons in specific friend lists or in the newsfeed that need to be invited into a church community or even to their home. Similar to presence, hospitality is often about consistent invitation. Facebook is another space to reflect God’s image of solidarity with the other.

2. Affirming and Weeping with Others
Teenagers might look for opportunities to affirm others and their accomplishments, or on the opposite end of the spectrum, to weep with others and to express grief when someone is hurting. For example, my best friend’s dad died a couple of months ago. Hundreds of people utilized Facebook to express their sadness for her and for the situation. It was not plausible for hundreds of people to have face-to-face interaction with my friend the day that the death occurred. Facebook became a vital means for connecting with my friend and even healing her heart in that time. 17

3. Social Justice
Hospitality can be related to social justice. When people post images, links, videos and updates on their profiles related to social injustice, they help raise awareness. Christians can see these sorts of posts as an opportunity to invite others to support a cause or to give money to an organization that helps marginalized people.

4. Standing Against Bullying
Bullying online (as in any social interaction) should not be tolerated. We need to talk with teenagers about the reality of bullying online. 18 If a student sees a person being bullied on Facebook, the Christian practice of hospitality (not unlike in the Parable of the Good Samaritan) would call for standing in solidarity with that person and not allowing that person to be abused. Facebook bullying gives Christians a chance to be peacemakers in difficult situations. It may not be plausible to solve a conflict via online social interaction, but peacemaking efforts could definitely be initiated online.

A New Message

As youth workers, we must teach our students that Jesus was the bearer of a new possibility for human relationships. 19 Therefore, through its embodiment of faithful discipleship, the church demonstrates what love looks like in social relationships. 20 When Christians engage with others in practices of presence and hospitality, the church becomes a picture of a different way of socializing, on Facebook or otherwise. 21 The church becomes a message to the world by how it lives together—a powerful image of a new way of relating to one another. 22

Action Steps

  • Ask teenagers about their Facebook usage. Why do they use Facebook? How many hours each week? Use this information to frame your discussion.
  • Look over the Biblical texts mentioned regarding presence and hospitality. Think about which ones would be helpful to you in guiding a discussion about Facebook and Christian Practice.
  • Look over the various ways that were presented for practicing presence and hospitality. Which ones would your students identify with? How could you creatively inspire them to cultivate these practices while interacting online?
  • What thoughts do you have about how you could practice presence and hospitality in your own Facebook or social media usage?

  1. “Company Info,” Facebook newsroom, accessed March 15, 2012, http://newsroom.fb.com " target="_blank">http://newsroom.fb.com
  2. Robert S. Fortner, Communication, Media and Identity: A Christian Theory of Communication (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), 36.
  3. Examples: Zacchaeus-Luke 19; Woman at the Well-John 4
  4. In the case of the Gospel of John: John 2-Nicodemus; John 9-the man born blind etc.
  5. Harper, On Presence, 101.
  6. Harper, On Presence, 43.
  7. Memes are symbols/images that have a certain associated meaning. For example, an image that went viral of a particular backwards cap has come to be associated with stupidity. Memes are a cultural phenomenon and are used on the Internet to express views through image.
  8. Finnegan, Communicating, 149.
  9. Harper, On Presence, 102.
  10. This term is being used to stand for the Biblical model of care for the other in this article. Other terms that could be utilized are serving, servanthood, compassion, mercy, and invitation.
  11. 1 Corinthians 9:22-23
  12. Philippians 2:5-8
  13. Matthew 25:33-40
  14. Matthew 5:14-16
  15. Luke 10:29-37
  16. This was taken from a lecture given by Alan J. Roxburgh at Fuller Theological Seminary.
  17. We had several conversations where she noted that the overwhelming sense of compassion and support from Facebook had really made the week after her dad’s death more “manageable.”
  18. Jaron Lanier has some interesting things to say about bullying and the loss of personhood in his latest book about online social interaction: Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (New York: Vintage, 2011).
  19. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: William B Erdmans, 1994) 52.
  20. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 161.
  21. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 150.
  22. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 131-132.
Angela Williams

Angela Williams is the Director of children and youth ministries at Pasadena Mennonite Church. She is also a PhD student in Practical Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary who loves hiking, laughing, college football and nerdy conversation.

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