I’m a big fan of Tim Chester, and usually thoroughly enjoy his books. I found his “Busy Christians Guide to Busyness” incredibly helpful whilst at university, and his recent “A Meal with Jesus” was superb. Chester does a great job of engaging with issues well, and really thinking about what the Gospel might say to the presenting reality. When I heard that he was going to publish a book on social media and the gospel, I was pretty excited. When I got my hands on it, however, I was slightly disappointed.
This isn’t as good as most of what Tim Chester writes. There is some good stuff in here, but by and large I was slightly underwhelmed. But lets start with the good.
Chester diagnoses a real and definite issue, the social phenomenon of the internet and new media. It is good that he opens his short study with the observation that ‘new technologies reflect humanity’s God-given, Godlike creativity. God gave us a mandate to take his world and invent, create, produce. Social networking brings many benefits’. The opening thoughts here are positive, and arguably deserve more treatment, but Chester does at least acknowledge that Social media can be a good thing. We move swiftly onto dangers, as one might expect, and it is at this point that I believe this little book departs from Chester’s normal high standards and becomes over-comfortable with the short format (less than 50 pages…) to avoid engagement.
Another positive is the mere existence of this book – a book written by a Gospel-focused, Spirit-filled, thoughtful conservative evangelical on the up-and coming topic of Social media is indeed a rare thing, and so this is a welcome book. I would, however, love to see Chester expand out on what he says here, as it seems to fall short of his usual high standards. The closing part of this book, however, is helpful. Because the author comes back from his engagement with social media to write how he does best – about the Gospel and its power. I can entirely agree with his observation that ‘Facebook encourages you to live elsewhere. The gospel encourages you to live life here and now‘.
In brief, then, why I personally don’t recommend this slim and otherwise readable little book. Firstly, it simply demonstrates a lack of sustained engagement with the culture, reality and practice of social media. Many students who I know personally and am engaged in ministry with use far more than Facebook – I have had sustained and helpful interactions with individuals on Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, FourSquare, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram, to name a few. This complexity is symptomatic of reality – a broad-brush simplification is not a helpful approach. There is also an uncommon lack of statistics, with some downright bizarre observations here and there which detract from the flow of the argument.
The second issue I have with ‘WYBMFF’ is that it represents a first attempt to engage meaningfully with Social Media, whilst due to its published nature I am sure (And have already experienced in reality!) that many Gospel-focused, eager-to-serve-and-learn leaders in evangelical churches will take this as a helpful Christian position. It might be, and it certainly serves as a firm caution to those of us who spend a lot of time on Social Media. But, ultimately, it isn’t complete or nuanced enough. Recent stats show that over 50% of the UK Population is registered on Facebook (which is different from active, but still notable), and these sorts of numbers mean that any Christian, leader or otherwise, serious about missionally engaging our nation needs to be aware and clued up on Social Media. My fear is that this book will be a go-to when in fact it seems to me to be more of a first step on an exploration.
I struggled to write this view, and with several people I seriously respect offering endorsements for an author I seriously value, this review has been sat as a draft for a while. I decided to publish it because I believe these things need to be heard by some. I sincerely hope that Tim Chester will eventually come up with a blockbuster book on the topic – to join ‘Meal with Jesus’ and ‘Busyness’ on my shelves and mental recommendation list. This book, unfortunately isn’t it.
For other, more robust (and in my opinion helpful!) engagements with this topic, why not check out these resources:
- Al Mohler’s article, The Christian Leader in the Digital Age (old, as of 2019, but still good).
- Ed Brooks and Pete Nicholas’ Virtually Human, published by IVP back in 2016.
- Jon Brown’s recent MORE: Real is a book by a digitally engaged younger leader, for those of us grappling with the questions my 2011 review above raises.
- My own conference paper at a Digital Theology Conference, looking at how digital issues reflect deeper questions about what it means to be human.
- Mark Meynell’s A Wilderness of Mirrors powerfully and biblically interrogates some of the underlying issues around trust and truth that a digital world throws up.