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Skype & FB’s negative impact on missions

A missionary friend who works in Asia wrote a post highlighting a phenomenon concerning Skype and Facebook I’ve observed with a lot of our short-termers. Granted, they’re great tools and missionaries use them all the time. But, they also pose a problem.   To understand why, you have to …
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes

A missionary friend who works in Asia wrote a post highlighting a phenomenon concerning Skype and Facebook I’ve observed with a lot of our short-termers. Granted, they’re great tools and missionaries use them all the time. But, they also pose a problem.

To understand why, you have to ask: Why do we do mission trips?  And most of us would point to two primary reasons:
  • to serve and connect relationally with partners on the field.
  • to change the lives of those going.
Short-termers’ lives change in part because participants are taken out of their comfort zones and their lives back home. They abandon the noise and the ego-props there, the friends and family that helped define them, and they are forced to rely on God and his power. It’s not a trade-off most of us want to make. Yet when we do, God shows up – he often can help us see our false selves and help us to make spiritual breakthroughs.
Abandoning comfort zones is not easy or natural, however. Given the choice, most of us will grab at what scraps of comfort we can find. And that brings us to my point: While reporting back to supporters periodically is important, too often short-termers use Skype and Facebook to create a place of comfort on the field. The process of abandoning their old life and the challenge of the mission may cause them to retreat to their on-line world of old friends and media values. Rather than diving into the local culture, they find escape in their Facebook account and Lady Gaga videos. They hide behind the computer screen and the familiarity of relationships back home.
It’s a problem. In doing so, they miss much of what God has got for them in their mission trip.
If you’re going on a mission trip, the best thing is to self-regulate. Set boundaries for yourself. And as a leader, recognize, you have options. On one extreme, you can ban online social networking and draw a clear line in the sand forbidding team members to get on the computer. But that may interrupt the important ministry of reporting back to supporters and friends. And at the other extreme, you can ignore the issue and chalk it up to their need to escape – but in my book, that’s abdicating your leadership responsibility.
So, what do you think is the best way to deal with the issue?

Comments (23)

  • Aside from the narcism that sometimes surrounds the social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, these sites do one ting well…unsocial networking. The bad thing is that some people are disconnecing from their real world culture and living within a digital culture…and causing people to do just as the post mentions…become unemotional to their current organic social cultures. I deffinitely agree with the post that its a danger. I think its worthwhile to talk to short term teams more about Jesus’ ministry when he walked with us. I often think that the reason why God didnt just all of a sudden manifest himself in the human form of an adult and start is ministry becuase He needed to be born into it…to learn the culture. The bible specifically mentions that He grew in wisdom while possessing his human nature, with the divine nature set aside he had to live with the people, to connect with them, to accept their friend requests, to send out his own, to spend days walking to see and spend time with someone…how much love does that show!

  • i think this is an excellent issue to bring up, seth. a few suggestions are to a) ask short-term missionaries leave their computers at home and instead have them use internet cafes at specified times, but more importantly 2) prepare short term missionaries with teachings about the importance of bonding…

    my first overseas mission trip was through servants to asia’s urban poor, and they had me study this article before i left:


    (“…we have observed that the newcomer goes through a critical time for establishing his sense of identity and belonging during his first few weeks in a new country. If he becomes a belonger with expatriates he may always remain a foreigner and outsider. But at this crucial time he has the unique opportunity to establish himself as a belonger with insiders, in order to live and learn and minister within their social context. The bonded missionary, because he is a belonger, has the opportunity to gain an empathetic understanding of insiders’ ways, their feelings, desires, attitudes and fears. He can listen with sensitivity to their otherwise hidden values, concerns and motives. Thus he can acquire insights and adopt habits of lifestyle and ministry that will enable him to be good news from the perspective of local people in order to draw them into a belonging relationship with God. Bonding is therefore a perspective many missionaries may choose to value and a goal they may choose to pursue. Making this kind of significant cultural adjustment is not easy but it is possible, especially if initiated at the critical time for bonding.”)

    this idea of bonding stuck with me, even throughout my time on the world race.

  • Seth,

    This is perfect timing for me to read this as I am leading a team to India and leaving in Friday! We’ve talked to our team and warned them about the comfort zone that can be created with social sites/computer and the importance of immersion into the culture. At the same time, I think its important to have some connection with family. I’m going to challenge my team to only one day a week use of internet. I like the idea of internet cafes to at least get them out into the community!

