The professor who taught me how to interpret the New Testament opened our first class with the story of Agassiz and the Fish. Agassiz was a Harvard zoologist who famously assigned a student, eager for advanced research, to stare at a fish—for three days! What at first seemed like pointless drudgery became an invaluable lesson: to see and understand deeply, one must “look, look, look.” “Stare at the fish” became something of my seminary motto.
Thanks to our digital age, we’ve never had more fish to stare at. At the same time, we increasingly lack the cognitive muscles for Agassizian-level analysis. As writers like Maryanne Wolf worry, our “daily deluge of eye-byte-sized information” creates the illusion we are well-informed and, at the same time, strangles our critical thinking capacities.
Pastors should be especially aware of how the digital age is changing our parishioners and ourselves. There are benefits to having at our fingertips encyclopedic information, news updates, and virtual access to others. There are dangers, too. I believe the downsides of social media and overabundant digital information outweigh the benefits.
Here are four reasons I limit my time on the internet and don’t use social media at all.
1. The Call to Watch Myself
Paul reminds Timothy of the relationship between his character and the proclamation of the gospel: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching” (1 Tim. 4:16). To watch yourself means being attentive to your conduct (“train yourself for godliness”) and avoiding the distraction of “silly myths” (1 Tim. 4:7).
My sinfulness makes me so prone to equate ministry success with Sunday attendance that the added temptation to count “followers” and “likes” on social media frightens me. Might Instagram or Twitter only reinforce self-consciousness when I’m called to self-forgetfulness in the service of others (Matt. 20:26)? Then there are the “silly myths”—the internet’s endless rabbit holes that lead to distraction (at best) and make the “sober-mindedness” required for ministry difficult (2 Tim. 4:5).
Might Instagram or Twitter only reinforce self-consciousness when I’m called to self-forgetfulness in the service of others?
2. The Call to Preach and Teach the Word
The related call to keep a close watch “on the teaching” (1 Tim. 4:16) does not mean pastors only study the Bible. It does mean, as George Herbert wrote of the pastor, that “the chief and top of his knowledge consists in the book of books, the storehouse and magazine of life and comfort, the holy Scriptures. There he sucks and lives.”
The message of the gospel is simple, but the Bible is not. Its contents span centuries, genres, and ancient languages. In my Anglican tradition, reformer Thomas Cranmer calls us to a disciplined type of reading: to “hear, read, mark, and inwardly digest” the Word of God.
The internet trains us instead to skim, swipe, and—since it’s saved on the cloud—forget. If pastors don’t make the painstaking effort to study God’s Word deeply—“shaking each limb and looking under each leaf,” as Luther instructs—then who will?
3. The Call to Understand People and the World
For pastors who can use social media wisely to keep up with social trends and news, it can aid in contextualizing and effectively applying the gospel. But we should be cautious of how “knowledge” of the world or people, gained mainly by digital means, can be shallow and skewed.
Social-media posts and constant news cycles keep us informed of the latest political machinations, current events, and Hollywood breakups. However, they don’t reveal the deeper pathologies lying behind lusts for power, acts of violence, or longings for love—but novels like Crime and Punishment can. A church member may tag you in a post about a school curriculum’s shifting gender ideology. This quick read will not prepare you to understand the deeper issues at play as well as working through Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.
Pastors must understand the why that lies beneath the what. Paul needed to know not only that some Corinthians disbelieved the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:12), but the complex reasons why—namely, gnostic tendencies that scorned a bodily resurrection. His teaching, therefore, not only marshaled eyewitnesses’ proofs to the resurrection (15:1–11) but also attacked the underlying notion that bodies are bad (15:35–49).
Both the world we pastor in and the people we pastor are complex. To understand them, pastors need slow and careful reading of sources, and patient and personal time with people. Digital avenues of knowledge don’t excel in this.
Pastors need slow and careful reading of sources, and patient and personal time with people.
4. The Call to Be Slow to Speak and Quick to Listen
A pastor’s social-media platform can turn into an op-ed column. Church members may expect you to weigh in on a news story within hours of it breaking, and to do so with aplomb and theological insight. The problem here is twofold. First, the typical pastor has zero training in political science, law, statistics, or journalism. Second, the speed at which social media demands comment doesn’t allow the necessary time to investigate, think critically, and pray. Pastor, I would spare you that pressure and those pitfalls. As James instructs, let’s model for our people how to be “quick to hear [and] slow to speak” (James 1:19).
There are good reasons to use social media. Pastors can share the gospel at home and abroad, and remain informed about what’s happening in the world and with their people. Yet as we learn more about how this radical new way of engaging information shapes us, we’d do well to remember our primary callings and log on, or off, as needed.
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