An online pulpit? Ministry and social media

A couple of conversations online in the last two days, and a couple in the real world, have caused me to think about the pastoral implications of being part of the oversharing generation.

I have many politically motivated friends on Facebook who happen to be in vocational ministry. Conventional ministry, from the generation above mine, is that ministers shouldn’t be endorsing any particular political view (I think Peter Jensen articulated this best in his ABC interview a few weeks back).

People in ministry are in positions of influence. There’s something about the pastoral or discipleship relationship that inherently imbues strongly held personal opinions with a possibly unhelpful significance. We’re not good at splitting our personal convictions from our theology – partly because most of our personal convictions flow from our theological presuppositions (which are also personal convictions, but hopefully biblically based).

Anybody in this sort of relationship needs to maintain a detached objectivity and the ability to put forward views with nuance. But we also need to be able to speak of our convictions on non-essential issues without being slammed or defriended.

So the question I’m grappling with is as I move towards holding more “influence” as a vocational minister is how do I do that and remain a person of conviction who is prepared to put forward views on controversial issues like politics or education.

I have a real problem with people equating what Christians in ministry say online – either in their Facebook statuses or their blogs – with a “thus sayeth the Lord” statement on reality. We need a diversity of voices speaking on complex issues in order to nut out an appropriate position. I’ve spoken to people who’ve suggested it’s inappropriate for anybody in ministry to critique non-essential decisions of those they are pastoring because it’s not pastorally sensitive – but how do we critique the prevailing consensus, if we believe it’s wrong, without speaking our mind. So, for example, if your church has a culture of advocating for one particular method of educating children. If there are parents who look down their noses at other parents who don’t send their children to a particular brand of school (this is a purely hypothetical situation), then how do we put forward our views without causing some offense? How do we do it right? How do we maintain our humanity? We don’t want to be the “toe the party line” drones who are dominating our political landscape too afraid to say anything that might lose votes.

I don’t think a blog is the pulpit, but it is a pulpit. It’s a bit like Tony Abbott calling on people to only trust his carefully worded statements rather than his off the cuff responses. Sermons are tightly prepared exegesis aimed to teach people the word of God. Posts on a blog are opinion pieces that are hopefully not contrary to sound exegesis – but I don’t think the burden of responsibility is the same. We should be careful with how we use our tongues, and our keyboards, and should steer clear of slander, malice, dishonesty and gossip. But to suggest that we can’t speak out on issues that we feel strongly about by equating blogging with being a called and appointed “teacher” is a little wrongheaded, and opens up a can of worms. Should I, for instance, read a woman’s blog if blogging is teaching?

Conversely, I think we need to be really careful to present our personal views with appropriate nuance. When we speak out in favour of a particular methodology, or political party, we need to frame it somehow as personal opinion in an issue of liberty. And I think blogs are a terrible forum for this. Controversy is inherent to the medium. Controversial posts get more hits, more comments, and are more fun to write. Controversial posts are also a much better corrective against opposing views. They make people think, they prompt discussion. But controversy is often not pastorally sensitive (though I reckon Jesus, Peter, and Paul were all pretty controversial). It annoys me when people post such controversial ideas when I disagree with their fundamental views. I get a bit narky.

Here are some thoughts around this subject, in list form.

  1. We all need to be careful to frame our views appropriately on issues of liberty.
  2. We need to be prepared to participate in discussions in a loving manner when we agree and when we disagree in order for discussions not to be bogged down in player-hating.
  3. We must recognise the limits of the medium – both in terms of non-verbal communication, and in terms of the form and function of blogs as dialogues primarily based on personal opinion not produced primarily as ministry, but rather as personal reflection and possibly the pursuit of wisdom (unless somebody deliberately sets out to have a ministry blog – but even then the medium needs to be taken into account). We interpret based on medium everywhere else. Peer reviewed journal articles are interpreted differently to the opinion column of a tabloid newspaper though both are ostensibly written communication.
  4. We need to frame our disagreements in love and with a desire to be reaching the same goal. A more nuanced view (because most of us start on extremes, most of the time).
  5. We need to be encouraging people to speak their minds on issues as part of the online conversation, and we need to be prepared to speak the truth with love if we think they’re wrong.
  6. Any outcome  that leads to those in ministry, who are hopefully generally well thought out theologically (and hopefully more broadly), being too scared to voice their opinions is less than ideal.
  7. People in ministry need to be sensitive to those reading their thoughts and not create unnecessary obstacles.

