(This is the first of what I hope will be a somewhat informal series of reflections over the next few weeks on the promise and pitfalls of social media.)
Mark Driscoll has in the past couple years gained a great many enemies (and, I expect, made few worthwhile friends) by his unguarded use of social media as an extension of his ministry; while he may have done much good at the same time (I don’t know), the nature of the medium is that the mistakes get magnified. From several thousand miles away, nothing edifying or profitable Mark Driscoll has said online has ever reached my ears, but a number of offensive and divisive things have, things which, while they might only bother me slightly, I know will greatly and needlessly antagonize many of my Christian brothers and sisters. Is this just because Driscoll likes to be obnoxious? Perhaps. But I’ve come to wonder increasingly how much of the problem is with the media, not the messenger. Can Twitter serve as a tool of the pastoral office? Or is this like trying to use a screwdriver to hammer in nails?
The pastoral office, it seems, actually consists of two distinct but closely related offices—that of preaching, and of pastoral ministry. While many pastors today seem to think that social media provide them a great platform for extending their reach as they pursue both these tasks, it seems to me that these media are, by their nature, almost certain to be detrimental to the faithful prosecution of these offices, unless they are used very judiciously.
The task of preaching is to declare the word of the Gospel, the truth of Christ, to his saints and also, when they will listen, to the world—to expound and apply the teachings revealed in Scripture for illumination, edification, and training in righteousness. How can this be done in sound-bites? There may be a couple passages in the New Testament that manage to capture the whole essence of the Gospel in 160 characters, but to do the subject justice usually requires extended narrative and careful exegesis. We Reformed have often been scornful of 10-minute Anglican sermonettes; why then do we think that Facebook and Twitter posts are likely to be any less superficial and uninstructive? Of course, the problem is not merely one of length, but of impersonality. It is quite important for our faith that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”; when the Word merely becomes pixels, it is a poor substitute. Christ’s encounter with those to whom he preached was often a remarkably personal encounter, discerning the word of condemnation or encouragement that each needed to hear. Preaching, it would seem, generally works best when it is rooted in personal encounter, so that the message may be tailored to the actual needs of those hearing, rather than merely being let loose upon the multitude to work its magic or wreak its havoc, as the case may be. Again, we Reformed are generally scornful of megachurches, where mic-ed up pastors declaim to thousands of people they may have never met before; why should we be any less concerned when the mic is Twitter, amplified to reach potentially millions, without the pastor having any idea who is reading?
This concern applies all the more urgently to the task of pastoral ministry, which aims to shepherd the souls of believers, chipping away at the armor of hearts that are hardened, and strengthening the faint-hearted with words of grace and comfort. The diseases of soul that pastors are called upon to diagnose and treat are countless, and the wrong diagnosis and prescription can, I suppose, do eternal harm. I am very glad that I am not called to that awesome and heavy responsibility, and have great respect for anyone who undertakes it. But I cannot see how this complex task—of discerning sin, its causes, and its symptoms, and of determining the appropriate word of challenge, of counsel, or of comfort to apply in order to root out the sin—can possibly be performed without great risk upon faceless, numberless masses sitting in front of their laptops or tapping on their smartphones. One might profitably condemn some vice to a group of guys in a Bible study, whom one felt needed to hear the message, and who would be able to respond and interact to discern its application to them. But unleashing it on the world at large, without the ability to make all the relevant qualifications, might well trouble tender consciences, who don’t realize you weren’t talking about them, or might turn off people who misunderstood your point and thought you were being needlessly judgmental. The more flamboyantly-worded your utterance, the more likely to do harm rather than good. Unfortunately, the medium almost demands flamboyant wording.
If we don’t go so far as to say the medium is the message, we must at least admit that it dramatically shapes it. It is not hard to see how this is the case in the world of social media. What are these media about? Well, they are about grabbing attention, about making people notice you and hopefully share whatever you said, so that even more people will notice. The medium thus constitutes a powerful temptation toward vanity, and, for the pastor, the still worse temptation of substituting fidelity to the unpopular Gospel for something that will prove popular enough to be shared far and wide, that is not automatically bad. Of course, these temptations can be resisted, and there can be good reasons for wanting to get people’s attention with these media. We should want to grab people’s attention with the words of life and prompt them to share it far and wide.
But this leads to a subtler temptation. For the problem is that social media are self-defeating in their goal of grabbing attention. Diluted by the thousands, millions, billions of similar utterances coming through the Cloud all the time, and embedded in web pages or mobile devices engineered to distract us from intent focus on anything in particular, the vast majority of what is said on social media is no sooner read than it is forgotten. Of course, this is why it has to be short and snappy (although, of course, this brevity, which it takes real talent to pack a lot of substance into, exacerbates the transience)—because people don’t have much attention to spare. In this overcrowded competition for ever more evanescent flickers of attention, one must try to be either extremely profound or extremely witty or extremely provocative. Unfortunately, the first of these is the hardest, and the last of these is much the easiest. Even if it were possible to make a balanced, nuanced, carefully targeted, and pastorally sensitive pronouncement in 160 characters or a Facebook status update, the medium would militate against such an utterance—no one, browsing through their feed full of witticisms and exclamations and flashy pictures and caustic political commentary, would even read to the end of the statement, much less be inspired to “Like” it or share it.
For these reasons, I am skeptical that such media can really serve as an effective extension of the pastoral ministry, or even of preaching, unless it be, as some do, primarily just to share links and quotes (and if a quote on some contentious matter, ideally from those very few truly great writers like Lewis or Chesterton who could pack a year’s worth of sermons into a sentence).