More Than a “Like”: Social Media Presence as Pastoral Care


Death and dying are never easy topics to broach. In some cultures, it is taboo to speak or even hint at death. But despite the silence around the topic, death never ceases to march on, ferrying souls from this world to the next. In the digital age the landscape of discussion is changing. No topic is too taboo or too shameful to post about on social media. Whatever the topic, there is a forum. There is someone tweeting about it, there is a Facebook page dedicated to it, and there are people talking about it online.

Indeed, even death is a topic that is not a stranger on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, or other social media. The discussion is occurring. But where is the church? Sally Brown, Luke Powery, and Allen Verhey, to name a few, have written on the silence of the church in regard to matters of grief, lament, dying, and death. The pastoral, theological, and biblical concerns these scholars raise are not limited to interpersonal relationships but are also reflected by the church’s lack of participation in conversations about death in the digital realm.

In this paper, I will argue that the church should participate in online discussions regarding death and that the church has something unique and powerful in the Gospel to say in the face of suffering, grief, and death. The first part of this paper will explain the problem: the church is not engaged as an institution in conversations that are already happening regarding death. In the second part, I will address concerns that social media is not the right vehicle for engaging these topics. Lastly, I will offer examples for ways that the Gospel of hope can be proclaimed on social media amidst conversations about death. The church possesses a rich theology of death that recognizes the need for lament, space for grief, and community support. As parishioners become more engaged in the networks of social media the church has an opportunity to expand its arms of pastoral care into the digital sphere.

The Conversation is Already Happening

The truth of the matter is that people are already talking about death, dying, life, and living on social media whether the church is part of the conversation or not. However, more often than not, the church has not engaged in these discussions in a lasting, meaningful way. To illustrate my point, I want to hold up three examples of discussion around death on social media that have not been picked up by the church. Using a Google maps search and, I identified 15 churches in the Princeton, NJ area with public Facebook profiles, gathered on May 1, 2015, and listed in this public Google spreadsheet. The Facebook pages ranged from 38-1908 likes, with a median of 302 and a mean of 485. Likes do not necessarily mean that an individual follows the page or that a post will appear on their timeline, but this number represents an upper limit of those who will see a post shared only by the church’s page.

The churches represent a diverse range in denomination and include Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Presbyterian (PCUSA), Lutheran (ELCA), Methodist (UMC), Assemblies of God, Church of Christ, Baptist, and Missionary Alliance. The data I analyzed for this paper include posts made by the church page between the dates January 1, 2015 and May 1, 2015. There are a number of campus ministries at Princeton University that I did not include in my data sample. Though these parachurch and denominationally affiliated groups have a significant social media presence, this paper focuses only on those organizations that identify as churches (The Episcopal Church at Princeton is unusual in that it is a church whose purpose is to serve the Princeton University community).

The limits on this data are that the churches are bound to a geographical location with a fairly homogenous socio-economic status, and that the majority of the churches selected are mainline Protestant. Collecting a broader data sample that covers a greater variety in geographical area, class, race, and denomination is a next stage of research, but for now we will explore the implications that arise from analysis of this data set, though I suspect that these Princeton churches’ social media pages do not vary too greatly from trends across the country in mainline Protestant communities.

The first example is the event of a natural disaster. On April 25, 2015, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake occurred in Nepal. With a death toll surpassing 6,000 and many unaccounted for, the scope of the destruction to lives and property has yet to be determined (Burke and Rauniyar, 2015). The response, both by those on social media and the social media sites themselves, was overwhelming.

I first learned of the earthquake via Twitter. The notorious mobile app Yik Yak has posted yik yak nepal screenshotinformation at the top of the Yak list on how users can donate to relief in Nepal. Facebook created a campaign encouraging users to donate via Facebook’s interface and raised over $10 million in only two days, according to (Berenson, 2015). And yet two-thirds of the churches I looked at had nothing on their social media feed acknowledging the tragedy in any way. The five churches that did write posts about the Nepal earthquake offered prayers and links for donations. Of those that responded, the Lutheran church responded the next morning, two churches posted on 4/27/15 (two days after the earthquake), and two churches posted on 4/28/15 (three days after the catastrophe). Even a week later, ten out of the fifteen churches I examined had still offered no response to their digital community in the face of this natural disaster that took the lives of thousands and affected thousands more. Despite the fact that #Nepal was trending across multiple platforms and even the social media sites themselves were offering support for those who suffered, the church had little to offer to those dying across the globe or their networked congregants. The conversation about tragedy, death, and dying occurs in the wake of a natural disaster, but the church as an institution was strangely silent on social media. Because most of the churches I examined did not post about the tragedy in Nepal, I turned and looked for responses to deaths within each church’s community.

