For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. . . .a time to keep silence, and a time to speak. (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 7)
I say things for a living. From preaching to praying to parenting to counseling to teaching to leading meetings to writing books to crafting emails and blogs and texts and tweets, my work is largely with words. I am talking (in one form or another), or preparing to talk, most of my waking hours. I understand there is a time to speak.
I’m also learning that it’s okay to be silent, especially when the “silence” is much more digital than personal.
I don’t keep a meticulous tally of things, but I bet a day doesn’t go by when I don’t see someone online decrying the fact that “no one has said anything” about whatever is bothering them today. I don’t want to automatically make light of this cry. Sometimes it comes from a genuinely hurting heart wanting desperately to know that someone is there and someone is on their side. But too often the cry is impossibly vague (“where is the outrage?”), emotionally manipulative (“the silence is deafening”), and ultimately unproveable (“no one of any significance has dared to speak out”).
And yet, anyone with any kind of “platform” (and that’s pretty much everyone these days), has faced the accusation of not caring or not listening or not engaging or not properly denouncing. When it comes to our brave new digital world, it appears Qoheleth was wrong: there is only a time to speak.
The issues are complicated. No two people will approach the online public square in the same way. But many of us need to spend more time thinking through our own digital parameters. And all of us would do well to cut each other some more slack.
For what it’s worth, here are 10 things I think about when thinking about what to say (and not to say) in the world of social media. Perhaps these musings will help my readers (both friend and foe) understand how I think about my online task and help young pastors stick to what is most important. If nothing else, it helped me to get these rattling thoughts out of the brain and into words.
1. Most of the things I write about arise out of pastoral ministry. I don’t go looking for controversies. I don’t feel compelled to weigh in on every passing cultural controversy (from Miley Cyrus to Duck Dynasty to dead lions and dead gorillas). I’m not faulting those who have a hot take on What Everybody’s Talking About, but I’m not trying to be a professional pundit. My first calling is as a pastor. That doesn’t mean I refuse to weigh in on presidential politics or the Supreme Court or the latest trending topic. What it does mean is that I don’t go looking for those issues, and I don’t feel compelled to comment just because everyone else is.
When I think back on my most “viral” posts, they all got their start from issues or questions in my own church. I wrote about Love Wins because virtually everyone in my church knows someone at Mars Hill (Mars Hill being next door to my hometown and me living next door to Bell’s hometown). I wrote on Jesus Hates Religion because a college student from my church wrote me an email saying all her friends were talking about it and she wondered what I thought. I wrote the piece on 40 Questions because I saw a number of people who used to attend our church celebrating the Supreme Court decision on Facebook. I thought I might be able to help my congregation in knowing how to respond. Similarly, my book ideas come from questions I hear people asking, clarity I think I can provide, or content I wish were available for my people.
2. Twitter is a different animal. I understand everyone approaches Twitter a little differently. When I reluctantly jumped into the Twitterverse several years ago I decided it was going to be a “get to” not a “have to.” That is, unlike my blog, I don’t tell myself “I better tweet something today.” My tweets boil down to three things: snippets from past Sunday’s sermon (big thanks to Barry Peterson for pulling those together every Monday), whatever silly (or sometimes serious) thing I happened to be doing when my phone is nearby, and the occasional link.
There are some things people do on Twitter that I almost never do. I don’t retweet compliments. I don’t retweet insults either. I don’t link to my own articles more than once. I don’t have public conversations with friends. I don’t engage with critics. I rarely check my mentions.
3. Which leads to a related point: social media is, for me, one-way communication. “Well then, Kevin, you live in a narcissistic echo chamber!” That would be true, if the digital world were the only world. But it’s not. I listen to my wife, my friends, my co-workers, my secretary, my elders, the members of my church, the members of my presbytery, and on and on. I think if you got to know me you’d find I’m pretty easy going and eager to seek input from others. Some people may start a blog or get on social media in order to have a robust conversation. That’s not my goal. To be sure, I want to be teachable, and I read widely on the internet with hopes of learning and being challenged, but I might as well be up front and tell people that my digital output is not about dialogue.
4. Along the same lines, I don’t think it’s rude when people write about me online and I never respond. To clarify, I don’t think they’re rude for writing about me (provided they do it in a respectful way), and I don’t think I’m rude for ignoring what they say, or else reading their post privately and moving on. Anyone to whom I owe a response knows how to call me, text me, or send me a private email. I work hard to respond to emails right away. I write back my friends and people who know me personally. I’m available for staff members and family. I try to be available for anyone in my congregation (or at least get them to another elder or pastor if my schedule is booked for several weeks). I’ve never written something publicly thinking that anyone I mentioned in the piece owed me a response. It would feel manipulative and self-absorbed for me to insist otherwise.
5. Some of my Hot Takes have never seen the light of day, and that’s a good thing. Whenever I write on something controversial I’ll send my post to some combination of my associate pastor, an editor at TGC, or one or more of my friends outside the church. On occasion I’ve sent an upcoming blog to my elder board to get their permission before posting. My personal assistant, who is not afraid to share her opinion, reads all of my posts before they go live.
I’ve still regretted some posts, and no doubt I’ve said some dumb stuff, but this networks of “checkers” have spared me a lot of self-inflicted heartache. They will challenge my tone, poke holes in my logic, and sometimes encourage me to scrap the whole piece. I’m all for dialogue, when it’s from the right people on the right side of the “publish” button.
