A review of 'The Wolf in their Pockets' by Internet expert Chris Martin

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A review of 'The Wolf in their Pockets' by Internet expert Chris Martin

Booked reviewd by Rosemary Johnson

We all remember how helpful social media was to the church in Britain during the pandemic, when many congregations were only able to ‘meet’ online, with services broadcast on Facebook, YouTube or Zoom. We have also become familiar with communicating church events and service times through Facebook and Instagram feeds. This book, however, addresses the more concerning aspects of social media – the challenges, rather than the opportunities; how it can negatively impact church life and our relationship with God. It is primarily written for those ‘with a measure of authority’ in their churches, from a pastoral perspective.

The author has worked in church youth ministry since being an adolescent himself, including in Christian organisations in colleges. The table of contents lists ‘thirteen ways the social internet threatens the people you lead’ and in each chapter, after outlining the issues, there follow possible countering strategies. Chris Martin warns against the two emphatically wrong ways for church leaders to approach the social media: uncritical embrace; passive ignorance. Instead, he advocates ‘intentional engagement’, that is, understanding what the social media ‘wolf’ is, how it works and how it affects all users, Christians included.

Martin provides the reader with a quick history of electronic entertainment. In the ‘Golden Age’ of television in the 1950s, families sat together watching wholesome television in the lounge. Even when internet arrived in our homes in the 1990s, time online, on the cumbersome desktop PC, had to be shared between family members. The most significant change came in the mid-2000s when reliable internet became available on small and portable devices – mobile phones – designed for use by one individual – unsupervised. This is when the wolf truly entered the pocket.

The three cornerstone values of social media are entertainment, attention and identity. The content which is most entertaining is given most attention and, we feel, the amount of attention our posts receive reflects our identity and sense of self-worth. Media scholar Neil Postman states that Americans no longer talk – rather they ‘entertain’ each other, in a carnival of distraction. We post to be seen, to impress, allowing ourselves to be persuaded that we are the centre of our own universes.

Social media persuades churches that they have to make worship entertaining, to attract more people through the door (‘likes’?), rather than equipping congregations for the Great Commission. God is honoured by our faithfulness and the Christian values of quietness and humility, for which there’s no place online. Neither preaching nor church music should become a performance which glorifies the preacher or musicians rather than our Lord. But hasn’t this particular temptation long predated the internet?

Jesus’ second commandment was that we should love one another, but social media has manufactured a virtual and superficial form of friendship which warps our understanding of this concept. We mistake clicks liking our posts on Facebook and Instagram and retweeting of our Tweets as acts of friendship. Many of us prefer our own company, on our phone with our online ‘friends’, to the effort of going to church, communicating with and supporting real people.

The strategies the author puts forward for countering social media are reassuringly low tech and, by and large, involve engaging more fully with church members who might be spending too much time online. Suggestions include coffee after church services, allowing the congregation to chat informally and regularly, a sermon series on the subject of social media usage, and making opportunities to challenge individuals in conversation. His view is that such activities have more impact than high-profile occasional events which are soon forgotten. Readers are frequently urged to ‘point to Jesus’.

Chris Martin demonstrates a good technical understanding of how social media works and how it influences us as individuals and affects the church. Although some of his views will divide readers’ opinions, he finishes with the sound exhortation to focus on helping others to faith. Perhaps, then, social media can be more positively used as a helpful tool in the Great Commission.

Together Magazine

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