I noticed the problem when my joke didn’t land. I thought it was a witty take on a major cultural issue, but no one had any idea what I was talking about. My wife, who usually laughs politely at my humor, stared blankly. I was astonished, because this issue was all anyone had talked about for days . . . on Twitter.
That was the problem.
I shuddered to think how far out of touch I was. Inhabiting the insular, distorted world of the very online had affected my preaching. As I reviewed my sermons, I saw a shift in topics, my attitude, and my applications. I’d stopped preaching to my people and instead preached to the algorithm—to manufactured hate and misanthropic hot takes.
It didn’t take much prayerful reflection to see the seriousness of my mistakes. Passion is no substitute for love of people. You can have the right politics and culture-war salvos, but if you don’t have love, your sermon won’t bear fruit. I saw that if I continued preaching to my Twitter feed, I’d (at best) quench unity and stir up controversy. But there’s a “still more excellent way” that accomplishes a far better goal (1 Cor. 12:31).
Goal of Preaching
In 1 Timothy 1, Paul counsels the young pastor to avoid controversial speculations. Why? Paul writes, “The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (v. 5). The aim of preaching is the increase of love toward God and neighbor. That won’t happen if we focus on social media squabbles. It’s only accomplished through personal presence. Jesus, after all, loved us by dwelling with us (John 1:14; 3:16).
The aim of preaching is the increase of love toward God and neighbor. That won’t happen if we focus on social media squabbles.
Jesus had a single-minded focus on his mission of love, and it brought diverse people together rather than separating them. Jesus selected both Simon the Zealot and Matthew the tax collector for Rome to be his disciples. In contemporary terms, that’s like a pastor choosing a Bernie Bro to serve alongside the guy in the MAGA hat. Jesus saw beneath the politics.
What happened to Simon and Matthew? Did they nuance their views or change party affiliations? The Bible only tells us they followed the Savior.
As I preach to the people in my congregation instead of my Twitter feed, I move myself and the congregation toward Jesus’s mission in three ways.
1. From Fear to Love
Witnessing the vitriol Tweeters often hurl at those with whom they disagree, I started to assume the worst of people. I allowed my mind to be discipled by this virtual culture, and I grew preemptively cold-hearted toward congregants I knew would disagree with me. I foolishly assumed people I know and love would treat me the same way online strangers who hide behind anonymous handles treat others. So, I approached preaching to God’s people with fear—afraid they’d reject both me and the message.
Thankfully, “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). Knowing God loves me perfectly in Christ frees me from the performance trap. It frees me to approach the congregation I lead as the beloved, blood-bought flock of God—not as enemies on the wrong side of a fleeting issue. With this new perspective, I preach to love people rather than win arguments. That changes my tone, emphasis, and purpose.
2. From Hot-Button Topics to a Fresh Encounter with the Gospel
One major problem with spending so much time online is that we let our sermons be driven by virtual world rather than by God’s Word and the needs of the flock entrusted to our care. It’s not just the jokes. It can be the topics too. This is dangerous for pastors. Being very online keeps preachers disconnected from their people’s needs.
It’s also dangerous for our congregations. Many church members enjoy online culture clashes as much as their leaders. Ask yourself, Are your most appreciated sermon moments the jeremiads you’ve directed at hot-button issues, or are they fresh rehearsals of the gospel?
Pastor, be assured of this: if God’s Word is necessary, authoritative, and sufficient to equip God’s people for the work of ministry, then what Obadiah says about Edom is immeasurably more important for your church’s spiritual health than what a talking head said about the latest online debate.
There are certainly moments when we need to preach with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other—such as on September 11 or the first days of the pandemic—but I believe they are more rare. Ordinarily, what’s happening in the life of the widow who sits four seats to the right of you is immeasurably more important than what happened in that school board meeting four states to the east of you. We must preach the content our people need to hear: God’s Word as it relates to their souls today.
3. From Dread and Outrage to Practical Obedience
Research shows the adverse effects social media has on mental health. People feel overwhelming anxiety when (doom)scrolling. God didn’t intend for us to be omnipresent—that’s one of his incommunicable attributes. God didn’t want us to know every sorrow on earth. It too quickly overwhelms because we feel desperate to help when we can’t.
What Obadiah says about Edom is immeasurably more important for your church’s spiritual health than what a talking head said about the latest online debate.
When I preach primarily about issues happening a world away, I produce twin evils. First, I increase the dread of church members who are already drowning in anxiety. Second, I inadvertently train my people to practice faith without works. This is particularly the case when there’s no concrete application other than perpetual outrage. It’s much better to preach about personal and local issues that we can, with the Spirit’s help, tackle individually and corporately. Our church can’t change what’s being taught on college campuses across the country, but we can invite students from the local college into our homes.
If pastors localize every sermon by showing our people the work that needs to be done right here in our hearts, homes, and communities, we can make a concrete difference. Preach the local application of universal truths, and then pray that congregants (who may otherwise be divided politically) will serve side by side to share the good news, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick.
I want to be like Jesus. I want to shepherd like the Savior, and I know you do too. Jesus isn’t seated at the Father’s right hand scrolling through Twitter, ready to engage in bad-faith debates with trolls. He’s personally present to the church by his Spirit, interceding for us and speaking to us in the proclamation of his Word. May we be faithful ambassadors of his love, his message, and his ministry.