6. We all inhabit a social location that affects what we see and when we speak. I’ve almost always been surrounded by people more liberal than me. I grew up in public schools. I went to a middle of the road Christian college. Until recently, I was a part of a mainline denomination. I live in a very liberal university town. My kids go to the public school. All of this means I write more about liberalizing tendencies because that’s what I see around me.
Recently I was at a gathering of conservative, evangelical pastors and the subject of Muslims came up. Some of the brothers were talking about how some Christians they knew would freak out if they saw a woman in a hijab in their town. This prompted a good discussion about defending the rights of our Muslim neighbors and correcting Christian attitudes toward Islam. Good stuff, but not something I think to write about. I see women in hijabs every day when I drop my kids off at a school. I’ve served on local committees with Muslims before. This doesn’t mean I’m a great hero of diversity, but it’s one example of certain topics I don’t think to write about because they don’t feel like issues where I live.
7. The more I feel badgered to respond, the less likely I am to do so. Maybe this is obstinacy, but I think there is wisdom at work too. I have not generally been a “stay above the fray” kind of guy. Anyone who is familiar with my books or my blog or my denominational labors know that I’m not afraid to get into a scrap. And yet, increasingly I don’t see internet debates as very fruitful. There is always someone out there with more time than you, someone whose time for blogging seems impervious to the necessities of sleep, water, food, and bathroom breaks. You will never get the last word. And when you bow out of the conversation, you’ll be in no better situation than when you started (“See, this guy can’t take the heat. He turned off the comments. He won’t respond to me anymore.”).
I know it doesn’t have to be that bad. I’m probably missing out on some genuinely edifying exchanges. I’ll have to live with those losses. What I won’t have to live with is the mistake of handing people my microphone for their solos and the indecision of constantly wondering if I should say something or not. Life is much simpler and happier when you don’t read your comments, your mentions, or Google search your name.
8. I am wary of the cheap points won by virtue signaling. This is a tough one because there is value in weeping with those who weep. I know a tweet or a post lamenting a verdict, a shooting, a death, or some painful event can be a reassuring comfort to those in the midst of grief. I posted one comment/tweet on Sunday about Orlando–a simple statement that there is a Savior and he calls us to love our neighbors. Because it I have written often against homosexual behavior, I at least wanted to register–as many other Christians were doing–that there is absolutely no place for violence against our homosexual neighbors. I don’t think all digital outrage and sympathy are out of place or manufactured.
And yet, so much of it seems unhelpful–like moral grandstanding mingled with conspicuous indignation and false apologies. I can’t judge the hearts of others, but I can tell you what goes through my head and heart: “I heard something about a Stanford swimmer who got off way to easy for a really gruesome crime. I bet if I wrote something about that it would get a lot of hits. But what do I really have to say? I read one article and have spent three minutes thinking about it. Maybe I should let everyone know I think the sentencing was terrible. Then again, I haven’t heard anyone say anything except that. Does the world really need my opinion here? If I tweet something am I just trying to prove my moral bona fides by showing forth the appropriate outrage? There are a thousand sad things in the world right now, why must I comment on this one?”
So sometimes I say something. Usually I don’t. It’s not because I don’t care. It’s because I don’t think caring has to be accomplished in 140 characters for it to count. Oftentimes, I don’t feel that I know enough about a given brouhaha to respond in a meaningful way. Other times, I don’t have anything new to say. And sometimes I am just plain tired of the implied ultimatum that says: tweet your outrage or else! If the measure of our character can be proven in a status update, it’s not character that we are really measuring.
9. I’d rather write something that might still be helpful six months (or six days!) from now. We have to wrestle with our own hearts. I’m not faulting anyone for providing a steady commentary on the day’s news. We need a few Christians engaged in this work (like Al Mohler), but only a few. I’m all too aware of the temptation in my heart. What gets hits? Not theology, not book reviews, not wisdom from pastoral ministry. The hits come from controversy and current events.
But here’s where I feel my calling: I want to focus most of my time on what is most timeless and most trans-cultural. Am I done with cultural commentary or intramural theological debates? I’m sure not. But whenever I travel overseas I return home more committed to write about basic issues that Christians all over the world wrestle with. I don’t want my online output to be held hostage by the 24-hour news cycle. Twitter is ethereal. Blogs and periodicals have some lasting power. Books are where the lasting influence still lies. I’d like to spend my energies writing things that can be helpful most anywhere and for more than a week. Preach and publish: those are my “output” priorities.
10. Time is precious, and I want to use it wisely. In the past year I’ve remarked to several friends that the Christian blogosphere is no longer (or was it ever?) well-populated by pastors. This is not a complaint, let alone a critique of my many good non-pastor friends whose digital output is excellent. It’s just an observation. More and more it seems that if you are to gain a social media following you need to says things that are contrarian or controversial, or be ready to say things very quickly. I sometimes joke that if a big story breaks on Tuesday morning a pastor might have a chance to write about it, but once Thursday rolls around, Sunday’s coming, and there ain’t no time for nothing but the sermon.
Pastoral ministry allows for a lot of flexibility, but it also allows for frequent interruptions, a steady stream of local crises, and the unrelenting deadline of Sunday morning. A pastor does not have time to be a professional pundit. And even if he did, it’s fair to wonder whether he should be.