I typically avoid interviews and evade any media blitz for a book launch. But my new book, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, is a little different project for me (more culturally urgent), so I have taken more opportunities than usual (mostly live radio).
In the recent mix of conversations, I talked offline for a bit with a couple of pastors who asked me about how they should think of social media and smartphones in the work of pastoring. They took the time to record and transcribe my comments and sent them back to me, so I guess I can post this online here if it can be of any help to other pastors.
I offer the thoughts in the scattered and random form they came out in the conversation, all beginning with the question: How are smartphones changing the day-in-day-out work of pastoring today, for better or worse?
In so many ways I see and hear about, smartphones are changing the work of pastoring, for good and bad.
Digital media, in general, makes pastors more accessible, which is great, and it can be problematic, too. And we can talk about that later. But I was just talking with a pastor this morning about the blessing of smartphones in being alerted to an emergency in his congregation, literally driving down the road this weekend, getting a text, and redirecting to the hospital on the fly. Pastors can respond fast when their urgent attention is needed. This is a great thing.
On a more day-to-day basis, social media, and I’m thinking here mostly of Facebook and Instagram, also allow you to see into the interests and the thoughts of the people in your congregation. Of course this is a slanted look into their lives, but here you can see where they are theologically — or getting themselves into theologically. You can get a sense of their collective interests, or where lines of dispute may be forming over politics, national news, etc. I think these media give pastors a unique look into lives that was not really possible in past generations.
On the other side of the screen, social media allows a pastor to humanize himself and his family to his congregants. It used to be the personal sermon illustrations on Sunday morning was perhaps the closest thing you would get to a glimpse into the family dynamics of the pastor’s home, especially if the church was large and hanging out with the senior leaders was impractical. And that’s changed. And that’s a good thing. It’s easier to know about the personal interests and families of our leaders today, I think.
Whether it’s a positive or a negative, I’m not yet sure, but I’m beginning to see Facebook as a place where all of my closest connections linger on from all of the churches I have invested in over the years. Again, I’m not sure if this is entirely good or bad at this point, but your Christian connections over the years will all stick in Facebook in a way I haven’t gotten my brain around just yet, and this is interesting for pastors who are constantly reminded of people who may have left their church for whatever reason.
On the negative side, going back to the accessibility point, I think there has always been a small faction of people in every church that thinks they should have the ear of the pastor more than others. I mean, this is a pretty common phenomenon among pastors I talk with — and it always has been. The great Scottish preacher, _______ , tells the story of, for years while pastoring, of getting a phone call at home every Monday evening from one parishioner always with a laundry list of unsolicited feedback on his Sunday sermon. Ha! And there’s disproportion here. There are some people in your church you’d love to know better, but who are reclusive, and you cannot really get to know very well or very easily. And then there are people who are just constantly trying to get in your ear. And digital media, while serving the recluse to help them share, also makes it really easy for the more vocal to send emails and texts and Facebook messages and Twitter direct messages — the average pastor has never been more accessible or available to every impulse of people to reach out.
So the pastor is first and foremost called to something precious on behalf of the body, and that is to pray for its good and to preach carefully through the text of Scripture in order to feed and lead God’s people. This is how I understand the Apostolic model in Acts 6 applying to the pastoral work. So while there are always emergencies and exceptions to this, day-in day-out pastoring requires a level of specialization that must be cultivated and protected for the good of the church’s general health. And so on this side of things, I think social media can make pastors too accessible. I hope that comes across in the heart I intend it.
As an aside, I think it helps for pastors to be clear on what social platforms they use, and how they can be reached. If you’re on Facebook, welcome interaction. If you’re on Instagram, welcome followers. If you’re not, tell people you’re not on them. I would personally not abandon a platform and leave it out there as if you use it, if you don’t.
So when it comes to social media, leaving things unsaid, leaves expectations hanging in the air in churches. So we need to talk. If I message my pastor in Facebook will he respond? Probably not. Maybe he doesn’t like me, sure, or maybe he hasn’t checked his Facebook messages in six months. So I think pastors and congregations need to be very open and to talk, and have reasonable expectations of one another.
Obviously, email for a lot of pastors remains the default. But no pastor can be held to unlimited obligation. There’s not time, especially if he’s working from priorities. The lead pastor in my church welcomes emails from the pulpit. And from the pulpit he reminds us that he has a delete button, too. It’s done in humor. But that’s putting it forward. You are free to email, but he is not obligated to respond to all those emails. Especially in growing churches, that needs to be said.
Also on the negative side — or at least the challenging side of things, I would say that social media pulls together all performers in a way that is challenging to everyone. By performers, I’m talking about preachers, but also musicians, singers, athletes, actors, models, etc. All the people who are seeking to gather a crowd, who perform in front of others — and this certainly includes preachers — they can be collected together on social media platforms. On top of this, social media makes a performance art out of everything that was previously only done in private — painting, calligraphy, cooking, woodworking, crafting, quilting, etc.
So if you like to paint, you can now follow the 100 best painters on Instagram, and you’ll see them paint masterpieces in front of your eyes in time lapsed video montages. And then you go to your canvas and you disappoint yourself in a hurry. No longer can you simply be a watercolor painter selling works on a street corner in your town. Now every watercolor painter and every performer, even down to teenage athletes, are always competing on social media with all the best in the world.
What I’m saying is that every performer, in any type of sphere of performance, gets stratified along a rating system — and it’s a system of tabulations either on the number of our online friends, fans, and followers, or it’s a system of comparison built on the number of likes you can generate on any one piece of content. So that’s hard on the soul when you, in your local element, as a localized preacher, are constantly being evaluated in comparison with the best in the business.