    I’ve also noticed sometimes its not just social networking but finding internet that becomes a huge distraction. I’ll let you know how my team does 🙂

  • I was with AIM in Africa for the Awakening in 2007-2008. We had limited access to internet. It was amazing in many ways how much I was able to really bond with my teammates and be engaged in the ministry. You couldn’t run and hide behind familiarity or debrief things with your loved ones. Though this it was needed that my teammates became my loved ones very quickly. In my boyfriend and my relationship Skype did help even if it hardly worked or was very sporadic. Granted there was a good tough couple months for us when I arrived back stateside because there are many little things you wont talk about when you talk maybe every couple weeks. Looking back I can very much see how I would have been distracted, would not have learned siswati so well, would have spent less time in the word etc if I was able to be on the internet more. It really helped me dive into the culture and lives of those around me, which I loved! It would be a huge distraction/ a unhealthy way to cope if you saw kids starving to death during the day and went home and spent the evening on facebook. How would that commute in your brain?

    I am currently living in the middle east and I have wireless internet 24/7. It is wonderful in providing a support system. Communication makes life so much easier. Living here in a very dark land where even my team isn’t living in the same place and the local church is not very strong, i really rely on the fellowship and encouragement I receive via the internet. Yet here, at times when in Africa at the same moment I would have reached for my language notebook or prepared my lesson for the next day, I am more likely to play a game on facebook or talk with some random person.

    The one downside I see to not having much internet is the intensity of reverse culture shock. Coming back from Africa I had very severe reverse culture shock. I don’t find it as likely when I come back from the middle east to have as intense of time. Facebook for example keeps you up to date with random things. Like living here I hardly ever see people in shirts with short sleeves let alone shorter. Yet, on facebook daily I can see the fashions and culturally acceptable norms so I am not totally thrown off when I return. Also having access to the internet keeps me up to date on news happenings in America. In Africa I totally missed many things that happened while I was gone. Sometimes people will talk about things that everyone in America knew about and I’m clueless.

    I think when you talk about about short terms there is a huge difference from 2 weeks, 3months and say a year or nine months. I think its pointless and a huge distraction on a 2 week trip. 3 months I think it would need to be semi limited. Yet depending on the person and location some place in the world you connect with your target group over facebook. I think 3 months is the tricky one of how much is ok, and how much is too much. My experience in Africa was almost 9 months. The once a week/ twice a week at most was very difficult at times but extremely stretching and growing. I in some ways was lost in American culture when I returned and many, many relationships were lost from lack of communication. Yet, when I weigh the fruit that I see from What God was up to, its totally worth it.

    I think some communication or weekly communication via the internet (if you are gone for more than 2 weeks) is very important/ a blessing in this day and age. Having more internet than that can have its downsides. If your teams are living together and in community (a blessing in AIM) then less communication to the states is an option. Yet, much depends on the maturity and the heart of the person who is sent. If there heart and deepest desire is to see the Kingdom expand, no matter the availability to such resources they will seek His Kingdom first.

  • Online social networking sites can be very addictive. When we cultivate and nurse their habits, we risk jeopardizing our primary objective especially on cross cultural mission trips.
    This is not a short termer’s problem alone. I have seen long term missionaries spend ours online, reading the papers from homeland and selling goods on Ebay.

    Like Denise said, the length of time defined as “short-term” is vital to this discussion. How short is short? And if it’s short, then it’s short and thus, the participants can hardly free themselves from home before returning.

    So it comes down to discipline. During my last trip to Sudan, I didn’t have regular internet and it shocked me to notice how much time I spent connecting with my disciples and the outcome of those precious moments. In the past, I had wireless access and could spend 5hours online in a seating!!!! I was insane! Though I knew I was over-doing it, I felt stock. It seemed too much fun was coming from there so the temptation to ALWAYS connect was so strong.

    Finally, God solved that without my praying for it. Though I could use my cellphone to connect, the financial implications made that unattractive.

    Online social networks have come to stay and so has short-term going. How they “stay” together to serve Abba’s cause in every given location is better trashed out before goers engage. But let’s remember that grace, if it can’t be abused, is not grace.

    The question of how gains more (me or the target) from my short term going will continue to be a topic for debate until Jesus comes.

    If you ask me, I think Apostle Paul would have used Skype extensively if he had it.

  • Hey man, I would say as a fellow World Racer you make a good point but I believe it’s all about dependency.

