“What’s in a Name?”: Facebook, Religion, and the Disappearing Christian

I find myself in an odd position today as I intend to speak seriously about the ultra-popular social networking website called facebook.  I myself am an [over-] active facebook user, and as those of you to whom I am there connected can attest, my activity on the site is in most cases about as far from serious as you can imagine.  Of course, many folks do see facebook as a platform for interactions they would deem serious, meaningful, or even important; but in my experience, I have found that facebook–and perhaps bite-sized online interaction more generally–is simply ill-suited for grappling with issues of much gravitas, especially next to the disappearing art forms of the face-to-face conversation and the thoughtful composition (a.k.a. letter). That being said, I found something fascinating on facebook that I wanted to share with you.  And yes, it has very much to do with the Lord Jesus and His covenant people.  It may even be important.

My buddy Manny’s profile.  He doesn’t have much info on there–he can be a real stiff–but you get the picture.

Every facebook user has a page about himself, called a profile, which displays the user’s activity across the site and is outfitted with various categories of information about the person (work history, education, favorite quotes, favorite music and movies, contact info, etc.) to be displayed at his choosing.  One such category is titled Religious Views.  As I was filling in my profile info for the first time back in 2008, I assumed that they were looking for something along the lines of “Christian” or “Jew” or “Rastafarian” or “atheist”–you know, the name Joe Citizen would use to identify your religious affiliation.  So I dubbed myself “Christian,” assuming that other professing believers in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ did the same.  However, eventually I noticed that there is an enormous variety of Religious Views among Christians on facebook.

I am “friends” (i.e. connected) with 344 other facebook users, the vast majority of whom consider themselves Christians.  Recently, I visited each of my friends’ profiles and recorded his Religious Views, comparing it with the others and categorizing them in hopes of discovering common themes and expressions.  I also reached out to a number of my friends (twenty-nine, to be precise) for explanations of their choices;* twenty-six responded, and their comments have greatly aided me in putting all the pieces together.  I’ll share some of those momentarily (with names changed to preserve the privacy implicit in such personal correspondence).

So, let us now attempt to answer the question: What are Christians calling themselves on facebook, and why?

The first and largest category (124 friends) is composed of those who indeed use the term “Christian” in their Religious Views.  Interestingly, almost a third of these do not only say “Christian” but go on to elaborate in various ways; some indicating their denominations, some including Scripture references, and others using various expressions to denote their particular understanding or passion:

Full out CHRISTIAN

Personal Relationship with Jesus Christ = Christian

Christian – A Generous Orthodoxy

Christianity – Passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples

Christian – Christ in me, the hope of glory!

Christian – My heart is restless until it rests in You.

Christian – living for Jesus!

This last expression comes from my friend Sylvia, whom I asked about her reasons for putting more than simply “Christian.”  She replied,

“‘Christian’ has a negative connotation to some people. And to others, it is very generic and vanilla. I wanted it to not just be a label, but a lifestyle.”

My friend Charlie responded similarly, saying,

“One, a whole lot of people who put that as their religion aren’t actually Christians, and that kinda irks me…. Two, I think it’s an individuality thing – I’m putting up something that I think speaks directly to me at that time. It makes me think more about that thing and may have the same effect on others.”

The next largest group (76) does not have the Religious Views item displayed on their profiles at all.  Before you start thinking these folks are less than devout, however, note that a great many of them indicate elsewhere in their profiles that they are “Christianically inclined,” whether by including Scripture passages among their Favourite Quotes, listing the Bible among their Favourite Books, or using the About Me section to express their belief instead.  Others have simply chosen to put as little personal information on their profiles as necessary, and there is certainly no shame (and probably a good bit of wisdom) in that.

The next few categories of Religious Views, I believe, can rightly be seen together: Bible or hymn quotations [which lack the word Christian or the name of Christ] (25), denomination identifications without the word Christian (33), and what I simply call “religious language”–that is, personal expressions of belief and/or piety that are not explicitly Christian.  These three categories all employ biblical or “Christianese” language, but secular Joe Citizen would not necessarily be able to identify this language as Christian.  Examples include:

Living a Kingdom Lifestyle

I will yet praise Him, my Savior and my God

A sinner saved by Grace

He is the way, the truth, and the life.

