In a 1999 interview, Fred Rogers reflected on why he decided to choose a career in television instead of going into the pastorate. Rogers had gone to seminary and was ordained in the Presbyterian Church in 1963. Rogers later recounted how the experience of watching his first television program changed him,
"I saw this new thing called television, and I saw people throwing pies in each other's faces, and I thought, this could be a wonderful tool for education! Why is it being used this way? So I said to my parents, 'You know, I don't think I'll go into seminary right away. I think I'll go into television.'"
Rogers recognized the power of the television as a tool for good. That through using it properly, we could encourage, teach, and engage one another rather than mindlessly entertain.
Reflecting on social media I can see the same thinking that struck Rogers over half a century ago regarding television. Planting a church in Buffalo in 1988, I could never have foreseen how important the internet would be for churches. Yet, as I look at how it is being used, even among Christians, I see a tool that is primarily used for outrage and narcissism. A social bludgeon used to defame others, reinforce their own biases, and to rant endlessly into the void. More troubling, we find and elevate the voices that enflame these bad habits.
Yet I see so much potential in the internet and social media for the gospel. In Christians in the Age of Outrage, I write:
"While we often like to point out the flaws of the Internet, we cannot lose sight of the fact that we live in a golden age for producing and sharing ministry information. The key point is that technology is neither good nor bad inherently. It is a tool that God has provided, and one that is becoming more powerful with each generation. It can facilitate the work of the gospel: aiding church plants, getting help to the needy, encouraging the downtrodden, and equipping the saints for ministry."
It is well past time for many church leaders to seriously consider how they can use social media as a tool for the kingdom rather than as an exercise in vanity or outrage. Aside from helping our people develop healthy, godly habits in their use of social media, pastors and church leaders need to think through how they and their organizations are using social media. When we ignore this issue, seeing it as trivial or irrelevant, we expose not only our members to destructive influences but can allow harmful habits to creep into our own usage.
In this article, I want to offer five brief practices that church leaders should consider as ways to effectively use social media as a tool for kingdom work.
1. Think Community, not Content
So often one of the main mistakes I see church leaders make in how they use social media to mindlessly produce content. They redirect to their blogs, articles, and sermons without any thought to how they are drawing people into community. As a result, we tend to create followers that consume our resources but do not join into our community. As I write in Christians in the Age of Outrage, leaders need to always consider how their social media or other online platforms are contributing to or taking away from their church community:
"In a society where Netflix and YouTube have trained us to be consumers first, we need to be wary of promoting a similar mentality within the church. Pastors need to be vigilant in ensuring that their content is provoking engagement and commitment from their people rather than enabling them to check out."
As a solution, consider how you can get people to engage with you and with each other both in real life and online. In the book I detail an account of a youth pastor who convened group video streams on the eve of an exam in order to pray for students. He was able to point them to scripture regarding their anxieties and to frame both success and failure in light of God’s sovereignty over their lives. In this case, the pastor leveraged social media to develop a community rather than simply putting out content and hoping it was useful.
2. Beware the Dangers of Perfection
You are all set to share a photo of your recent elder meeting, a reminder to your congregation that they are being prayed over and led. At the last second you notice that one of your elders is blurry so you take a new one. Then the lighting it off. And so on until its thirty pictures later and you hit on the perfect one. Everyone is praying with just the right amount of furrowed brows. One elder has his hands raised but not enough to make your less charismatic members nervous. Bibles open, phones off, notepads with a lot of discernable writing.
One reason social media is so powerful is because we can carefully cultivate the image we want to present to the world. Yet pastors and church leaders need to be careful about how the image they present to their people can fool some into thinking they or their churches don’t measure up. The result is we successfully breed discontentment rather inspiration.
This is no easy line to walk. Yet in our desire to model to our people, pastors who overemphasize perfection risk dispiriting Christians by presenting an image that isn’t real.
3. Get outside the bubble
For all of the damage that social media can do in reinforcing our biases, I believe firmly that it represents one of the greatest tools Christian leaders have in escaping their media bubbles and truly learning from others. So often we live in community and attend churches with people that look, talk, and think like we do. The result is that when there is cultural, political and even theological division we can sometimes villainize or demean those with whom we disagree.
Christian leaders can fight against this in their own lives and ministries by intentionally cultivating a social media feed that includes thoughtful and empathetic voices from communities and traditions outside their own. Obviously we need to listen with discerning minds and hearts, not readily believing everything. Yet it is crucial that Christian leaders need to find others that can point out their blind spots and challenge them. If we are not willing to hear criticism about our perspectives when we’ve been blinded by staying in our own bubbles, we risk conflating our perspective with scripture.
4. Embrace blocking (or at least muting)
I know, I know. Christians are not supposed to block people on social media because that’s mean. In reality, you don’t owe everybody your attention. That’s reserved for your people; the people God has given you leadership over. Just as importantly, blocking people is good for your spiritual health. We need to model healthy and respectful dialogue and at times this means Christian leaders need to block the crazy, hate-filled, or arrogant voices that are commonplace online.
Recently I outlined six kinds of activity that will get you blocked on my social media and I’d encourage you to adopt this framework. In the article, I note that there are many great benefits of social media but Christians need to be discerning about who they engage and why. If you don’t agree with all six of mine, I’d still encourage leaders to develop a framework for when and why you block or mute people on social media. It will help keep you sane and model healthy engagement to your congregation.
5. Guard Against Overexposure
One of the compelling parts of social media is that it gives people a window into our lives. From pictures of what we eat to videos of our church worship services, social media invites the world to share in our experiences. For pastors, this is an exciting tool. A chance to show people not only what is going on in our churches but to welcome our churches into our very homes.
Yet just because social media allows people a window into your life doesn’t mean you need to give everyone an all-access pass. One of the mistakes I see some ministry leaders is turning their social media platforms into a livestream of their lives. Their spouses, children, and close friends are characters in the novella that is their social media.
Pastors and ministry leaders need to be careful of how much they expose their loved ones, remembering that they’re first obligation is to their families over their ministries. We can damage both when we conflate the personal with the professional. Moreover, it can lead people to a sense of familiarity with your family that isn’t real.
Pastors have a calling to shepherd their congregation but above this is the obligation to protect your family. While your family don’t have to be ghosts, make sure you protect them from overexposure for the sake of welcoming others in.
Social media is a tool for pastors, not a goal. Use it well and it can serve your ministry well. Use it poorly and it can undermine it.
But, like television a few decades ago, we are still figuring out the best ways to use it. So, put your social media under the Lordship of Christ and use it for his purposes and his mission.