Toby Sumpter has answered some of my recent arguments (and those of others) about the pastoral use of social media here.
The gist of his argument is that Twitter is in fact a particularly Christ-like mode of communication, since Jesus had no hesitation in dropping bewildering, provocative one-liners like “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead” (Mt. 8:22), and “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword” (Mt. 10:34). And indeed, we are given to understand in Scripture that Jesus did this intentionally to provoke, bewilder, and offend people, so that “hearing they might not understand, and seeing they might not perceive.” Toby summarizes, “The point is that Jesus frequently said things in short, pointy ways that not only could be misunderstood, but which frequently were and were meant to be.” He also points out that while there are problems with a sound-bite culture, humans are called to name the world, as God does, packing massive truths into short, pregnant utterances.
From this he concludes,
“But ultimately, it is not a pastor’s job (or any Christian’s for that matter) to make sure everyone understands. Sometimes, God sends pastors and prophets to preach in such a way as to make sure the people don’t understand, to tell parables, and perform prophetic charades until the people are deaf, dumb, and blind (Is. 6:9-10, Mk. 4:11-12). It is not necessarily a failure for the truth to be told in a way that stirs up discussion, demands clarification, and confuses people.”
I have raised some concerns about this argument in a lengthy comment, which you can read in full there; the bullet-point version is this:
- Jesus generally knew who he was talking to when he made these utterances; indeed, they were usually to an individual or small group. The tweeter has no idea who is listening in and taking offence.
- Jesus had the advantage of tone of voice and body language to communicate to his hearers; the tweeter doesn’t, which suggests greater caution is needed.
- The spoken word carries much more authority than the pixels in a Twitter feed; people are much more likely to stop in their tracks and think hard about a provocative utterance they hear, whereas they are more likely to scoff at something they see on social media (at any rate, I am; maybe I’m just weird that way).
- Jesus was the Son of God and history’s greatest teacher; at the very least, humility demands a rather large dose of prudence when trying to imitate his boldest teaching techniques.
- Are we really called to imitate His practice of intentionally inciting the antagonism of his hearers, given that his ministry came as a unique moment of eschatological judgment?
I suppose it’s worth emphasizing that, while Toby has suggested that this is a question of being willing to “tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may,” of being willing to be offensive for the sake of the Gospel, I don’t think that’s what’s at issue. I think that preaching the Gospel will often prove offensive in a world that doesn’t want to hear it. Telling the truth will get you shunned, accused of intolerance, or burned in effigy. But it’s because I want to preserve the offensiveness of the message that I don’t want the messenger to be unnecessarily offensive, lest scandal become our daily fare and lose its force. I want us to be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves, so when we do rile the world up, it’s simply because that’s what the Gospel does, not because we have been wantonly provocative. If we take too much pleasure in being provocative, the world will have long since dismissed us as chronic cranks before it even hears the scandalous word of the Gospel.
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