By: Tracy Rubstello, CVM Short-term Missions Coordinator
In earlier days of missions, waving goodbye at the dock and sailing to the other side of the world meant you might never see your loved ones again. Thanks to technological advances, however, isolation from home is no longer a given when serving in missions. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Skype allow you to communicate on your way to the mission field, and in some places, you can upload pictures and detailed content to the World Wide Web even before you’ve unpacked your suitcase. While these technological advancements help connect us as a global community, we should avoid using them in ways that will harm the people we go to serve.
In a recent conversation at CVM, we asked ourselves, “How much of a short-term mission trip is about capturing and sharing the experience with people back home? If we couldn’t take a single photo or post a single comment to friends and family, would we still go on short-term trips?” This discussion helped us determine how we at CVM approach social media use in short-term missions. We want to help you do the same, so here are four points of caution when pairing social media with missions:
- Social media can disconnect us from the people we serve. Taking pictures and thinking up creative hashtags can be fun, but it can also build a barrier between us and those on the other side of the camera. When photographing people in poverty or hard situations, there is a tendency to objectify them or to put them into categories such as “victims,” “poor,” or “lost.” Such categories dehumanize individuals by focusing more on their circumstances than on helping them.
- The virtual world distracts from the physical world around us. When we focus on sharing our experiences in real time, we often fail to see God at work through them. Having cameras, phones, and computers in hand keeps us tethered to our material possessions. Often it is only by reflecting at the end of the trip that we see what God was revealing to us or how our hearts were impacted.
- Social sharing can be insensitive to others. While we may want to show that we are in a certain location, the other people captured in our photos may not want us sharing their presence there. Missionaries serving in a sensitive area or with a sensitive people group may not want their location revealed. Community members may be afraid of having their picture taken or may not want us to identify them on the internet.
- A social media post could have cultural connotations. Without knowing the cultural context in which we serve, we might share an image or story that is considered taboo by the people around us. For example, we may not realize that an event we are showing commemorates a war or revolution. Or, we might be posting a picture of a worship site, government office, or prison that is considered sacred or off limits.
Here’s a practical tip: Before you take a picture or tell a story, ask yourself how you would feel if someone photographed you or your family in this way and shared it online. Would what they captured in that moment be truthful of who you are and how you want others to view you?
Before you take a picture or tell a story, ask yourself why you want to share this particular image or experience. Are you trying to show people that you were here or that you cared for the poor or victimized? Be sure that what you are capturing in image and story preserves the dignity of those involved.
Your short-term mission story needs to be told, and the challenge is to do so in ways that build up and honor the community you serve. We encourage you to take this challenge seriously.
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