You Will Be Discipled – But How and By Whom?

4 December 2023 by Wes Bredenhof

The Wolf in their Pockets: 13 Ways the Social Internet Threatens the People You Lead, Chris Martin.  Chicago: Moody, 2023.  Softcover, 217 pages.

Whether we use it or not, we have to face the fact that social media plays a huge role in the lives of many people.  It’s no different in the church.  I remember speaking with a Christian couple once who were so proud that their teenage children weren’t on social media.  I didn’t have the heart to tell them that their children had gone behind their backs.  You can hardly blame the kids – not being on social media is akin to being a leper these days.   Rather than going full Amish, we need books like this one to help us think critically about this technology and our use of it.

Chris Martin is the right guy to write this book.  He’s been thinking and writing about the Internet for a few years.   He makes it his business to know Internet trends and to reflect on them from a Christian perspective. 

As the author puts it, “…this book is as much about discipleship as it is about social media or anything else” (p.76).  While its primary audience is church leaders, anyone with a discipleship role should read it.  In other words, parents need to read this, and so do teachers.  Pastors, elders, parents, and teachers are all involved with discipling in some way.  Social media is in competition to disciple us and those whom we love.  This book answers the question:  what are we to do about it? 

Through 13 chapters, Martin outlines how those called to disciple others can take the social media bull by the horns.  He covers various areas in which social media challenges our calling to follow Christ.  Among them are friendships, humility, cynicism, authority, discernment and sex.  Each chapter has sound biblical teaching plus clear application.  For example, when it comes to friendships, the author observes that church leaders cultivate what they celebrate.  If church leaders celebrate friendships publicly, they’ll cultivate them in the church culture.  This will counteract the tendency of social media to promote superficial friendships merely as a means to an end.

The Wolf in their Pockets challenged my thinking about social media.  I used to think that social media was a neutral tool, something that could be used for good or evil.  However, Martin points out that it’s not quite that simple.  He writes, “The metrics of ‘success’ that lead to a social media platform’s flourishing are diametrically opposed to the pursuit of human flourishing” (p.112).  Social media platforms flourish when people fight.  In fact, in 2020 the Wall Street Journal published some internal research from Facebook.  This research baldly stated, “Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness” (p.113).  Does that mean that Christians need to abandon platforms like Facebook?  No, Martin doesn’t say that.  But we do need to be conscientious about our use of it, and there needs to be mutual accountability in place to counteract these negative aspects.  Moreover, both online and elsewhere, Christian leaders need to promote a “culture of affirmation.”

I’ve been on Facebook since 2007.  I’ve seen it used well and used poorly.  I’ve used it poorly at times myself.  Nonetheless, I still believe it’s possible to use social media in an edifying and encouraging way.  We can use it to share gospel truths and help others.  For example, while writing this review I was also chatting with a missionary who was in a tough place in his life.  Before the Internet, he’d have had to suffer alone.  But there’s also a dark side — and it’s not limited to pornography.  Not minded carefully, it can have a subtle yet corrosive effect on relationships and church cultures.  Chris Martin will help to discern and battle those effects so our people can be more effectively discipled for Christ.

Originally published in Clarion 72.15 (November 24, 2023)