    When we were in Thailand we didn’t have any online access where we stayed except when we went to the city an hour away for awful internet access. I believe if people on our squad were like “I can’t do this without that” then it would be really bad, but none of us were dependent on it at all and focused hard on ministry. But it’s another way of communicating like Paul writing letters to his home and ministry places. If we use it too much then yes.

    But we do have supporters back at home and people who are praying for us, which I believe is why the Race wants us to blog this stuff because they deserve it. If not FB or Skype then it would be letters/postcards and glad we don’t have to fully go with that. People across the world are hearing the stories in the moment of it all and they see how their prayers and support are doing.

    If people are willing to give it up, awesome, if not for the sake of personal growth and missions then it’s an issue. Many things aren’t bad, it’s the dependency upon them and the person themselves.

  • Denise said it perfectly.

    A few more thoughts:

    Facebook and Skype have been vital for us over the past year to prevent homesickness and have allowed our USA community to experience our life here. They can see our home on Skype or pictures we post on Facebook. And sometimes we have friends over when we receive a Skype call. Our family gets to see who is in our house and meet our friends.

    Frank’s parents use it the most, and have visited twice over the past year and have plans to visit even more. This from a couple who had never traveled internationally before their December trip to visit us.

    After observing the teams that have come down here: if they are here longer than a few weeks, and don’t have weekly or twice weekly access to Skype or Facebook, they experience more homesickness and morale tanks. Especially if they know the leaders have access in their homes.

  • St. Mark of the Cross

    Well, when I was in short-term missions back in the 70’s it was not much of an issue. I do know however, that the minimal contact with home caused us to rely on the Lord, our fellow missionaries, & to develop closer ties with the people we were there for…. With that in mind, my family & I have gone on short-term mission trips to Europe 2004-2006. We had the availability of myspace, email, & now of course Facebook. I see that it is both a asset & liability… I believe that we are so addicted to ms/fb & other related type internet communications that is has hurt us in all areas, even in family & friend relationships – we don’t “cuddle” anymore. Matt & Mary text me sometimes even in the car, let alone church! And rather than have intimate conversations, we have abbreviated messages that are coded…I guess the new “sign” language? So I see this whole new way of “talking” as having major pitfalls. On the other hand, these are wonderful ways of communicating and staying connected, & can be fantastic prayer chains-immediately! So, I think as with everything in our lives – moderation & balance. We will not be able to stop it – how can we as my parents did back in 60 & 70’s limit our time watching TV. Like maybe a certain time allotted for my/fb/email use… I know we all have ideas & recommendations on what to do. It can work together…let us hear from the Lord on how to do this. Do we believe he has the answer even for this?

  • There truly is a fine line between the encouragement this feature of technology can bring and the problems it can cause. It can allow a team member to quickly “leave the table”, check out and passive aggressively walk through issues when they finally are given an opportunity to meet them head on. It can also allow a sick short-term newbie a chance to be comforted by the one and only mom. But its all about choices, priorities and where we’re at on our journey. If I am walking in rebellion or don’t want to face the realities a new culture brings, distractions will be warmly welcomed whether it be FB, skype or something else. But if I decide to live, grow, and choose in to whats before me FB and skype will naturally become a tool, not an escape.

  • “So, what do you think is the best way to deal with the issue? ”

    I think you already nailed it: don’t prohibit, govern.

  • i think this is a tough and delicate issue, as well. on one hand, being able to keep in touch and especially keep supporters informed is such a blessing. on the other hand, it is such a distraction to have the internet.

    by the end of the race i came to dread the months where we had wireless or any kind of internet at the place we were staying because i knew so many of my teammates (and myself) would spend so much time on the computer instead of engaging.

    i think short periods of internet-ban are a good thing because it can show people the value of spending time with each other and really engaging in their present environment….but people often respond negatively to being told what NOT to do. i don’t really know what the solution is.

  • Definitely a fine lined… determined by signal connectivity and location obviously. This will be a hard one to regulate. But most definitely something extremely beneficial.

  • on a Real Life trip i helped lead to india, communication with home was a big complaint. (they wanted more of it; we wouldn’t let them). as it was we gave them more than most of the other RL teams out at the same time. try as we did, I don’t know that they ever came to appreciate the severance from their comforts of communication with home.

  • This was an interesting post Seth. In the end it probably is one of those “tensions we manage more than a problem to be solved”. Appreciate you.