The second kind of post I searched for was any post regarding the death of an individual in a church or parish. I am always amazed at the flood of posts surrounding the birth of a child. Indeed, some people have even taken to hiring newborn photographers to ensure that their child is seen in the most glamorous and high resolution photos by all their Facebook and Instagram followers– a practice very different and yet strangely akin to the Victorian practice of post-mortem photography, which has undergone a resurgence with digital photography (Ennis, 2011).

Similarly, when a loved one dies, there is generally an outpouring of love and support to the bereaved via social media (Moreman and Lewis, 2014). But not from the church. Though both birth and death are important theologically, socially, and communally, the church has little to say on social media about either. While some might argue that a death announcement is hardly appropriate for a church to make on Facebook, 14 of the 15 churches I examined did not share an obituary, prayer, or statement of grieving in the event of a death in the parish or congregation. One notable exception was the Episcopal Church of Princeton, which occupies the unique position of being a church that exists to serve the Princeton University community. In response to a death at Princeton University, two posts were shared in regards to the death of a 22-year-old Princeton University junior. The first post was the announcement of the student’s death and an urge for prayers for her, her friends, her family, and the community of the Princeton Presbyterians. The second post was appended to the announcement of their weekly Tuesday afternoon Eucharist. “As the university mourns the death of Princeton undergraduate… prayers for her and her family will also be said, after a time of silent remembrance.” Death is not a stranger to the church. I remember a conversation with my priest during the first few months after her ordination in which she expressed being overwhelmed at the sheer number of funerals. Funerals are a large part of a church’s pastoral care ministry. Where, then, is the church in moments of grief and death on social media? Why are churches not acknowledging death within their own community on social media?

For the last two years, the nation has engaged in public conversations on the deaths of black men in newsrooms, newspapers, and of course, on social media. People have protested the deaths of black men through in-person marches and demonstrations as well as over Facebook, Twitter, and other digital tools. On April 19, 2015 Freddie Gray was arrested and died in police custody in Baltimore, Maryland. Social media exploded with conversations, debates, discussions, pictures, and videos regarding the protests and the riots that ensued. Six days later, on April 25, individuals gathered in downtown Baltimore to protest police brutality. Though thousands marched peacefully, some expressed their frustrations and anger through rioting and destruction of property. Social media feeds were flooded with posts regarding the riots, the mayor’s response, and the subject of systemic racism and police brutality. Indeed, ever since the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, hardly a month has gone by without police brutality or systemic racism trending over social media in some form or fashion. Responses to these deaths and the riots varied widely from person to person as op-eds, blog pieces, and photos bounced around Facebook timelines, Twitter feeds, and other forms of social media. Conversations over social media were often under-informed and rarely modeled civility as social media activists attacked the system and in turn came under fire by their social media peers. The conversation was about race, racism, a broken system, and police brutality, but the impetus and catalyst for this conversation was death. The focus on life in response to death was evident in the slogan #BlackLivesMatter that took off in 2013 following the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin (Garza, 2014). Not all churches have been silent about the national protests, riots, and arrests. But in the aftermath of the Baltimore riots, there has been little to no response from the church social media pages to the death of Freddie Gray. Only 2 of the 15 Princeton churches I examined responded on their Facebook pages to the Baltimore riots. The first one to respond was All Saints’ Church Princeton, an Episcopalian/Anglican church. On April 28, at 11:20am, they posted:

Please pray for the tragedies occurring in Baltimore and Nepal!Want to help but don’t know how? They say the best…

Posted by All Saints’ Church, Princeton on Tuesday, April 28, 2015


This church encourages prayer for both the tragedies in Baltimore and Nepal but only provides links to help those in Nepal. The only other church to respond, of the 15 I examined, was Trinity Episcopal Church of Princeton, which posted a sentence about prayers for “All those in Baltimore” and a prayer from The Book of Common Prayer:

Our prayers are with All those in Baltimore in this turbulent time.”O God, you have bound us together in a common…

Posted by Trinity Church Princeton on Tuesday, April 28, 2015


While the rest of the world engages in discussion, however uncivil or under-informed, the church as an institution has said little on social media about the deaths of black men at the hands of the police. This silence is keenly evident when looking at the social media pages of the 15 churches in the Princeton area.

Should the Church Speak on Social Media?

