Agapic Love, Social Media, and Clergy Ethics

[1] Social media platforms have fast become essential, embedded institutions. By the term “social media” I’m referring to web-based platforms that host individuals and communities, these include Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, WeChat, WhatsApp, MeWe, Tumblr, Reddit, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Pinterest, Meetup, Medium, Quora, and Twitch. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2005, 5% of American adults used at least one social media platform.  By 2011 that share had risen to half of all Americans, and today 72% of the American public uses some type of social media.[1]  Social network platforms have almost quintupled their total user base in the last decade, from 970 million in 2010 to more than 4.48 billion users in July 2021.[2]   As of September, 2021, Facebook alone reported over 2.91 billion monthly active users (MAU’s) worldwide.[3]  The reality is that social media is advancing so fast that it is challenging the ability of people everywhere to keep up with it.

[2] Those vocationally committed to spiritual life and health urgently need to focus attention upon the expanding phenomenon of social networking. As Shannon Vallor points out in her essay in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, social media “has profoundly reshaped how many human beings initiate and/or maintain virtually every type of ethically significant social bond or role: friend-to-friend, parent-to-child, co-worker-to-co-worker, employer-to-employee, teacher-to-student, neighbor-to-neighbor, seller-to-buyer, doctor-to-patient, and voter-to-voter, to offer just a partial list.”[4] Lutheran clergy, scholars, and church leaders have little choice but to engage and evolve with social media and smart phone apps because people in our congregations, our students, and just about everybody else are on these platforms.

[3] In past eras, pastoral relationships and Christian mission were limited to the physical place where clergy live and work, integrated into neighborhoods and communities where they had been planted.  The advent and explosion of social media has changed this profoundly.  These days, a pastor or church leader can do ministry virtually anywhere, including in a neighboring town, in a forum being led half way around the world, or even in a wholly virtual space in which colleagues collaborate. This shift in limits changes the shape and texture of ministry, and, thus, requires ethical consideration.

[4] More recently, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced most of us to utilize social media for providing worship services, Bible Studies, and pastoral care online for almost two years.  The user data suggests that social media in one form or another is likely to become permanent. For better or worse, social media is bound to become an expanding part of doing ministry work in our congregations and our communities going forward.

[5] As a parish pastor, I have grown more intrigued by the rise of social media and the potential (and danger) of social media for Christian ministry.  Volunteer work as a moderator on the “ELCA Clergy” Facebook page[5] has led me to consider how Christian ethics is best practiced on social media — and especially how Christian love (ἀγαπή) may be conveyed and applied in a Christian community built on a social media platform.

[6] The purpose of this essay is to offer some insights with regard to social media and Christian ministry for Lutheran pastors who use social media platforms every day for work, play, and service.  I especially want to make the point that faith in God and agapic love in service to others guides the most ethical and helpful means to minister to people on social media — whether this ministry is to clergy, people associated with our congregations, or with perfect strangers. I’ve learned that the key to starting and developing open and meaningful relationships online is to practice agapic love in the virtual realm just as one is called to do IRL ( in “real life”).

The Centrality of Agape To Ethical Relationships Online

[7] Christian ethics among fellow Christians begins and ends with Jesus’ command to love and serve one another as the Lord loves and serves us.  We find this foundation for ethics in the Gospel of John where Jesus commands his disciples to love (ἀγαπᾶτε) one another. (John 13:34)  We find it in the Gospel of Mark when a scribe asks Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?” and Jesus answers, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love (ἀγαπήσεις)the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’  The second is this, ‘You shall love (ἀγαπήσεις) your neighbor as yourself.’” (Mark 12:29-31)  And we find it in Paul’s iconic hymn in 1st Corinthians 13,  “Love (ἀγαπή) is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” The Lutheran tradition teaches that, while our loving actions toward others do not save us, we love because God loves.  We love others agapically and treat others in kind, empathetic, and compassionate ways out of gratitude and thanksgiving for what the Lord has done for us.

[8] The accent of agape is on humility and self-giving.  It serves the unique needs of the “neighbor.”  Martin Luther King Jr. argued that agape is the form of love that values each person regardless of their individual characteristics or behavior.[6]  In my view, the command to love applies to those we meet by happenstance on social media just as much as it does to our family, friends and church community members in person. We need to take seriously those we cannot see on the other side of our keyboards and iPhone screens.

[9] For Martin Luther, ethics for Christians are not so much about timeless truths or rigid rules or binding programs. They are survival ethics in dangerous times. Vital, down-to-earth, and practical, yes, but not legalistic.  For Luther, ethics are to be adaptable to the changing predicaments of humankind.[7] Agapic love has some give to it.

