The idea of social media and short-term missions was brought up to me three times in the last week. It also comes up a lot when you run an orphanage as to how much exposure the children should get online. When and how do we post to social media? What are we saying when we do? It’s a complicated issue. How do you engage people back home and not use photos of cute poor kids or needy areas?
Two of the many areas of social media that are problematic are: What are my posts saying? And how do I respect the person who’s photo I might be posting? We all make assumptions, but being self-aware is complicated, and knowing how people genuinely feel about being posted is difficult.
We give a lot of tours of our orphanage, we go through the main buildings and show a few of the houses where the children live as we explain the home. Occasionally, someone will express their concern (anger?) over us walking through the children’s private spaces and showing where they live. “You should be more respectful! How can you use the children like this?” Well, it’s complicated.
We talk a lot about the privacy of our children and how not to treat them as zoo animals for visiting groups. We limit the time groups hang out with our children, and no child is ever required to spend time with the groups. Out of respect for our children’s privacy, we used to avoid going into the dorms too much. We wanted to respect their space. After a while, the kids asked why we weren’t going into the dorms. They wondered if they were doing something wrong. It turns out, the kids love to show off their dorms, to show how clean they are, to have visitors see the rooms they are so proud of maintaining. We were going on one assumption, and we were very wrong. Communication helps to avoid making false assumptions.
I’m using the example of dorm tours, but the same thing applies to social media, we need to ask and respect the wishes of whoever we’re taking pictures of to post to social media. If the photos are respectful, most people love to see their pictures online. We might think we’re respecting people by not posting, but who doesn’t like to be included in friend’s posts? The key to social media posting is the same as so many areas of life: respect and communication.
With our ministry, we don’t post pictures of most of our children, and we ask visitors to avoid posting, mainly because some of our children are in hiding from rough situations. If it weren’t for that, we’d be okay with posting as long as it was done respectfully and with the proper intentions. I don’t know of too many ministries that wouldn’t want more posts about what they do. Most people enjoy it when they are included in posts online. By assuming we’re taking the high ground and respecting the people we’re serving by not posting, we might be doing them a disservice.
Always ask permission when taking pictures and talk to the people. Is it okay if I post this? This sounds like common sense, but common sense is not that common. As long as it’s okay with the person or people in the picture, post away. I don’t know of a single ministry that doesn’t want more online exposure. By posting about the great work being done in other parts of the world, you are helping in ways that might be more profound than your actual visit. The right person seeing your post might turn into a great donor or organize other forms of assistance. As long as the ministry is okay with it, ALWAYS post a link back to the ministry website. As in every area of life, communication – communication – communication. Respect other’s wishes and treat them as you would be treated.
One question to consider is, WHY are you posting. This is where being self-aware is so tricky.
If we’re posting for the right reasons, it’s great. If we’re posting for the wrong reasons, it helps no one. The right reasons would be to promote ministries, share about needs, and encourage others to serve with time and resources. The wrong reasons are about shock value or showing everyone how great we are. It’s easy to fall into the trap of posting our best moments: us serving the less fortunate, us moving dirt, hugging a child, or generally being cool in the mission field. These photos can be compelling, but what is our motivation? Being self-aware is profoundly complicated. Is our post only about us? Or are we encouraging others, promoting others, and moving the ministry forward? These are not simple questions, and they have no simple answers, life is full of gray areas.
But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing… Matthew 6:3
Go ahead and post to social media, but ask yourself why and how you’re posting. As in every area of life, if it’s all about you, it’s a problem. If your post is about serving others, encouraging others, sharing about great work being done by others, your posts can be a service and a blessing.
Social media is a powerful tool; please use it wisely.
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