Last night on The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon—along with The Roots, announcer Steve Higgins and guests Rob Riggle and Horatio Sanz—dumped buckets of ice water onto their heads after being “nominated” by Justin Timberlake to take the “Ice Bucket Challenge.” It was a weird moment of cultural convergence, with celebrity, charity and social media coming together on late night TV.
How Did It Start?
For the few who haven’t seen the videos pop up in their own Facebook newsfeeds, here’s how the Ice Bucket Challenge (or Ice Water Challenge as it’s also referred to) works: A Facebook user posts a video of themselves dumping a bucket of ice water over their head, and then publically “nominates” several friends to do the same. If the nominee declines to post a video of their own, they are supposed to make a donation to a specified charity or cause. If they accept, they make a donation of a lesser amount (or none at all) and post a video to continue the cycle.
The exact origins of the challenge are unclear. But the trend helped catch on after a former college baseball player named Pete Frates, who has ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), posted a video in effort to raise money for the ALS Association (the beneficiary of many of the celebrity videos).
It’s become completely inescapable. Many churches have even been adapting the challenge to raise money for mission trips and local causes.
The Social Media Activism Debate
In recent years, social media has been no stranger to trendy social causes. Viral sensations like hashtags (#Kony2012 or #BringBackOurGirls), custom profile pictures (the Arabic symbol to “N” to raise awareness about religious persecution in Iraq), fashion trends (Movember) or awareness-themed YouTube videos have all been fixtures on Facebook feeds and on Twitter. (Without a giving or actionable component though, the effectiveness of some of the campaigns has been debated).
Like some of the other viral campaigns, the Ice Bucket Challenge has its critics. It’s a little goofy. It makes a show of giving. It calls people out to pressure them into doing something good. The volume of videos can get a little annoying.
Here’s the thing though: The Ice Bucket Challenge is actually working. The ALS Association says that it’s taken in $1.3 million in donations over the course of two weeks, compared to $22,000 during the same two weeks a year ago.
And that’s exactly why it’s the perfect social media campaign: It takes all of the best parts of social media (peer-to-peer connection, funny short videos, emotional resonance), and turns them into a single, actionable idea.
How Should Christians Feel about Public Giving?
I’ve seen some Christian friends in my newsfeed raise their own concerns about the Ice Bucket Challenge. Particularly, that it makes a public display of giving, something Jesus said should be done in private. (Matthew 6:3-4, “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”)
But what we miss when we criticize things like the Ice Bucket Challenge—or even consumeristic giving projects like one-for-one products or trends like The Red Campaign—is that these aren’t meant to be a replacement for our private generosity. These campaigns offer Christians an opportunity to help encourage a culture of giving.
Obviously, there’s nothing preventing anyone from simply making a donation to their favorite charity or just buying a needy child a pair of shoes. But the reality is, social giving can make a difference—and there’s a Biblical precedence for it: In Luke 21, the widow’s offering of two small coins into the temple treasury—which was observed by Jesus—offered the opportunity for Christ to teach a lesson about generosity (“This poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” Luke 21); Mary Magdalene openly washed the feet of Christ with an expensive bottle of perfume, despite being criticized by Judas (“Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?”), not only exposing Judas’ greed but allowing Jesus to teach a lesson about devotion; “Great fear seized all who heard” (Acts 5:5) about the fate of Ananias who lied about a donation to disciples.
In Matthew 5:16, Jesus even says, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”
For Jesus, this is not just about the act of public giving. It’s about our motivation. Is it our goal to legitimately help others—and encourage others to do the same in a fun, contagious way? Or are we simply looking for attention? Those questions are a matter of the heart—not whether or not we dump a bucket of ice water on our head in a video.
The Potential for Change
In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell explains what makes some ideas have the power to become so contagious: “In the end, Tipping Points are a reaffirmation of the potential for change and the power of intelligent action. Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push—in just the right place—it can be tipped.”
You may argue whether or not dumping ice on your head meets the traditional definition of an “intelligent action,” but the “potential for change” in social media activism trends is undeniable. And that’s what we, as Christians—no matter if we publically take a part in the campaign or not—can all agree is a good thing. We’ve not only been called to change the world and help those in need; we’ve been called to nominate others to do the same.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.