[10] Clergy and laity alike do well to be mindful that meeting the ethical challenges of a virtual mission field is going to take flexibility and creativity in a space inhabited by literally billions of virtual members of the body of Christ who are nevertheless somewhere still embodied human beings exhibiting all of their creaturely thoughts and agendas. Trading posts on a thread on Facebook is just as much a spiritual exercise as chatting with members in the narthex after worship or expressing empathy and compassion for a church member facing serious surgery in the hospital.  We ought not to take these interactions lightly.  Indeed, because the virtual world is still new territory for us, we need to take extra care as we participate in it.  The virtual world is still strange and new for many of us. We have not yet built the habits to make our loving interactions easy or automatic.

Our Secular Age

[11] I recently took an online course called “Religion & the Spiritual Crisis: Ministry In A Secular Age” led by Tripp Fuller and Andrew Root.  As a part of the course, I read “A Secular Age”[8] by Charles Taylor and “How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor” by Jamie Smith.[9] I was intrigued by the general description Taylor uses to describe Western society and culture today. These books are impossible to unpack adequately in this short essay, but the picture Taylor paints of contemporary Western thought and culture fits my own experience with social media online.

[12] The main observation Taylor makes is that Western culture and thought has transformed from a “sacred/profane” frame of reference that dominated Europe 500 years ago to a thoroughly secular frame.  It happened in historical steps.[10] The medieval frame was one of enchantment that incorporated the divine in every aspect of life.  Then the frame of reference began to give way to waves of disenchantment.  With the dawning of the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, public knowledge and objective truth were separated from private perceptions of individuals. And Christianity began to be experienced as something private, something apart from public life.  The Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century produced thinkers in Europe that began to argue that there was no need for God at all.  By the turn of the 19th Century, it was not uncommon for people to claim that they had a choice to reject Christianity and religion in general.  By the 1950’s and 60’s, individual authenticity and subjectivity became popular as a way to view and organize one’s life.[11]

[13] Taylor suggests that this has left a society that frames a thoroughly humanistic world in terms of “takes and spins.”  My “take” is mine, an individual subjective opinion.  Religious views are considered to fit here.  Of course, there are also “spins” which are meant to convince individuals to join groups that advertise that there is not just a variety of “takes” but actually a “single way,” a “right way” to view life and the world. Ironically, fundamentalism and atheism share “spin” as the means to convince others to dwell in their singular truth.  Yet, even these calls to believe in an absolute truth are seen as merely different “takes” on life by the majority of people. Individuals may align themselves with these groups when they deem them to fit their unique “take” on life, society, and this world.[12]  But, they are not particularly loyal.

[14] Taylor argues that most people do not join along with those who spin rational or irrational theories to promote rigid truths.[13]  Instead the vast majority in the West live with the cross pressures between these rigid poles as they embrace all of the comforts and advantages offered by thoroughly secular and humanistic thought and culture.  Taylor calls this an “immanent frame” of reference. An “immanent frame” has to do with a confidence in instrumental reason and the assumption that the world in which we live is material/physical and not spiritual.

[15] What is lost, says Taylor, is the experience of the transcendent – the sacred – that was integrated into life 500 years ago in the common conception of the divine.[14] Taylor describes “cross pressures” by asserting that all (or at least most) contemporary people live at least partly within the assumptions of this immanent frame, but also feel a call toward a search for meaning that can be found within the transcendent–which is not recognized by the dominant world view. Few of us wish to trade all of the advantages and convenience and medical advancements that go along with contemporary science and technology (including social media apps).  Still, there is a sense that despite this progress, something is missing.  Something important.

[16] I suspect that this “something” we miss is a greater sense of spirituality, mystery, and emotional connectedness.  Modern people marvel over the amazing communication technologies we have at our disposal and the opportunity to make new friends and instantly communicate with old friends wherever they may be.  But social media does not necessarily make individuals closer or more intimate.  Most of the time when I engage someone new, I find them to be understandably cautious and cynical about “being spun”.

