The increasing importance of online social media changes how people typically interact, especially in the case of people who have lived in an online world from their youth. Social media groups are very much driven by choice: you can join and leave easily. There are many groups to choose from, and if you don’t like one, you can easily find another. So what keeps people attached? Sometimes, nothing: many flit from group to group as their whims change. But when people stay, it is not so much group membership that makes the difference, it is personal relationships. In fact, some social media groups are defined, not by place, members or shared purpose like a traditional group, but by relationship with a person, such as groups on sites like Youtube or Twitter, where people follow others.
But following another is not a new thing. The Gospels describes Jesus and his disciples as a group that is in some ways more like a modern social media group than a traditional one. Jesus went around from place to place: he was not tied down to a particular location, so much so that he described himself as someone with “nowhere to lay his head”. Jesus had large numbers of followers, who, not unlike followers on Youtube or Twitter, followed because they wanted not to miss anything he had to say. Without modern smartphone technology, people actually followed Jesus literally: they walked around with him as he moved from place to place. But the reason was the same. They followed him because they were interested in him personally: they wanted to hear him, they wanted to see him, they wanted to know what he was all about.
As happens to many people on social media, Jesus got himself into trouble by saying things that caused him to lose followers:
But some stayed. Peter spoke for those, saying:
Peter stayed not because he had no other choices, but because he had come to realize that Jesus is special, and that he needed Jesus in his life. And so he committed, even when others were leaving. It was not group membership that mattered for Peter, nor was it Jesus’ popularity with the crowds, it was Jesus himself.
This is especially important today, as group membership becomes more ephemeral in an age of social media, and as Jesus’ message is considered increasingly unpopular in modern culture. For the Christian church, the group of Jesus’ followers today, those who will join and those who will stay are not so much those who are attached to the Church as group, nor are they those who follow because of mass popularity, a fickle thing that often cannot cope with unpopular truth. It is those who, like Peter, have formed an important relationship with Jesus, those who have come to realize that Jesus is the one they need. Whether or not the nature of groups is changing today, in this social media age, a relationship with Jesus is more relevant than ever. He is worth following.