Social Media and Spiritual Growth


We met here last week for our annual Day of Remembrance service. It was a time set aside for us to remember those loved ones we lost in the past year and loved ones we lost in years past. It was a time for reflection and for story telling and for allowing feelings to rise to the surface in the presence of one another. It was a time to celebrate youth as one of the very youngest of us scattered ersatz marigold petals in the aisles and across the sanctuary. It was a time for our private lives to become a bit more public, a time for sorrows and joys to mingle, a time for our differences to jangle a little bit less than usual and for our similarities, our shared humanness to rise to the surface. I found it to be a healing time. Thank you, all who made the service possible.

Today, we again talk about community, the act of coming together voluntarily to create something out of the disparate strands of our lives. Our time here this morning is a time of community in person, bodies, spirits and souls. But, much of the time, we go our separate ways and live our separate lives, engaged in social networks of our own devising or into which we are thrust by force of accident or economic necessity.

And then there is that in-between network where many of us make social connections not physically, but electronically. We share stories, opinions, grievances, humorous photos, clips of musical performances, outrageous news stories, snippets of our lives. In this, we create a unique kind of community, a network of connections that includes friends, relatives, acquaintances, and even strangers. Each network is different, but many are intertwined as my story is shared with a friend of a friend in Chicago who shares it with a longtime acquaintance in the theatre in New Orleans, who shares it with his cross-dressing domestic partner who shares it with his network of friends, some of whom live in Europe, some in Asia. It creates a version of what we’ve come to call the “global village,” but of course, there is another dimension to that: the danger of tribal warfare.

Because we don’t have the kind of liturgical year in this church that goes from season to season as the body of Christians do, I try to choose topics on a week by week basis, sometimes linking a theme for two or three weeks, such as in the coming two weeks, but always keeping in mind “How will this touch your lives? How might you find this useful? How will it affect your spiritual growth?” So, to help me recognize this, I ask for a show of hands.

  • How many of you have a Facebook account?
  • How many of you would consider yourself “active” on Facebook?
  • How many of us use Twitter? How about Snapchat? Pinterest?
  • How many use Goodreads? Instagram? Tumblr? Reddit?
  • Are there any other social media that you use?

Facebook has 1,650,000,000 users. So, you don’t ever have to be alone– even when you are alone. Twitter has about 650,000,000 users. You can tweet day or night, even at three o’clock in the morning. Twitter can be used for any number of things. It originally saw itself as a social network, but now finds that it’s more an information network, though I recognize it mostly as an opinion forum.

Because Facebook is the most popular social networking site and because it’s the site I’m most familiar with, I’m going to focus almost exclusively on it in my remarks to you today. With Facebook, every person has the capacity to be a broadcaster, meaning, can send messages or other content to many people at a time. That appears to be the appeal to some of those I am Facebook friends with.

One person on my friends list, a friend of a friend and someone I’ve never met, has 4,118 Facebook friends, and he posts his opinions several times a day. It’s like having a subscription to his life and times. Receiving his messages is like reading his autobiography in real time. Because he likes to “push the envelope,” I find some of his comments outrageous, but I’ve learned a lot about a number of things from him in the realms of politics and art, especially. So, my “friendship” with him has expanded my horizons in various ways, but I wouldn’t say that it has led to my spiritual growth really, but, maybe it has…

We grow in various ways, sometimes in response to the light that shines upon us by the insights of others, sometimes in response to provocation. Sometimes a reaction to a post that leads to an increase in the heart rate and the blood pressure can also lead to a moment of reflection and a mature response– or to wisely holding one’s tongue. If we don’t allow ourselves to get “triggered”, and that’s often a danger.

Today I’d like to share with you some of the posts that have come my way and to ask for your response. Sometimes it will be your immediate emotional response. Sometimes it will be a more intellectual response. And it will be helpful for all of us if we take some time to separate the two. Social media can build community, but sometimes the media can solidify communities that already exist and create boundaries between those communities and others. It will be worthwhile to recognize hen those patterns are helpful and when they are merely divisive. The answer isn’t always as clear as black and white.

360px-nicobar_pigeon_820The first image I’ll share is a photo of a bird.