[17] The “cross-pressures” that Taylor describes are evident on social media.[15]  For example, some on social media platforms come to embrace misinformation conspiracy stories as a way to be “alone together”. The quasi-religious movement known as “QAnon” is fueled by spin on social media platforms. An American Enterprise Institute survey found that 27% of white evangelical Protestants believe a QAnon conspiracy theory that purports that the former US President is secretly battling a cabal of pedophile political opponents.  There is no empirical evidence of this, but a large number of users believe the spin.  Unfortunately, a consequence of the QAnon movement is the unnecessary breakup of many families and friendships —  something well documented on web blogs such as Reddit’s QAnonCasualties.[16] People often don’t know whom or what to trust online – and can be misled to place their energy and trust in movements that are all too secular and humanistic, and offer little in the way of authentic transcendent love which the Bible says, “rejoices in the truth.[17]

Wise As Serpents And Gentle As Doves

[18] The problem for clergy and church leaders is that we somehow have to find a way to do ministry in this fluid environment without creating even more division, mistrust and unhealthy bias.  Cultivating agape can bring some stability and relief to a cross-pressured, chaotic milieu, if we have the time, inclination, and energy to do it.

[19] Social media is the new spiritual wilderness. It is new territory, for sure, but going into the wilderness, is a well-known journey. “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves.” Jesus gave his disciples this advice for the work at hand, “Be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.” (Matthew 10:16) Acting in agapic love includes both discernment and kindness. The following are my “takes” for creating habits of wisdom and gentleness while navigating the wilds of social media.

[20] Be open. Be willing to learn. Practice humility. Think before reacting. Ask, “Is this response genuinely in line with God’s will to apply agape in this relationship?” before pushing the enter key. Seek resonance. Receive challenge. All of us live in a thoroughly secular and humanistic context. All of us embrace and object to portions of it. People from every cultural context, religious tradition (or not), political alignment, and schools of thought are found inhabiting social media. And yet, we are all dealing with the accelerating pace of technological and cultural change (and life in general). There will be people who comfortably live and move in the moment on social media. Some will be left far behind. Others will be caught in-between. One of the greatest challenges people face in contemporary Western society is to develop healthy ways to cope with the rapid pace of change, and avalanche of information available to us with a few finger strokes.

[21] Practice patience. One serious drawback to communicating on platforms like Facebook and other social media apps is their inherent clunkiness. Most people communicate on Facebook by exchanging a few sentences. It is difficult to chat meaningfully about complex subjects or issues within such limits when we try. It is helpful if clergy and church leaders are mindful that it is easy to misinterpret what others say. It is possible to make typos that skew what we want to convey.  Most of us are guilty of making absent-minded posts from time to time, and sometimes other users take them out of context.  At times we say things impulsively.  When we make mistakes, it is embarrassing to admit them. When others make mistakes, we are not always inclined to forgive them.  Stopping to think and evaluate the situation from the framework of love can help us build better habits ourselves and be more forgiving of those who do not yet have these habits.

[22] Know when to turn off the virtual world. Participating on social media places people in a situation Sherry Turkle of MIT describes as of being “alone together.” The cyber space that people inhabit makes them three promises: “that we can always be heard, that we can be whatever we want to be, and we never have to be alone.” [18]  Ironically, in the Social Media Age, families go out to dinner and never say a word to one another as they scroll through Facebook posts and Instagram messages.  As social media use increases, “real life” emotional and intimate lives decrease. Turkle warns that as our emotional lives ramp down, so does our capacity for empathy.  We may find ourselves sending messages to someone a few feet away.  As a result, social media users are becoming more and more emotionally isolated.  Turkle’s solution is to “carve out ‘sacred spaces’ for conversation in day-to-day life—no devices at the dinner table, [and] study and lounge spaces that are wi-fi free.” [19]

[23] Recognize signs of technology addiction. Setting aside social media for many is like fighting an addiction. Their identity is defined mainly online. Those committed to agape need to connect with people with social media dependencies where they are found. I have discovered that meeting people online can lead to person-to-person counseling in the future (and not necessarily with me).  “Internet and Technology Addicts Anonymous”[20] may one day become a staple offering at our physical churches. Ironically, meetings today can be found on social media platforms – and maybe that’s a good thing, at least to start..

[24] Treat those with whom you interact as persons made in the image of God.  Have you ever felt that someone on the other side of your screen was assuming you were less than human?  Or that your opinions reflected everything they thought was evil–or at least wrong?  All human beings, including both you and the person you’re engaging with online, are complex and at least sometimes irrational to some degree. It is truly tempting to assume that those on the other side of our keyboards are less than people and that their opinions reflect all the negative qualities we ascribe to statements they make that upset us.  Human beings are complex creatures and behave irrationally to one degree or another.   It may make us feel good to publicly condemn them, but that kind of behavior is unlikely to bring about change in the individual. Evidence shows that crowd shaming often makes a person more entrenched.[21] And it can be cruel.  Lutherans claim that Christ’s death releases the faithful from shame. Thus, posts and threads that have no redemptive purpose are contrary to service in agape love. Gentle clergy engage individual persons online in Christ-centered ways that are genuine to the spirit of agape.

