The pictures we share on Instagram and Facebook are, for most of us, carefully chosen images. Very few people post every picture they take on a vacation or throughout their day. Being selective about what you share online is usually a very good thing. But this self-editing can be dangerous when our audience interprets a collection of photos as a full expression of an experience.
For example, most of the pictures of my kids on Instagram are the funny moments, the smiles, the times I’ve asked them to pose. But it would be a mistake for someone to infer what life as a parent is like based only on my Instagram feed. You won’t see the temper tantrums (usually), the diaper changes, the fights or the time-outs. Just like a wedding album isn’t a portrait of a regular week of marriage, neither are the pictures I share on social media a realistic portrait of my life. And I think that’s okay, as long as my friends understand that my life isn’t all smiling kids and beautiful pictures. It’s fine as long as there are people in my life who truly know me, authentic struggles and all.
The same goes for our recent Campus Ministries NEW trip to Africa. After about 40 hours of return travel, one of the first things most of us did was to share pictures of the trip on Facebook. I posted about 50 pictures on the Campus Ministries NEW page. Those pictures are great. I’m glad we can share experiences like that.
On a mission trip like ours, deciding when it’s appropriate to take or share a picture can be difficult. I tend to err on the side of caution, not wanting someone else’s poverty or pain to become tourism for me–something I share along with pictures of a zebra. But it’s not always a clear line. We were working with a ministry, not traveling as photojournalists. It would have been inappropriate to take a number of pictures during our 2 weeks in South Africa. But you should know it wasn’t all smiling kids with new Bibles and baby elephants walking up to our bus.
On Facebook you won’t see pictures of the four adults we met and prayed with one morning who are HIV positive. You won’t hear them share with our group how they were infected or listen in as they challenge high school students to make wise decisions. You won’t see the 90 primary school kids crammed into a building that looks like it could collapse any minute. You won’t drive by the impoverished villages or sense the racial tension. You won’t see the toddler we met in a remote hut, who was clinging to his mom with advanced AIDS.
Just as a wedding book and pictures of our kids are incomplete stories of what life is really like, so are the pictures we share of mission trips often incomplete portrayals of the broken world and the difficulty of cross-cultural ministry. And sometimes we minimize the brightness of the gospel by down-playing the darkness of sin and the evil we encounter.
Still, there are appropriate times and places for sharing pictures and memories. Enjoy the fun pictures you see from our trip and the many other experiences that will happen the next couple of months. But do me a favor and make a point to really talk to people who went on a mission trip this summer. Learn about the difficulties they faced and ask them what they personally struggled with. There is a real world of pain. There is real darkness. And there is a real Jesus who died and rose again–not to make a decent world a little bit better, but to make a broken world new again.
by James Taylor