11 Comments An online pulpit? Ministry and social media

  1. simone r

    I think the list is a genre that needs to be introduced into the new national english syllabus. I can imagine a NAPLAN writing paper…. “Task: What is a box? Write a list arguing for the essential features of a box.”

    There is a difference in the way things are argued in blogland and in real life. I think overstating is kind of excepted as a starting point in web land. Not so in regular interactions. I took down my 16 point list because if people not used to blogdom saw it, it might cause harm.

  2. Al Bain

    There have been many times when I’ve read posts that I have strongly disagreed with. But usually I decide not to express my disagreement. Why?

    Because most of the time it doesn’t really matter whether they’re right or not. They are expressing an opinion and it’s not really a good use of my time to argue over things that aren’t that important. And neither is it a good use of their time to enter into legal type rejoinders and surrejoinders. On a couple of occasions when I’ve really got red in the face about what someone’s written I’ve sent them an email or given them a call. And we’ve sorted it out in a less public way.

    Secondly, I am cautious (but not scared) about what I write. I don’t trust every single reader. It is so easy to be misunderstood. And I am aware that there are people who may interpret what I write in the worst possible light. So I’ll try to keep out of online arguments.

    Thirdly, I am a sinful person who loves being right. I love it. And I don’t want to give myself an opportunity to stoke that love. It costs me too much. So I resist the temptation and move on.

    Fourthly, there is too much argument in Christian circles. Particularly the ones we move in Nathan. And it frustrates and tires and bores me. I zone out when arguments on blogs become tennis games.

    Fifthly, I am not part of the local church of the person with whom I disagree. Blogs communities can erode the value of the local church. So I’ll trust that the gospel partners on the ground in the bloggers life are living up to their calling.

  3. Arthur

    Thanks for writing this.

    In the election lead up, I feel like I’ve experienced a bit of a clash between my ‘thinking out loud’ blogging and the failures of the blog medium to give clarity to complex issues. Someone once said that blogs are ‘the friend of information but the enemy of thought’. I’ve steadfastly refused to take this as gospel but I wonder if it’s come back to bite me!

  4. Al Bain

    I am one who thinks, Simone, that as helpful as your 16 point list was, it was good to take it down.

    Having said that, gee it was good:)

  5. Nathan Campbell

    Al,

    In response to some of your five points…

    What about when it’s not necessarily an argument but just stating your position on a divisive issue for the benefit of others who share your views and are feeling persecuted?

    I’m a little sick and tired of the moderate voice of reformed circles being drowned out by the likes of the Pyromaniacs online. And think it’s similarly problematic that we’ve got a generation of ministers scared to speak their minds on certain issues for fear of retribution.

    There’s an inherent danger in letting people from our side of the fence run around as correctives of people on the other side – in the political realm it might look like a candidate for a Christian party calling gay marriage child abuse.

    Part of the motivation for this post sprang from friends in ministry, and training for ministry, woh are quite publicly politically aligned. Some went so far as to endorse a political party.

    I think we need to think about how we be ourselves on issues like that online without fear of losing friends (or jobs).

    Secondly, is part of dealing with your fear a matter of educating new readers of the medium about the medium? I’m tempted to run a little disclaimer on the bottom of ever post.

    Thirdly, is there a chance that that is a sin of omission in order to avoid a sin of comission – it strikes me that the most useful element of online community is the chance to hear from different voices. While I’ll never actually admit it – arguing online has often changed my mind about issues, mostly because I tend to come at my posts and others, with a more open mind than I do arguments in the real world.

    There are plenty of things I’ve said here in the past that I wouldn’t say again, and plenty of recanting I’d have to do if I read back through my archive.

    Fourthly, I agree that there’s too much argument – but I think there’s a very fine line between discussion and arument. For example, on Simone’s second teaching post I’m having a discussion with Mark Baddely about ethics which has been useful for crystallising my thoughts. If he’d been reluctant to comment there then that wouldn’t have happened. And I’m glad it did.