The number of Twitter followers you have is used to gauge your preaching skill, for example. This is a phenomenon all performers face, and preachers are not excluded. It’s a phenomenon that, on one side, pushes us all towards greater excellence. That’s a good thing. But on Sunday morning it also means that a pastor steps on to the stage, and they know people in the congregation are likely listening to some of the best preachers online: Tim Keller, John Piper, John MacArthur, Tony Evans, Matt Chandler, Mark Dever, and on and on and on. And so you preach your little heart out and then you go home and Monday you try to rest, and all the new sermons from all the great preachers start pinging in podcasts and you compare yourself to them.
Performance is so stratified that, unless you reach elite levels, you can very easily fall into a trap of self-condemnation and self-doubt and investing an inordinate amount of time in brand building on the national and international stage, and that pulls you away from your immediate calling, or makes you quickly dissatisfied with it.
Then, I think this can breed another negative, and that is that the congregation becomes a sort of studio for you to record the next episode in your sermon podcast project. So you stop preaching to your people in front of you, and your focus is on the untold millions of people who could possibly listen to your sermon online, when in fact it ends up being about 10 people.
I think this is why Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his book Preachers and Preaching, drops one sentence, out of nowhere, with no elaboration: “Tape-recording — as I see it, is the peculiar and special abomination at this present time.” Literally, he just drops that sentence bomb and walks away and gives no other context for what he means. If I can dare offer up a stab at elaborating on this point, I think it seems to me that he believed recorded sermons broke the special link that emerges between preacher and congregation when they meet in an embodied place together. So listening to podcasts will never provide a substitute for the face-to-face gathering of an embodied congregational worship gathering.
That gets deep, but this is something I talk about at length in my new smartphone book, and I think there’s good biblical precedent for it. Just listen to the Apostle John in 2 John, verse 12: “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink” — the modern communications technology for John. “Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete.”
Podcasts are great, but they will never replace the joy of face-to-face gatherings together. This is the reality of communication, especially when it comes to our affections. Joy is a precious emotion of our integrated existence in the presence of God’s people. That’s the point of the Apostle John. There is no joy like God’s people gathering together, where we bring together our attention, our minds, our flesh and blood, everything that we are, all brought together into face-to-face fellowship and eyeball-to-eyeball love. There’s no replacement for this. Writing cannot replace this. Podcasts cannot replace this. Watching a preacher on a screen in a worship center cannot replace this either. And to some extent, I think that’s what Lloyd-Jones was getting at. We need to reclaim the glory and the joy of our embodied gatherings.
Someone recently asked me, what’s the one takeaway from writing your book on smartphones, about technology and the future of Christianity, and I think it’s this point. The average, ordinary local church plays a significant role in the counter-cultural resistance movement against the most corruptive trends we now face in the digital age. The local church is precious! That’s the summary of three years of research and writing and I hope is an impactful point readers take from my new book.
[Question: So should pastors feel compelled to use social media?]
No. There is no demand for pastors to do so. You don’t have to be online, especially if it tempts you in ways that are unhelpful for you. And this depends on the particular pastor and how they are wired.
I can speak from experience that it is very easy to thoughtlessly share content online that you will regret. The backlash will sometimes be strong and justified. You can get yourself into huge trouble, really fast, if you share a pro-Trump or an anti-Trump article, for example. You can lose credibility in a nanosecond. You can stir up unnecessary controversy so easily.
But with discretion and wisdom, there’s also a sweet opportunity for pastors to be salt and light online, to help people think above the latest political headline buzz. And I think on Twitter of guys like Ray Ortlund who do this really well. John Piper of course. Burk Parsons does this really well, too. Sages. Wise. There is a huge opportunity.
If you can check yourself and not fall into the trap of trying to generate approval and popularity online, Twitter is a huge opportunity to dialogue and work out sermon points as you develop them, and to spread points from your sermon after the fact. This in itself is a skill that demands a lot of practice over time, but it’s worth it.
I was recently interviewed by someone who kept pointing out that my book had a lot of sentences that were memorable in themselves, and I reminded this person that my writing has improved through the limiters and stresses and pressures of publishing on Twitter — the number of eyes immediately on what I write, the brevity of space, the lack of context to frame things. Trying to do social media well will make you a better writer and a clearer preacher. So there’s a component of sharpening your communicative skills that social media can help you develop and hone over time.
As for how much? The preacher has priorities. Wife, kids, neighbor, tasks of praying/preaching. These are top priorities for him. If his social media habits threaten his priority in these realms, it needs to be checked. And that’s really the purpose of my book. Let’s think carefully about what God has called us to be and to do and to become, and then lets look at the potential of what our phones can do to serve us toward these ultimate ends. This is what all of us must work through, pastors and congregants alike.
So it is great to see local church pastors manage and steward a national audience on Twitter, and personally flourish in the work. But it’s also really beautiful to see pastors who have wisdom and skill that could build a national audience, but who instead use self-restraint and decide not to pursue that, but instead invest all of their gifts in the time and talents into one, simple local church and the needs of a neighborhood or city. This is beautiful for people to see that kind of commitment. I think we need more pastors who are willing to do this.
I think this is a message congregations need to hear. It’s okay to not try and build a national brand. It’s okay to give your life to the local context of the needs of those around you. And I hope that’s one of the prime takeaways people take from my book, because all of us — pastors, employees, moms, dads, teens — we all need to be reminded of the glory of caring for those in physical proximity to us, not getting distracted by the possibilities of the remoteness of the virtual world and far-off possibilities, which I think is the whole point of the story of the Good Samaritan.