We’ve seen that the church is missing out on important conversations that are already occurring on social media networks. Why is the church silent on matters so important? After responding to a few possible objections, I will argue that the church ought to be participating in these discussions and even leading the conversations that circle around death and dying. One possible objection to the church engaging in these dialogues is an objection to medium. Surely these conversations about death and dying are too heavy for a 140-character tweet. Surely these conversations require too much gravity to place them side-by-side a Buzzfeed article on 12 celebrity children that grew up to be crazy. Surely the online disinhibition effect (Suler, 2004), which breeds incivility and hateful speech, is best kept far from the church’s public profile. Surely posting about death on social media can easily become a substitute for effecting real change or being truly present (Drescher, 2011, p. 113f). Each of these objections raises an important concern: the medium of a conversation is important and Facebook and other social networking sites are not always ideal for every kind of content. That said, the conversation is already happening and to remain silent is to engage in a kind of escapism from the turmoil of this world. The language, rhetoric, and tone all have to be carefully considered when engaging in these sensitive conversations, but a need for sensitivity is not an excuse for silence. Moderation on posted conversations is required as is careful crafting of the content a church posts. But this is no different from any other content a church produces. A word in a sermon can carry vastly different implications than a written sentence in the church newsletter. New media requires new approaches, but social media should not be categorically cast away as an inadequate form of communication when the conversations are already happening.

What Should the Church Say?

The conversations about death are occurring on social media, and the church should engage in these conversations with care. What ought the church say regarding death and dying? What the church cannot offer on social media are answers to theodicy, bandages formed from platitudes, or assurances that “it’s all part of God’s plan.” What the church can offer to those responding to death on social media include space for lament, inclusion within the Christian community, and an affirmation of God’s presence.

First, the church must provide space for grief and support individuals and the community in the theological act of lament. The act of grieving is an important step in the process of lament, which is simultaneously a complaint, an expression of grief, an expression of trust in God, and a protest against the injustices in life (Brown and Williams, 2005, p. xv). The practice of lament is grounded in Scripture, and Luke Powery (2009) notes that lament re-connects a community to Scripture. “Lament is a way the Spirit connects us to scripture. The truthfulness, honesty, and faithfulness of even the lament psalms are the voice of the Spirit crying out of humanity before God” (p. 24). By sharing prayers or Scripture of lament, the church sets the example that grief, lament, and distress are valid emotions and feelings.

Though most discussions of lament turn first to the Psalms, there are theological resources in the New Testament as well. When Paul is writing to the community at Thessalonika, Gaventa (1998) notes that he writes pastorally to a community in grief. In a prayer at a protest in Trenton, New Jersey, Rev. Bishop William H. (Chip) Stokes opened with a recitation of the beatitude, “Blessed are those who mourn. You are blessed.” While the above theologians and Biblical scholars are arguing for the place of lament in preaching, lament also belongs on social media. Social networks are made up of human beings, and death, grief, and lament are part of the experience of every human. As Nancy Duff (2005) notes, “It is part of the human condition to grieve” (p.3). Where there is human interaction, in the church or online, the church ought to lead the way in affirming grief and creating space for lament. By posting a prayer of lament or a Scripture passage expressing grief via social media on its own page or a memorial page of another, the church can open a space for those grieving to express their frustrations, anxieties, and dissatisfaction with the pain in this world.

Church participation in conversations about death and dying on social media is also important in acknowledging the role of community in times of distress and grief. Allen Verhey (2012) builds on the medieval concept of Ars Morendi (the art of dying) to call the church towards a recommitment to the role of the church community in the rites and rituals surrounding death. The rites and rituals are what “gave human meaning to death, rendered it something more and other than a crude fact of nature” (p. 11). As noted above, with the death of an individual, there are new rites and rituals as people turn towards digital memorials of those that have passed. By acknowledging the deaths of parishioners and their loved ones, the church acknowledges that community has been reconfigured in the digital age. While parishioners themselves may not have any social media presence, especially among older generations, it is likely that their children, grandchildren, or friends do. By publicly acknowledging a death of a loved one within a church body on social media through a prayer, an offer of condolences, or an expression of solidarity in grief, the church takes its place in the expanded community through social networks. In the wake of a natural disaster or tragic shooting, the church confesses that the world is a painful and tragic place. Through public lament, the church engages and creates community. Borrowing language from Elizabeth Drescher (2011), in the wake of death, the church must turn from “witnessing activism to actively witnessing” (p. 113). As mentioned above, memorial and grieving are taking place online. The church must engage in this conversation through more than a “like” or retweet. By engaging in the digital community and creating community through posts and discussions about death, the church engages in an act of pastoral care. Perhaps a particular church may not feel comfortable hosting a digital memorial or a discussion on the death of black men at the hands of the police, but the conversations are already happening. When a church as an institution refrains from joining in these discussions, its silence in the community functions as escapism, complicity, or sheer apathy in the face of death. The church has a voice in the broader community of networked individuals, and in the difficult conversations, the church must be present.

