Having watched the entire social-media era, from beginning up to the current craziness, I have a confession to make. I have been shocked that we have not heard more neo-Luddite sermons from the conservative side of the religious world.
I’m not talking about making a case for a full-on Amish withdrawal from the Internet and from social media.
As someone who has taught mass-comm courses in a traditional Christian content — at a seminary and then in two liberal-part colleges — I realize that we are talking about a classic theological puzzle linked to culture. Traditional Christians believe we live in a creation that is both glorious (as created by God) and fallen (touched by sin and The Fall).
Social media can be wonderful or totally evil — sometimes on the same website in the same thread in material submitted by two different people within seconds of one another. We’re talking about a medium a very high ceiling and a very low floor.
I am starting to hear more debates about the role of smartphones (and addictions to them) in a truly religious home.
However, there is another social-media question that I have expected to read more about; Should pastors be active participants in social media?
That brings me to this weekend’s think piece, care of the progressives at Baptist Global Media. The author — John Jay Alvaro — is a Baptist, in Southern California, with a degree from Duke Divinity School (not a normal Southern Baptist seminary education option, to say the least). Click here to visit his website (yes, he has one) about religion and technology.
The headline on this piece: “Pastors and other church leaders: Give up social media. Not for Lent, but forever.” The basic thesis is that pastors need the time to be pastors and that this is, well, an analog, face-to-face calling. This is a pastoral issue, not a theological issue with technology.
Any benefit you perceive social media is giving you pales when compared to the real losses of cultivating your online social presence. It is as simple as that. Or take it from the other direction. If everyone in your congregation got off Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc., your ministry and your pastoral life would improve immediately. Well, not immediately. First there would be withdrawal, anger and other addictive reactions. Drugs don’t leave your system peacefully. But it will be worth it.
Yes there will be some loss. You will not immediately know that a church member is in a perceived crisis. But do you always need to know the second something happens? And how do you know when it is a real emergency? You don’t, so you feel pressure to treat online crisis as a real crisis, just in case. That is a trap. To quote American theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, too many pastors are “a quivering mass of availability.”
There are other memorable phrases here, the kind of language that works in a pulpit.
The key is that emotion drives “hot” social media. People are often competing for attention. There are consequences, when pastors use that kind of forum as a — the? — primary source for information about the faithful? What is social media, for a caring pastor? Alvaro says that it’s “Babylon.”
Reporters will want to read all of this, because there are quite a few story hooks in this short text. I’ll end with this
Social media is also making it harder to love your church members. Online activity is built to amplify whatever spreads fastest and farthest. Guess what does that: negative emotional content. The social media system is built to make you angry or sad, but with the promise that good news is one more scroll away. It is a slot machine of empty promises. When you try using social media to better understand your church people, you are mostly seeing a negatively distorted version of them. You want to know the deepest truth of their lives? That is not found on social media.
Also, each time you read a post that makes you rage (which is the majority of them), you have to decide whether to react or stay quiet. If you resist the urge, you have used up a finite supply of resistance. That will hurt your ability to make a good decision the next time you have to decide. (Thought experiment: You wouldn’t invite your church to a casino, give them thousands of dollars, and then expect a meaningful experience that deepens their sacred potential. And yes, social media is built upon the same cognitive manipulation tools used by casinos to keep you at the slot machine.)