There are several ways pastors may be tempted to misuse social media. They may treat it as a highlight reel, showing off their ministry successes and building up an online identity disconnected from real life. Or they may become active participants in the outrage culture of Facebook and Twitter rather than diffusers of online conflict. Given the many ways using social media can go wrong, would it be better for pastors to stay away entirely?
Not necessarily, say Russell Moore, Trevin Wax, and Scott Sauls in this discussion. No pastor should find his identity in his online persona. But given how pervasive social media is in our society, there can be tangible benefits for pastors who engage with people online. Sauls sums up the pastor’s complicated relationship with social media this way: “It can be an opportunity to be a good example. It can also be an opportunity to ruin your witness.”
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Trevin Wax: So, Brothers, we’re living in a digital age and I know there are a lot of pastors who are wondering how should we engage in this world of social media? We want to be communicators of biblical gospel truth in the different spheres of influence we’ve been given, but the question comes up, how do we do this with social media? One of the questions that some pastors will raise is, should we even be involved in social media? Would you say that a pastor needs to be engaged in Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and things like this? What kind of counsel should we give as we’re helping pastors think through this?
Scott Sauls: Every generation is on social media. The older you are, the more oriented you are toward Facebook, mid-range, Twitter, young people, Instagram. And so it seems like maybe, you know, like Luther used the printing press, we ought to consider a healthy life-giving use of technology, great opportunity for small touches especially for pastors who are leading congregations that are larger than their own relational capacity. I’ve found it actually a really helpful way to have small personal touches with people I otherwise might not even know who are part of my own church. And so it’s been really helpful and fruitful that way. I think the danger is kind of the highlight reel aspect…
Wax: What do you mean by that?
Sauls: Just presenting the best parts of your life and your ministry, not telling the whole truth about your life and your ministry and that becomes a potential integrity issue. And I think too that pastors get in trouble when we respond to kind of the outrage culture by…as participants rather than as diffusers. I think, you know, on the positive side, social media can be a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate what it means to respond healthy to unfair criticism, you know, trolling as they call it, and things of that sort. So it can be an opportunity to be a good example, it also can be an opportunity to ruin your witness just depending on how you engage with the kind of the debate aspects and the argumentative aspects of social media.
Russell Moore: I would say that there’s not a rule that I would give to every person in ministry about social media. What I would say is you need to recognize and know that your people and your mission field discusses are on social media. But then a lot of the determination of how you use it is really going to depend upon your own particular vulnerabilities and knowing that. So there are some people who are drawn toward being quarrelsome as Paul forbids us to be, and social media can be a real point of vulnerability toward that kind of pugilistic side.
There are other people who are kind of looking at social media the way a politician looks at approval ratings, constantly how am I doing? That is not a good read of what’s happening because everybody in your church who hates you may well say that on social media. But the people who say, “I really am praying for my pastor” typically aren’t going on and saying that they assume everybody else is. And so if that’s the point of vulnerability, kind of, finding your identity in what’s going on for any other direction, then I would say find some other way to engage in social media.
Wax: I think one of the things that I am thinking about as a teaching pastor who is using social media and writing some is I’m thinking about this platform as a way to help the people in my congregation interpret the world through a Christian framework. Now, that doesn’t mean that I’m always getting it right as I’m going, but I see it as an extension of there are certain topics and certain things and interesting things that I might share, that I might discuss or make mention of online that wouldn’t be appropriate in a Sunday sermon or in a normal teaching environment in a congregation.
And yet, social media, it gives me the opportunity to make comment on something or pass along something of interest, something that would help people along in the way they may be thinking about the world or wondering how do we interpret certain events. But we have to be careful when we do this because the dangers of us being sort of sucked into, like you said, the outrage machine or succumbing to our vulnerabilities online, the dangers there to be sucked into that kind of an outrage culture where we may think we are warrioring for Jesus Christ online. But if we’re engaging just like everyone else, then we really are being just like the world regardless of the particular stance that we’re taking online, biblical or not.
Sauls: Gentle answer turns away wrath.
Sauls: Again, I think it’s a good potential platform to demonstrate what that looks like and in that can be a wonderful discipleship tool. You know, Paul writes to Timothy and says, “Watch your life and doctrine closely because in so doing, you’ll save those, you know, who hear.” And, you know, this is part of what a ministers’ platform can be in this day and age.
And if you look at Generation Z and even the millennial generation, I mean, they’re natives now, this is their native tongue. And I mean to say that you can’t or shouldn’t speak via social media to younger generations, in particular, is like saying, well, you ought to maybe try to pastor an English-speaking congregation chiefly by speaking Spanish. And I know that’s a little bit extreme and hyperbolic, but if you’re not connected online you lose a pretty significant opportunity especially with younger folks who live that world.
Wax: Do we also face the danger though of…I hear that and I’m thinking some people may be watching this and the push back might be, we live in a broadcast culture where so much…if it’s not posted online, did it really happen kind of a culture. And you see that in all generations, in particular, everything has to be captured and photographed and then put online. Is there the danger that pastors may confuse social…some who are very active on social media that pastors may confuse their social media use with actual, take this as the sign that they are faithfully pastoring when so much of pastoral ministry is not broadcast? It’s one on one, it’s personal, it’s at the hospital bedside and in other places.
Moore: Well, that’s especially true if someone is, again, if you come back to that point of vulnerability, if someone is having to be constantly engaging in a particular social media platform in a way that absences the ability to be able to think and reflect, then that’s someone who says, “I need to find a way, maybe I do this, but I do it in more scheduled sorts of ways.” I think that’s something that we ought to pay attention to. I mean, a life of Jesus, withdrawing, engaging, withdrawing, engaging. I think the same thing’s true with social media.
Wax: So engaging intentionally, carefully, knowing our vulnerabilities and trying to be a pastoral presence in the spaces where people are at. Thank you, Brothers.