"I sometimes wonder whether the panic of moving ministry online left us enough time to work through the ethical implications," Bri-anna Swan writes. (Photograph by Samantha Borges)

Topics: Spirituality | Society

Is it bad if your online ministry goes viral?

Virtual worship makes church more accessible, but it can be more divisive too


For many faith communities, COVID-19 marked a pivotal shift in digital adaptation. Congregations that had never even considered starting a YouTube channel or Instagram account were hustling to learn how to stay connected online.

As we adjust to an endemic COVID world, we finally have the capacity to consider the blessings and woes of engaging in digital spaces like social media. 

Certainly, there are many blessings. Congregations are reaching spiritual seekers whom they never would be able to connect with otherwise. Digital spaces also mitigate many physical accessibility barriers. 

I have certainly witnessed the Spirit’s movement while ministering to the Resistance Church community, a family of unchurched and dechurched seekers spread across North America. For a few, we are the first church where they felt completely accepted by God. 

But in watching churches succumb to toxic tactics in their bid to go viral, coupled with the temptations I’ve felt in my own ministry,  I sometimes wonder whether the panic of moving ministry online left us enough time to work through the ethical implications.  

As General Council names their intent to plant eight new online communities, we must wrestle with  the moral and theological implications of investing resources in spaces owned by large, multi-billion dollar companies whose goals are not to promote wholeness and connection, but to sell our attention spans to the highest bidder.

Social media keeps us scrolling by taking advantage of our primal responses of fear and anger, a phenomenon known as “rage farming.” Actors across the political spectrum use this tactic, which hinders dialogue and enables radicalization. Sometimes, those who are creating the online forums where outrage is stoked aren’t even “real” people. In 2019, the MIT Technology Review found that all of the top 15 Facebook pages targeting American Christians were run by “troll farms” based in Eastern Europe. Because social media algorithms prioritize and share posts based on engagement, content evoking indignation is more likely to be pushed to users’ feeds. 

So it’s not surprising that content promoting fear and “othering” masked in Christian language is more likely to be promoted than content created by those of us who wish to share a more expansive and inclusive theological perspective. 

But even I have witnessed progressive Christian communities who have fallen prey to this pattern of “othering.” On platforms such as TikTok, Instagram and Twitter, I’ve observed a recurring theme with nearly every Christian account I follow. The posts that garner the most attention follow a predictable formula:

“God loves you. Thank God we know God loves you and we’re not like those intolerant Christians over there.” Our posts most often focus on 2SLGBTQIA+ inclusion because that message is so clearly needed within a digital landscape dominated by those who name divine diversity as sinful.  However, it’s dangerous to fall into the trap of defining who we are simply by who we are not.

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Being public, intentional, and explicit about embracing diversity also makes churches the target of hateful comments. 

Too often, congregations act as if the vitriol that springs up in the comments section isn’t truly harmful because the perpetrators are not physically present. However, constant exposure to hate takes its toll. The United Church of Canada acknowledges “There is no boundary between a ‘real’ world and a ‘virtual’, no division between this world and a digital world without consequence or reality.”

Is there a point at which communities of faith need to opt out of social media? I sat down with Rev. Jason Byasse, senior minister at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church and the co-author of Following: Embodied Discipleship in a Digital Age. He acknowledges that tech companies have leveraged our humanity to make billions of dollars and feels drawn to monastic movements that treat social media with skepticism. However, Byasse also says, “The good thing about these technologies is they can allow people to find each other and realize they have allies.”

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As flawed and dangerous as social media can be, more harm is done by not being present online with those who are searching for something more. There has never been a time when Christians haven’t gathered in morally ambiguous spaces. However, we need to ensure that what we put out into the world fosters connection and authenticity and resist the temptation to shift our voice and message for virality. As Byasse asks, “How do we trick these technologies into doing the thing they’re not designed to do?”  

It feels affirming to receive thousands of views and “likes.” But if we are not sharing Good News, we’ve become pawns in a movement that centres corporate profit rather than beloved community.


Rev. Bri-anne Swan is minister of digital community, growth and public witness at Jubilee United Church in Toronto.

This story will appear in Broadview’s December 2023 issue.

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  • says:

    As a baby boomer who has always maintained involvement with the United Church, the ability to embrace technology is a wonderful gift. A serious operation in 2020 left me living in a wheelchair, and my only contact with the church now is virtual [through my computer at home]. There are many points in this article which vibrate with familiarity. The struggles with social media must never overshadow the positives that come from it.

  • says:

    " But if we are not sharing Good News,"
    The queston before the Christian curch is what is the GOOD NEWS ?? Is it the Good News of how to get to heaven ?? wherever heaven is in a Universe whose edge is billions upon billions of Km away & expanding or is it the GOOD NEWS of giving life, hope, purpose, acceptance in our daily living at home & in the world ?? Or is it the Good News that we are children of God & have that Spirit of LOVE built within us ?? I believe in ORIGINAL GOODNESS not original sin. But then maybe God just goofed in creation; where do you stand ??