Presence is key in pastoral care. In the mystery of the Incarnation, we find theological warrant for presence in the fact that God became human and dwelt among us. Both the Incarnation and the Pauline epistles (in which a constant refrain is how Paul wishes to see a community in person) prioritize physical presence, but a prioritization of physical presence does not exclude other forms of presence. The fact that Paul wrote letters to distant communities demonstrates that other media are acceptable means of pastoral care and proclamation of the word of God. When the church posts on social media on its own page, on the timeline of another, or on a memorial page, the church expresses pastoral concern and care through its digital presence. There is no place unreached by the presence and love of God in heaven or in hell. The Son of God humbled himself to the point of coming down to earth, to dying on a cross, and to descending into hell; the church, therefore, must humble itself to the point of being present on social media, through grief and lament and through tragedy and disaster. A professor of mine once said, “At times the resurrection hope must be whispered and not shouted.” The hope that we give through engagement with social media can be one of resurrection, but more importantly it is a hope of presence. Sam Wells said this powerfully in his 2012 Duke Divinity School Baccalaureate commencement sermon:

Here’s the bad news. God isn’t going to spare you from the fire. God isn’t going to rescue you from the fire. Here’s the good news. God is going to be with you in the fire. ‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me.’ ‘When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.’ That’s the gospel.

And that is the church’s mission: to proclaim God’s presence and in turn to be present. As we pray, “Fiat voluntas tua (Thy will be done),” we proclaim with our actions God’s will by building the kingdom of God here on earth, a kingdom built on presence. Through posting and engaging on social media, the church demonstrates that there is no height nor depth, no power nor principality, nor corner of the digital sphere that God’s love through the church is not present. Though the church may whisper the hope in the resurrection, there is no need to whisper the proclamation of this gospel of presence: God is going to be with you in the fire.


Social media is changing the landscape of human interaction. Social media networks may be here to stay or they may be a flash in the pan before the next technological shift. Regardless, people are on these networks and the church misses out on a ministry opportunity if it does not engage in social media. The conversations are already happening; the audience is primed for discussion. Reaping the plentiful harvest on social media through engagement with the topic of death is not done through proselytizing or even proclaiming the resurrection but is a proclamation of presence. Though the landscape of social media is treacherous, filled with trolls, and thoughtless comments, by engaging in the digital mayhem the church provides pastoral care by validating lament, building community, and by proclaiming the presence of God amidst all trials– even those trials that arise in the valley of the shadow of Death.


Berenson, T. (2015). Facebook faised more than $10 million in 2 days for Nepal. Retrieved from [Accessed May 1, 2015].

Brown, S. and Williams, P. (2005). Lament: Reclaiming practices in pulpit, pew, and public square / Sally A. Brown and Patrick D. Williams, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Burke, J. and Rauniyar, I. (2015) Nepal earthquake death toll exceeds 6,000 with thousands unaccounted for. Retrieved from [Accessed May 1, 2015].

Drescher, E. (2011). Tweet if you [heart] Jesus: Practicing church in the digital reformation. New York: Morehouse Publishing.

Duff, N. J. (2005). Recovering lamentation as a practice in the church. Lament: Reclaiming practices in pulpit, pew, and public square / Sally A. Brown and Patrick D. Williams, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Ennis, H. (2011). Death and digital photography. Cultural Studies Review, 17(1), 125-145. doi:10.5130/csr.v17i1.1967.

Garza, A. (2014). A history of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The Feminist Wire. Retrieved from [Accessed May 1, 2015].

Gaventa, B. (1998). 1 & 2 Thessalonians: Interpretation: A Bible commentary for teaching and preaching. Louisville: John Knox Press.

Moreman, C., & Lewis, A. D. (2014). Digital death: Mortality and beyond in the online age / Christopher M. Moreman and A. David Lewis, editors. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, LLC.

Powery, L. (2009). Lament: Homiletical groans in the Spirit. Homiletic 34(1), p. 22–34. Retrieved from [Accessed May 1, 2015].

Suler, J. (2004). The online disinhibition effect. CyberPsychology & Behavior 7 (3): 321–326. doi:10.1089/1094931041291295.

Verhey, A. (2012). The Christian art of dying: Learning from Jesus. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Wells, S. (2012). Even if not. Sermon preached at the Divinity School Baccalaureate in Duke Chapel on May 12, 2012. Retrieved from [Accessed May 1, 2015).

(Photo Credit: via

Other articles

Support Second Nature

Second Nature depends on the generous donations of readers like you.

Second Nature is published by the International Institute for the Study of Technology and Christianity (IISTC), a 501(c)3 non-profit dedicated to studying technology in light of the Christian tradition.

Your generous contributions make this work possible. Please consider donating today to help us continue this important work.

About the Contributor

Michael Toy

Michael Toy
Michael Toy is an amateur theologian, studying at Princeton Theological Seminary. Having studied media studies at Wheaton College under Dr. Read Schuchardt, Michael hopes to more fully dissect and analyze the intersection between theology and media ecology within the academic and the ecclesial settings. 

Speak Your Mind


Support Second Nature

If you find value in the work we do at Second Nature, please consider making a modest donation. Every donation, no matter how small, is a huge encouragement to us in our work.