  • This is so true…even when you are not on mission, just away for your personal soul searching, or for the least, just on vacation for a personal break “from it All”…having digital connection with people really hampers you from facing the real world that you are momentarily facing..the best is to avoid use of internet, forget that it’s there…and deal with what is in front of you at that moment in that place where you are. I’ve been there ,done that! Believe me it’s worth it!

  • This is very interesting to read, indeed. I was thinking about this myself, whether or not to bring my notebook computer with me on the race. I’m not much of a facebook user or social networker, so I’d spend much of my time trying to immerse myself in the local community and culture, anyways. However, I could see myself retreating to my computer during those awkward moments that come with getting to know people.

    Hmmmm, it would probably be better just to leave it home, and reserve net time for visits to internet cafes. Many people forget how to connect with their fellow human beings, who happen to be sitting RIGHT IN FRONT OF THEM. Yeah, I may leave the extra tech at home and just bring an external hard drive and plenty of memory cards for my camera.

    I’d say the best thing is to let people bring it, but strongly encourage that they only use the internet to communicate with friends, family and supporters, like, at most, once a day for a couple of hours. Why go on a trip to physically leave everything behind, just to virtually bring it all with you? 🙂

  • from the vantage point of a parent whose high schooler went on an Ambassador trip, it was excellent that she didn’t have access to texting and internet only briefly in a cafe. When she got back she told me she didn’t really miss any of it, she was so wrapped up in the day to day ministry and interactions. I missed getting to hear what was happening at the moment, but loved that she was PRESENT in her real world – not the one she left behind. I think Melinda is right – most of US have trouble disciplining ourselves well in this area, the average team of young people who live, eat and breathe this stuff in our culture sure can’t. Govern wisely!

  • In my prayer time this morning, the Lord brought up this very topic. I didn’t even see your post yet! I’m thinking about a writing a trip devotional around Moses/Israel, John the Baptist and Jesus all having a season of being “cut off” from comforts and communication of the outside world. Can’t wait to see how He develops the message. Thanks for sharing your insight Seth!

  • I see a lot of good comments on where to draw the line on this issue. I haven’t read the comments in great detail, just skimmed, so if I am repeating someone….sorry.

    I see a lot of concern for the missionary’s bonding and cultural experiences, but I am more concerned, or just as much, about how our dependency on technology affects the Gospel message that we are trying to communicate to the people. When we are in a foreign country, especially as Americans, all eyes are on us and they are watching and learning who our God is- whether communicated verbally or through our actions/lifestyles. Which Jesus are they seeing? The generous, self-sacrificing God of mercy and undying love, or the American consumer Jesus who inspires us on Sundays, but does not have much place throughout the week?

    I think the answer for the mission trips is to continue preaching that message of reckless abandon and complete dedication to the Gospel and do what you can to reasonably limit their technological access while on a trip. I would encourage them, not to just limit themselves for the duration of the trip, but also to commit to making those lifestyle changes to become less dependent on technology permanently. We don’t notice it when we are on our “Facebook high,” but when we pull ourselves away for a time, we start to realize that life is so much more fulfilling and enriching when we are not constantly glued to the computer/TV/video games.

    I think the toughest thing coming off a mission trip is to maintain that disciplined commitment we had while we were not distracted by the things of the world. When our friends around us are constantly talking about it, culture is bombarding us with it, it is like trying to overcome an addiction- we need friends/accountability partners who share our views to help us resist the temptation.

  • Sorry I haven’t had time to read all the comments, but has anyone also brought up the topic of security? Most of my ST trips have been to areas where the LT workers and locals are underground, and they risk major trouble when ST visitors post about it publicly on FB, Twitter, etc.

  • Yes, security is another issue altogether. In China, there are times when we not only have to encourage people to limit internet time, but also to watch what they say/write! And there are instances where its necessary to ban internet use completely for the sake of security, if a particularly serious project or issue is at stake.

  • Personally if you go on a short term mission trip why would you need to use FB/Skype/Email? i mean unless it totally urgent can’t you deal without it to help the poor you traveled to serve? i mean im 16 and FB is a big importance in my life, even without me wanting it to be. But to travel to help the poor i could go without it for months.

  • Yeah- we wanted to put a limit on the internet time in Haiti, but were told not to do it and let it come from the team. Of course, that didn’t happen. It is mostly foolish to think the average team of young people who breathes FB/Skype even know how to discipline themselves in this area. It is a lack of our culture and not something most have had a chance to acquire wisdom about. ‘Grace and freedom’ is good- but sometimes, ‘in the name’ of grace and freedom we miss opportunities to provide discipling and leadership.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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