In one of the oddest quirks of the human psyche, virtually every generation seems to come to the conclusion that they are living in times of unprecedented difficulty and challenge. When it comes to the challenges of being a shepherd of God’s flock this can seem double so. Almost every book I have ever read on pastoral ministry, whether from the 5th, 17th, 19th, 20th or 21st century labels their own era as uniquely and supremely challenging in terms of shepherding God’s people. However, if you drill into what they actually say you will find that almost always they are simply talking about the same kinds of sinful attitudes, although the behavioral manifestations may be different. (My three favorite books on ministry. The Reformed Pastor by Richard Baxter written in 1656, The Christian Ministry by Charles Bridges written in 1829 and The Minister as Shepherd by Charles Jefferson written in 1901 all decry unnecessary business as the great enemy of spiritual growth. Kevin DeYoung, the author of 2012’s Crazy Busy would concur.) As Solomon observed there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Our times may be unique but our nature never changes, so recognizing both the uniqueness of our time and constancy of the human character I want to share a few thoughts on shepherding in the internet age.
What I mean by this, is do not succumb to the belief that because of the internet we are living in a time of unparalleled access to sin. We are not. Yes we live in an era of unprecedented access to pornography and unprecedented ability to access pornography in private. Both men and women are using pornography, both visual and literary, at unprecedented rates — this is certainly true. [The use of pornography is a real problem (sin issue) inside the church here and here are some helpful resources.) However, no one sins because they have access to pornography. Today, as in the days of Adam, sin is not a matter of what men and women have access to, but of what is already in their own heart (James 1:14-15 cf Jeremiah 17:9). Yes, we live in a day when pictures and accounts of sexual acts are just a click away, but in ages past shepherds faced the problem of everyone in town knowing where all the brothels were, of public orgiastic fertility rites, prima nocta (yes I know there is debate whether this was merely symbolic “right”), and of the keeping of concubines. All of that to say there has never been a time in church history when the sin of lust was not a shepherding issues. Whether the pornographic clip is playing on a smart phone or in the mind’s eye, the heart issue is the same. Just because we live in the internet age doesn’t mean we are in a unique era of shepherding, so don’t panic.
Have a Presence
The internet is a reality, and so too is social media. The people in your church read and write blogs. They have Facebook accounts and they are on Twitter, Instagram, and other social networking sites. You need to read and write online and be active on social media too. Don’t kid yourself, you are not leading by example by not having social media. You are missing out on an opportunity to lead by example of how to act like a Christian on social media. If you do nothing but tweet out encouraging quotes from what your reading, or the title of your upcoming sermon, it will be a blessing and an encouragement to your flock.
As a bonus judicious use of social media, can help to humanize you (knock you off any pedestal) to your flock. One of the things that really took me by surprise was how I went from John Chester to Pastor Chester when I planted PBC. Social media allows the church to see John, who likes to fish, loves his wife, plays with his dog, wears red suede Pumas, shovels snow and watches football, in a way some members might not otherwise.
Point to Reliable Resources
One of the great blessings of the internet is the wealth of wonderful resources that can encourage and sharpen Christians. One of the great curses of the internet is that there is a wealth of horrible resources that mislead Christians and what is worse still, sometimes it can be hard to tell the two apart, especially for newer Christians. So one of the main thing I do with my social media accounts is to share good resources, articles and point to other pastors and theologians worth following or paying attention to.
And sometimes that means appending a caveat to a link. Sometime I read a great article that I want to share, but I don’t want to give the impression that I am endorsing all of the work of the author, either because I am not familiar with their work or because I am familiar with problematic areas of their theology. In those If situations, I’ll append a statement to the link like “I don’t know anything about this author but this is spot on” or “Not a blanket endorsement of _________ especially concerning __________ but this is worth reading.”
Focus on Gospel Issues
I know this is going to step on some toes, but I think they need stepped on. When it comes to social media and your online presence. If it is not about spiritual things, or something light and personal you probably shouldn’t share it. As Paul wrote to Timothy, the man of God is to concentrate on the things of God just as a soldier doesn’t get entangled in civilian affairs (2 Timothy 2:1-7). I am convinced that the best social media practice for pastors and elders is to keep your opinion about political candidates/vaccines/naturopathic medicine/organic produce/economic system etc. to yourself. When you speak publicly about these things you risk eroding the platform from which you proclaim the gospel and the whole counsel of God.
Prioritize the Local Church
I mean two things here. First, think of your flock as your primary audience for your writing, tweeting, and sharing. Always act online with an eye toward edifying those whom the Lord has entrusted to you.
Also always affirm the importance of the local church. Because my email and phone number is easily discoverable from our church’s website, I will occasionally get a call or an email that essentially says “I am familiar with you through Parking Space 23 and I need advice about _________ can you help me?” My response is always yes, if you are a member of a local church and you tell your pastor that we are in communication, and you give me permission to contact him, and as long as you understand that our interaction will be a lower priority than my ministry to PBC.
Is this a perfect plan? I doubt it. Have I at times failed to follow it? I am sure. But I think that it is a good blueprint and my hope is that whether you follow this plan or one you thoughtfully and prayerfully develop, you will rise to the challenge of being a shepherd in the internet age.
[For more on acting like a Christian on social media click here.]