I’ve noticed an increasingly prevalent genre of online evangelical Christian commentary in which pastors are shamed because they’re insufficiently vocal about this or that outrage or not militant enough in the culture war. Increasingly, it seems, there’s a lot of social media mileage in throwing pastors under the bus.
The formula is familiar: a Highly Online Christian takes to social media to put generic “pastors” on blast by unfavorably comparing them to secular thought leaders or politicians who are supposedly more courageous truth tellers.
But is this a good-faith critique? And is it helpful?
Your Pastor ‘the Pastors’ Online
Few call out their own pastors online. But many employ the imprecise word “pastors” (Every pastor in the world? Every American pastor? A few notable pastors you’re subtweeting?) to advance a narrative of negligent clergy sitting out the culture war.
Often the social media post focuses on a timely front in the culture war and turns it into an indictment on “beta pastors” who are allegedly naive about the issue’s gravity: Wake up, pastor! While you’re trying to winsomely “engage the culture,” the culture is indoctrinating your congregation with _____ [CRT, LGBT+ agendas, woke ideology, and so on]. Quit sitting on the sidelines!
Left-leaning Christians also join the “pastor as punching bag” social media chorus. Their posts similarly indict “pastors” as a vague class, taking them to task for enabling various evils: Pastors have blood on their hands. Their cowardice in staying silent on _____ [racism, Christian nationalism, abuse, AR-15 mass shootings, climate change, and so on] means they have zero moral authority on any issue.
Stop the Straw Man
Pastors aren’t above criticism. There are some pastors who refrain from speaking up about vital issues out of fear of losing favor with one group or another. There are pressing issues some pastors should speak about more often.
Yet it’s impossible to lump all pastors together and it’s unhelpful to make blanket accusations in cyberspace.
Maybe you have firsthand experience of a specific pastor who’s demonstrably shirking his duty to protect the flock from wolves (Acts 20:29). Fine. Raise your concern with that pastor directly, or raise it with the pastor’s elder team. Don’t take to social media except as a last resort. And don’t air your grievance with a specific pastor by making broad online accusations about pastors generally.
Is (Social Media) Silence Violence?
Much pastor bashing on social media doesn’t jibe with realities on the ground. From what I’ve seen, most pastors are aware and concerned about the pressing social and cultural issues of our day. Most of them are seeking resources to be equipped to address timely topics from the pulpit and in pastoral conversations (“transgenderism” is one of the most-searched-for phrases on The Gospel Coalition’s website).
Yet Highly Online Christians expect pastors to be highly online too. If they don’t see a pastor retweeting the latest “drag queens perform for children” headline, they assume said pastor isn’t aware, doesn’t care, or lacks the courage to speak up. But just because there’s no social media evidence for a pastor’s proactive engagement with a cultural concern, does that mean the pastor (who may have wisely chosen to be off social media) is apathetic or ignorant?
Just because there’s no social media evidence for a pastor’s proactive engagement with a cultural concern, does that mean the pastor is apathetic or ignorant?
From my observations, most pastors today are too busy to be hyperaware of the social media discourse about hot topics because they’re actually dealing with the hot topics in real-life, specific situations. They’re busy counseling parents in their congregation whose child thinks he or she is trans, or they’re preparing sermons on Genesis 1 that lay the theological groundwork for resisting transgenderism’s claims.
We’ve come to an absurd place where online performance of passion is more important than passion that leads to action in the real world, in real contextual communities. A pastor who tweets the right thing about the end of Roe v. Wade, with sufficient enthusiasm to establish his pro-life bona fides (even if Twitter is the full extent of his activism), is esteemed more than the pastor who happens to not be on social media yet whose church has a long-lasting partnership with a crisis pregnancy center and foster-adoption agency. To the Highly Online Christian, the former pastor is in good graces (for now), while the latter is lumped in with the ill-defined group of supposedly ineffectual pastors whose silence is “deafening.”
Don’t make lazy assumptions from afar. There are more ways to care about an issue than just tweeting about it.
Challenge Your Pastor to Challenge You, Not Just the Other Guy
When tempted to call out our pastors for not sufficiently speaking out about some controversial topic, we’d also do well to reflect on our motives. Are our calls for a pastor to denounce that particular sin in “the culture” matched by our invitation for him to call us out on our own sin? Often our demands for “speaking up” only apply to the sins “out there.” Few of us think our pastors should speak up more often about our sins, the sins closer to home in our community. But we should.
Church members should encourage pastors not just to speak on what we think they should say but to tell us what we don’t always want to hear—when those words come from our Savior. We should want our pastors to be faithful to God’s words in Scripture above all, even when they challenge us. Far more important than our pastor listening to our mandates is that he listens to God’s.
Real courage for pastors isn’t their willingness to say whatever the loudest voices on Twitter demand they say; it’s rather their willingness to unapologetically tell Christians what Jesus commands.
Be for, Not Against, Pastors
The majority of online commentary about pastors falls into one or two genres of critique: that pastors today are too weak and borderline impotent (the conservative critique) or that they’re too strong and borderline abusive (progressive critique). While some pastors do need to be challenged in one of those ways, what if we spent more energy, online and (especially) in person, encouraging and equipping our pastors? They need it.
Far more important than our pastor listening to our mandates is that he listens to God’s.
I’m not issuing a blanket defense of pastors here. To do so would be to perpetuate the same straw-man fallacy as the one I’m critiquing. Where there are specific examples of pastors intentionally skirting crucial topics simply to avoid controversy, we should call them out. We need pastors to speak courageously—and more importantly, biblically—in this confusing cultural moment.
Yet it’s precisely because we need pastors to be at their best—equipped and supported to steer the saints to truth in a post-truth world—that we should seek to encourage rather than demonize them. It’s a hard time to be a pastor. The challenges are many and multi-directional.
At TGC, we are for pastors, equipping them to address contemporary issues with courage and conviction. Are pastors perfect? No. Do some of them need to be called out at times? Yes. But they also need churchgoers to be for them and with them, giving them the benefit of the doubt rather than thinking the worst at every turn.
If the church is a bus, the road of faithful ministry it travels today is winding and perilous, fraught with obstacles and inclement weather.
Don’t throw pastors under the bus. Get on the bus with them. Help them repair flat tires and avoid potholes. If you get lost, pull out the map and help get the bus back on track. Don’t jump off if the ride gets bumpy. And if the pastor-driver is tempted to turn around, encourage them to keep going—pressing on fearlessly in the pilgrim way.