Love God Back

because He lives…

Love God, Love People

I was particularly interested in hearing from these folks, and their thorough explanations did not disappoint.  Says Amber, who put “Living a Kingdom Lifestyle”:

“First of all, I think the term Christian has lost it’s meaning. There are a lot of people who say they are Christians and live like the devil, or, on the other extreme, are pious beyond all belief and yet are ‘resounding gongs’ as Paul says. Also, to a lot of people, being Christian just means going to church on Sunday, maybe helping an old lady across the street when it’s convenient, and trying to ‘be a good person’ but otherwise living life according to the world’s standards. Jesus calls us to live a much more radical lifestyle, a Kingdom lifestyle…. So to say my religious views are ‘Christian’ is too general, too tame, too easily misunderstood. My religious views are more than just views, they are my lifestyle. I want to BE a Christian, not DO Christianity; I want to be known as a Christian b/c of my lifestyle, not because my facebook says I am a Christian.”

Robin, whose Religious Views read “Unashamed of the Gospel,” writes,

“When it came time to filling in that slot in my profile, I wanted to put a particular phrase from Scripture that had always meant a great deal to me. It doesn’t mean that I’m ashamed of the term Christian, or that I’m trying to make myself sound more ‘authentic’ – because sometimes I think it does appear that way…. The simplest answer is, I suppose, that I just like the phrase, and that it speaks to me personally.”

On the other hand, Martin (“Follower of Yeshua”) confesses,

“I was just going through a time then when I didn’t really like the label Christian, I don’t even remember why, and that sounded more classy. Now that I look back on it, it was something that I did because I was immature in my faith and wanted people to think I was cool/different.”

Finally, Leo (“Isaiah 53:5”) traces his choice to a problem he discovered:

“When I first got an account, I noticed that every single person and their mother that wasn’t Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or atheist identifies themselves as ‘Christian’ on their profile. Rather than simply putting the words, I wanted to point people in the direction of Christ with the how/why I’m a Christian with a Bible verse.”

Curious as I was about the religious language crowd, the most fascinating to me was the last group: those who use the name Jesus and/or Christ in their Religious Views but not the term Christian (64).  Examples include:

Jesus paid it all

All I have is Christ

I know Jesus, and He knows me.

To live is Christ.

Jesus Christ is my Savior.

Jesus is my one true love ❤

Follower of Jesus Christ

With the name Christ nestled right there in Christian, I was perplexed as to why these folks would choose something other than the standard expression/title.  Of special note is the phrase “Follower of Jesus / Christ,” which itself accounts for 17 of the 64 people in this category.  Christian most literally means “follower of Christ,” so I definitely hoped to hear from a number of people who use the follower expression.

What I found is this: The biggest reason for choosing against the term Christian, as we have already seen above and will now see in full force, is that many who consider themselves *true* Christians [as distinguished from *sham* Christians, I suppose] do not like the word Christian because it has been abused by insincere, nominal “Christians” and has therefore become inadequate to express *actual* Christianity.  The evidence is overwhelming:

Logan (“a follower of Christ”):

“I think when I put that in, ‘Christian’ conjured up negative connotations in my head, whereas follower of Christ seemed to not.”

Allison (“Follower of Christ”):

“I feel like so many people say they are Christians and it means nothing. So Follower of Christ is more powerful and has more meaning. It also is a way of saying you are putting your faith into action. You know! I am actively following Christ!”

Marvin (“Jesus Christ is my Savior”):

“I didn’t put Christian because I was (and still am) tired and frustrated with the term. At least currently, I am surrounded by people who use the term Christian to describe themselves and a lot of people use the phrase ‘the Christian thing to do.’ People don’t really realize what being a Christian means.”