    Fifthly, blogging can’t be equated with pastoral care because it’s pretty impersonal – but I don’t think that stops it being little c “community”… and I love the way it functions as a marketplace of ideas.

  6. Nathan Campbell

    Arthur,
    “I feel like I’ve expe­ri­enced a bit of a clash between my ‘think­ing out loud’ blog­ging and the fail­ures of the blog medium to give clar­ity to com­plex issues.”

    I think what we’ve got to do is help people to understand blogs as “thinking out loud” rather than as objective journalism.

    I like to think that most of the stuff I write is pretty much what I’d say at the pub with intelligent friends. Or stuff I’d preface in conversation with “did you see/hear about…”

    If blogging loses that personal aspect it loses its strength as a medium.

  7. Al Bain

    Thanks for those comments Nathan.

    If I might just pick up on a point you make to Arthur.

    I think what we’ve got to do is help peo­ple to under­stand blogs as “think­ing out loud” rather than as objec­tive journalism.

    I absolutely agree. But I think it is a bit naive. I don’t think out loud with everyone. I’ve been burnt when I’ve picked the wrong audience. Experimental discussions are what stimulate my theological thinking. But I don’t think that a blog is the place to do it. Not for me anyway. Not yet.

    As for your discussion with Mark Baddely – I think that that is a good example of what blogging shouldn’t be. You blokes are not publishing in a journal. You’re sitting in the pub with some mates. Aren’t you?

  8. Nathan

    “As for your discussion with Mark Baddeley — I think that that is a good example of what blogging shouldn’t be. You blokes are not publishing in a journal. You’re sitting in the pub with some mates. Aren’t you?”

    I see that more as tapping into one of the brightest minds of the Australian evangelical scene on an idea I’m seriously pondering.

    I don’t have access to Mark Baddeley or the Sydney scene except through the blogosphere (and I must admit, substantially more than most thanks to my heritage). So I cherish that opportunity to have my thinking sharpened and critiqued. That to me is one of the biggest advantages of the virtual world.

    But you obviously need to come to the pub with me, and my mates, that sort of philosophical pontification is right up my alley…

    “But I think it is a bit naive. I don’t think out loud with every one. I’ve been burnt when I’ve picked the wrong audience.”

    Maybe it’s because I’m young and think I know everything… but I think it’s the people who don’t understand the medium who are naive – though I’m sure that view appears to be naive to those who don’t. The onus is doubtless on both parties to try to understand where the other is coming from, but if someone is going to take choose to take offence I think they bear the burden of proof.

    Picking the audience is difficult online. I think our audience picks us, and so long as it’s a case of “take it or leave it” I’m fine with people leaving it…

  9. Al Bain

    I’d love to come to the pub with you. James Boags tastes better away from home I reckon.

    But you’ll be disappointed in my conversation when it comes to philosophical pontificating.

    Maybe it’s because I’m young and think I know every­thing… but I think it’s the peo­ple who don’t under­stand the medium who are naive — though I’m sure that view appears to be naive to those who don’t..

    You said it.

  10. Andrew Richardson

    I agree with Al, the problem with blogs is that you have no control over the readership. That doesn’t mean you can’t say anything, but it does mean you need to be more careful about flaunting your freedom than you would be in a conversation with your close mates in a pub (or at the coffeeguy….)

    One other thought is that more care is required when attacking the views off others than when just presenting your own and if possible it’s much better to critique peoples’ ideas rather than their motives.

    In that light I was entirely comfortable with your gay parenting/child abuse post, but less so with my hot wife’s schooling one.

  11. Arthur

    I reckon blogs really do work for thinking out loud. I’ve had success with it, as has Nathan (it’s happening right here in this post/comments!!).

    As with any medium, there are particular limitations and potential downsides, but I don’t think that means we need to be suspicious of the medium itself (at least, no more suspicious than any other medium of communication!). There are ways of working within those limitations and avoiding those downsides. And the inevitable failures aren’t reasons to quit.

    It seems to me that the blog medium is less about reading an isolated post and more about being part of an evolving, synergistic micro-community. And in that sense, I think we bloggers have substantial influence on our readerships. I never just think out loud — I think out loud with an audience in mind. More often than not, the people who disagree or misunderstand will not join the community.

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