If we click on the article, we learn that this pigeon is the closest living relative to the extinct dodo, that its range extends over several thousand miles of islands from the Malay peninsula to Palau and the Solomon Islands, that it is not in danger of going extinct at present, but that it is nearing “threatened” status due to overhunting and the introduction on non-native species such as cats and rats. I find that with each statement, there is an internal emotional response and that this mixture of responses to beauty and disappointment is the kind of thing that characterizes my days. I wonder if something similar is true for you.

Much of the content that comes across my page is political, both posts by others and by me– and that’s the primary reason I don’t engage in social media with members of the congregation. The number of political posts and the emotional intensity that they engender have never been so high as in the past months and weeks as the presidential election has been in overdrive.

In addition to the election, the confrontation between indigenous people and various law enforcement agencies in North Dakota over DAPL (Dakota Access Pipe Line for oil) has taken up a lot of space on my page and in my inner life. I felt torn this past week to see the posts from so many clergy friends at or on the way to the protests led by the Standing Sioux tribe in North Dakota. I was most deeply affected by a video of Floris White Bull sharing her account of being arrested.

I wonder if you can identify for me and for us, the emotion that you recognized in yourself as you watched this and listened to Floris White Bull.

Did you feel a sense of solidarity forming? Did you feel your thirst for justice increasing? Did you feel empathy and compassion? Did you feel outraged at one point or another? And did you feel an “Us vs. Them” mentality forming? What actions did that make you want to take?

I’ll take a moment now to share a post I received yesterday while working on this presentation. It’s from my friend and colleague, the Rev. Chip Roush of the First Unitarian Church of South Bend, Indiana. I share it because I must.

[Report from Standing Rock Nation]

Without Facebook, I would not have received this communication, certainly not in this timely a manner. It inspires me that 500 clergy from across the country responded to the call to support this action, while at the same time I regret my inability to participate.

Another posting from that action of protest is more provocative. It shows heavily armed law enforcement officers in camouflage uniforms and full body protection on a boat with a caption describing them as cowards who are gratified by the ability to unleash violence. It inflames passions, yes, but what does it add to the discussion? So, some things I won’t share even if I see glimmers of truth in them. What would be the point?

Instead, I’ll share this.

[Clergy at Standing Rock]

There is value, and I would say great value, in our learning about plans for oil pipelines to go under sacred lands and in learning about well-organized protests to combat such pipelines. There is value in knowing about the dangers that pipeline fires can bring and the lack of reporting those same fires. There is value in calling attention to the depletion of fossil fuels, the radical damage their burning causes to changing the planet’s climate, and the efforts that emerge to promote more enlightened energy policies.

An Associated Press story calls attention to 292 oil spills in two years in North Dakota, only one of which was reported because, according to the story, officials did not want residents to get overly concerned about small incidents. The residents, not surprisingly, are not in favor of the policy of not disclosing that information. (One pipeline break resulted in a spill of over 20,000 barrels of oil over an area the size of seven football fields.)

Now, have you noticed what’s happened? My focus has slipped from the topic of “Social Media and Spiritual Growth” to a particular cause that I feel passionate about. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a “thing.” It is the seductive nature of Facebook to catch you up in whatever your passion may be and give you the freedom and the capacity to get on for a ride to wherever your passions take you. Facebook has other downsides, as well. People refer to it as a “time suck”– horrible expression. They get on the site for a quick check in, to see who has responded one way or another to their posts and an hour later wonder what happened to the time.

Another danger I hadn’t considered until I did research for this talk: the negative impact on some people’s emotional health. Apparently, there are some whose self-image gets negatively impacted by feelings of resentment and envy when they view such things as their friends’ holiday pictures, the happiness of other families, even the physical beauty of others. People then sometimes feel more lonely and dissatisfied with their lives.

So how can Facebook positively effect your life? How can it help to build community? This is a two-minute clip from “On the Road with Steve Hartman.”

[Show clip]

Your response?

This post reminds us of the sacrifices made by a Unitarian foremother, something you should remember between now and Tuesday.

[Susan Anthony post]

I’ll end today with a clip from an interview with philosopher Bertrand Russell who died in 19972. It is his advice for future generations and, 42 years later, we are one.

[Bertrand Russell clip]

Have you had experiences with social media in ways that have helped you grow spiritually or better feel part of a community?


  • Facebook: Peter Connolly page
  • Wikipedia: “List of Social Media,” “Facebook.”
  • North Dakota had 292 oil spills in 2 years– officials disclosed 1 to the public” (October 26, 2016)

Presented by Rev. Peter Connolly at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY on November 6, 2016

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