Wilford (“I’ve been washed in the blood of Christ”):

“I’ve got quite a few facebook friends who have their religious views as ‘Christian’ that I wouldn’t want to be religiously associated with if you know what I mean…. ‘Christian’ can mean a whole bunch of things and I wanted mine to be a little more clear.”

Ronnie (“Jesus paid it all. All to Him I owe.”):

“I thought it was a little more indicative of my ‘religious’ views than the word ‘Christian’ (which one cannot deny has been perverted by various inaccurate portrayals and inadequate examples of true Christians in today’s society).”

Harley (“Freedom in Christ”):

“My faith doesn’t mean the same thing to me as it does to a lot of people who put ‘Christian’… I hate to say it, but I think the term has lost its potency.”

Aaron (“Saved through grace by Jesus”):

“I want there to be no doubt that I understand what being a Christian is and that I didn’t just put that there by default rather than by conviction.”

Ariel (“Jesus is my life”):

“So many people back home put ‘Christian’ simply because they want to have something, even though they are not living for Him. I don’t want people to think that I am just claiming to be a Christian, I want them to know that I am sold out living my life for Christ.”

Ginger (“Follower of Jesus – I love my Lord and Savior with all of my heart”):

“I have found in the real world that the term ‘Christian’ has become synonymous with judgmental hypocrite…. When someone asks me my religious view, I tend to say that I want to be a Follower, or Disciple of Christ.  When I say this, it always opens up an amazing conversation about what Christianity is really about.”

I will conclude the beating now, confident that the horse in question is indeed quite dead; and as its whinnies fade into memory, we are left with a clear picture of our situation.  We do not like the word Christian.  We do not like it because the world does not like it, because bad Christians have sullied the title’s reputation in the eyes of outsiders.  Therefore we avoid the word Christian when possible, so that people don’t mistake us good Christians for those who aren’t living lives worthy of the call.

I do not think this is a good solution.  Do you?

Maybe a punny Christian T-shirt is the answer?

_______________________________________________

*The exact question I asked them (via facebook message, appropriately) was, “Why not simply ‘Christian’?”  My intent was for the question to be pertinent but not restricting–and perhaps somewhat indicative of my concern, but by no means condemning.

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10 thoughts on ““What’s in a Name?”: Facebook, Religion, and the Disappearing Christian

  1. You make an interesting point. Though for me at least, I don’t dislike the term, but I do think it’s become diluted if you will. Hemingway has this quote that I love “All our words from loose using have lost their edge.” And what do you do when a word, like Christian has lost it’s edge? you choose a different word to illustrate your point or your affiliation if you will. I don’t think we’ve stopped using it because the world doesn’t like it, I think we’ve stopped using it because we don’t like how it’s being used. Whether or not it’s fair for us to judge that is another issue, but I imagine there are those who use the term to whom Christ would say “you are lukewarm” and spit out-even I question if I’m in that camp at times. I would not feign to know who those people are, just that they may exist and are the reason many don’t want the association. also, not putting Christian prompts others to ask the same question you did, and for a non-believer it can provide an opportunity to speak the truth to them (note there how I didnt say evangelize-yup there’s a reason for that too).
    I’d be interested to hear your solution since you are unhappy with this one. And also, to hear why you don’t find this acceptable. Do you think Christ cares what we call ourselves? As the term didn’t originate until after he left this earth, I doubt very much that he minds. Otherwise I suppose we ought to call ourselves disciples of Christ-which while that is what Christian means, it’s isn’t the word verbatim.

    • Thank you for your thoughtfulness, Ms. Markley. I do intend to explain my view of things soon, but I fear that doubling the size of an already long blog post would exhaust readers to the point of significantly inhibiting their openness to receive it. In the meantime, I will chew upon your words. Cheers.

  2. Thanks, Buddy, for a thoughtful look into how your fb friends perceive the term “Christian.” I rejoice in knowing that you have so many friends who have given their walk with Christ such great thought and examination. As an old lady committed to avoiding facebook, I fear I have little expertise on the norms, protocols, and specific workings of it. Nonetheless, I sadly agree that society has misused the term “Christian” and mischaracterized many who proclaim to be one. The Lord (through Paul) told us this would happen. See e.g., 2 Cor. 2:15-16a: “For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.” P.S. It’s great to see that Manny has his own fb page. Now if only he would show up for his obligations around campus… Is he ever going to graduate??