[25] Use the spiritual gifts you have been given online. Encourage others to use the gifts they have. Paul writes: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6). Celebrate them all. I do the same with the secular people I meet. Christians are not the only kinds of people willing to share agape with other people.

[26] Avoid deliberately causing disruption among Christian users on social media unless you are convinced that you are specially called to the prophetic tradition. Then, when you do so, do it in the spirit of agape which is in the service of justice. Basic moral issues surrounding wealth equity, racism, feminism, sexuality, ecology, crime and self-protection, individual freedom, and social responsibility are complex and bound to create controversy. Prophetic voices on social media are often perceived as “closed” by those who do not know who owns them, consider their comments to be “spin”, and can be perceived by users to be abusive and perhaps draw abuse in response. Or these voices are simply blocked and ignored.  Biblical prophets were related to the communities and individuals to whom they prophesy. Social media tempts us to believe that everyone should “just listen” to what we have to say because we are righteous, but relationships need to be established before those who could use to hear prophetic words are willing to listen. Agape calls us to point out injustice, respond with measured takes, and also demonstrate justice with our approach, our words, and our deeds.

[27] Avoid personal judgements and blanket labeling. Ask for clarification when confronting alarming comments. Accept people where they are. Use honest takes. Name calling and cyber harassment are abusive and associated with spin. Punishing people online is a sure way to add to the world’s bitterness and meanness. It may intimidate, but it is not going to change minds. There is enough of that going on.  Pastors and church leaders are called to bring objective love to the world without creating more division and ill will if at all possible.  When there is a need to oppose immoral or hurtful behavior, confront the offending user in love. Among Christians, follow Matthew 18:15-17.

[28] Choose your battles.  If attempts to bridge differences go nowhere, and the person(s) we are engaging refuse to listen or acknowledge our humanity, take Jesus’ advice: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.” (Matthew 10:14).  It’s OK to block them.  Don’t lose your mental health in an attempt to save someone online.  Salvation is God’s job.

[29] Keep using social media. Our world needs a sense of greater spirituality, ethical relationships, justice, stability, empathy, and compassion.  It really is up to people committed to the Lord’s will and the Lord’s ways to apply agape wherever people are found. In this secular and technological age, they are found on social media platforms.


[1] Pew Research Center. “Social Media Fact Sheet”.

[2] Brian Dean. Backlinko. “Social Network Usage & Growth Statistics: How Many People Use Social Media in 2021?” Updated Oct. 10, 2021.

[3] Statista. “Number of monthly active Facebook users worldwide as of 3rd quarter 2021.”

[4] Shannon Vallor.  “Social Networking and Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

[5] ELCA Clergy is a private Facebook group platform established by Rev. Clint Schnekloth in 2011 serving the interactive needs of around 7000 ELCA pastors, deacons, church leaders, seminarians and clergy from partner denominations involved in practical ministry.  The group is not officially associated with the ELCA denomination, but bears its name as an extension of Rev. Schnekloth’s doctoral work that concluded with the publication of “Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-media Era” in 2014.  I volunteered to help moderate ELCA Clergy in 2016.

[6] See King, Martin Luther, “Nonviolence and Racial Justice in Christian Century, February 1957.

[7] Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. London: Yale University Press, 1989, p. 79.

[8] Charles Taylor. A Secular Age. Cambridge and London Belknap Press, 2007.

[9] James K A Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Grand Rapids, Michigan and Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

[10] Andrew Root & Tripp Fuller. “Session 2: Religion and the Spiritual Crisis”, YouTube, June 22, 2021.

[11] See Taylor, Chapter 14.

[12] See Taylor, Chapter 15.

[13] See Taylor, Chapter 15.

[14] See Taylor, Chapter 15 & 16.

[15] See Taylor, Chapter 16.

[16] Reddit. QAnonCasualties.

[17] 1st Corinthians 13:6

[18] Lauren Cassani Davis. “The Flight From Conversation”. The Atlantic. October 7, 2015.

[19] Lauren Cassani Davis. “The Flight From Conversation”. The Atlantic. October 7, 2015.

[20] Internet and Technology Addicts Anonymous.

[21] See Brehm, J.W. A Theory of Psychological Reactance. New York: Academic Press, 1966.

Tim Larson

Tim Larson is pastor at Peace Lutheran Church in Southfield, MI and one of the administrators of the “ELCA Clergy” Facebook page.