  3. “I don’t think we’ve stopped using it because the world doesn’t like it, I think we’ve stopped using it because we don’t like how it’s being used.” – Markley

    I agree with Markley. I think this – “We do not like it because the world does not like it, because bad Christians have sullied the title’s reputation in the eyes of outsiders” – was jumping to conclusions a bit. I think, from your findings, it is just as easy to conclude that some people don’t like the term “Christian” because bad Christians have sullied the title’s reputation in the eyes of believers.
    I am not commenting on whether it’s right or wrong for believers to respond in that way.

    I very much enjoyed this post. Your dedication to keeping your mind sharp is inspiring.

  4. I am of the crowd that puts simply “Christian,” because I don’t believe that we should let the World steal our very identity. In English, we are Christians, and have been called so for {a long period of time}. The answer to the world’s encroachment on our own name is not to abandon our name and individually make up a million clever little new ones. The answer is to reclaim it through honorable living underneath that name.

  5. Words can be tricky and misleading especially when read versus heard. I have often said it is not what you say as much as how you say it. I think the same is true when using the term Christian. The word, the label, the term- whatever- has a dictionary definition but if applied to a person who is not living the definition then the word is being misapplied. So I believe that Christ is not concerned with what we call ourselves but how we live our lives and the fruit that we produce. I applaud those who are being more specific in defining who they are in Christ versus using a label that often is misapplied.

  6. A. Great post. B. I’m going to go the Markley route and give you a quote from Walker Percy: “The old words of grace are worn smooth as poker chips and a certain devaluation has occurred, like a poker chip after it is cashed in.” This isn’t exactly related to your post, and I’m one of those people who simultaneously has problems with the term “Christian,” yet has it as part of my Facebook religious views, so I’m not suggesting what you say is incorrect. However, we have to consider the possibility that, as a majority of your friends indicate, the words “Christian,” “Salvation,” “God,” “Faith,” etc. have become worn out through their constant use—and constant misuse. Does that mean we should throw the term out? Probably not. Does it mean we need to make that word resonate again with its true meaning, the meaning of the Gospel? Definitely.

  7. First: riveting article, man. I’d forgotten about your inquiry so seeing this prompted a bit of an “aha!” moment as I had indeed found your wording “indicative of…concern” and hope my reply (to which you never responded, I might add ^_^) assuaged such concern.

    Of course, I can see where you’re coming from, and while I hesitate to dismiss it outright (if simply for its novelty) I, too, am less than alarmed by the motives behind alternative phrasing of the creed. A word which means everything necessarily also means nothing, and in the case of “Christian,” its widespread application and misapplication have led it quite near, if not to, the point of meaninglessness. In my own case, my initial attempt was to tie myself to a denomination (to specify just what *kind* of Christian) but I later reversed my decision and went with something barebones but essential.

    If anything, I think it’s preferable to individualize it, because it requires personalization of one’s faith, and errs more on the side of creativity than of legalism. I see it kind of like Jesus’ replacing of the Ten Commandments with an equally true, but more personable love God, love people. To do the latter will necessarily mean doing the former, just as being a “follower of Christ” or acknowledging oneself “a sinner saved by grace” implies Christianity. I don’t have anything against people who just use “Christian” but obviously I and a great many others think it’s no longer expressive enough to capture the full extent of the role of Christ in our lives.

    To that end, your religious status on Facebook is merely a bullet on a long list. Personalizing it may make that bullet stand out a little, but ultimately it’s the character of the list as a whole that will communicate whether you’re merely a nominal Christian or an actual follower of Christ.

  8. Pingback: Please, Call Me “Christian”: In Defense of Our First and Best Team Name | Calling Out Your Name

  9. Pingback: Why I Love Religion (And So Does Jesus) | Calling Out Your Name

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