During a recent discussion, Valerie Hobbs and I realized that we share a concern about the pitfalls of social media, especially for church leaders. What follows is an article we wrote together addressing this concern.
Some people love twitter. Some people hate it. It seems everyone at least has an opinion about it. Writes Joe Nocera,
So much on Twitter is frivolous or self-promotional. It can bury you in information. Because people often use Twitter to react to events instantly, they can say some awfully stupid things.
Beyond stupid, Twitter users can be mean, hateful even. It is a place where bullies can build a platform and quickly assemble a mob.
Still, we’ve seen some amazing one-liners on Twitter, mostly from people who intuitively understand how to operate within Twitter’s limitations to craft something clever, funny, or sharp. Who can forget this gem, for instance?
“Anybody here named Jeff?”
— Matt Tobey (@mtobey) January 21, 2016
And of course, it isn’t just the funny one-liner that is successful on Twitter. This tweet, like all good tweets, effectively packs volumes into a short space.
Tell me again how rape and sexual assault accusations will ruin a man’s career
— Paxmee (@Paxmee) November 9, 2016
But how effective is Twitter at expressing complex concepts? Many of us Christians, including our own esteemed theologians, tweet complex ideas, but the results are often poor. Perhaps you too have seen exchanges that go something like this:
- Pastor/theologian/Christian author/blogger tweets a complex theological concept in an ambiguous way, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.
- Readers/followers ask questions, challenge, push back on the ambiguity. “What on earth are you talking about?”, “This could be dangerous!”, “Did you mean it in this (heretical) way?”
- Tweeter: “I shouldn’t have to respond to these challenges.”, “Obviously, I didn’t mean it like that!”, “Get a life. It’s Twitter.”, [tweets 10 clarifying responses]
Admittedly, Twitter would be a much friendlier place if we all read with charity to a greater extent. But then again, when it comes to the Gospel, clarity and precision are pretty important. The devil is in the details, as they say. If you don’t believe that, here’s a helpful use of Twitter which makes the same point:
All heresy begins with a partial truth. Geerhardus Vos
— Burk Parsons (@BurkParsons) May 16, 2013
The most obvious sources of the mismatch between Twitter and theology are points already mentioned: lack of skill in using a limited space to express complex ideas and, of course, our own sinful natures. That is, some people enjoy stirring up trouble. They like the attention, and they think they can get away with it online. But there’s another factor in the mix that scholars researching and writing about social media have identified: context collapse.
Context collapse “refers to the audiences possible online as opposed to limited groups we normally interact with in face-to-face interactions” (source). Put simply, it refers to the lack of boundaries in many social media contexts, particularly Twitter, as all posts are public. In most of our off-line interactions, social boundaries allow us to assume shared knowledge. When we are with our friends, for instance, we can use a shared vocabulary. We can assume, to some extent, that people we talk to know us in that context, what we are like, the meanings of our words, what we believe and don’t believe.
On Facebook, some users attempt to recreate these social boundaries by setting up sub-groups or private groups. Even still, for those Facebook users who keep their account public or who have hundreds of acquaintances they don’t know personally, context collapse is a significant issue to contend with.
Context collapse means that tweets and posts for a public audience cannot require much assumed knowledge. When we tweet, we cannot assume that readers have much knowledge of who we are, what we stand for, and whether or not we hold dangerous theological views.
No doubt close friends and those who’ve read all of our work and who interact with us frequently can see our tweets in light of that shared context. But most people reading our tweets cannot do that. And it is dangerous to assume otherwise as we run the risk of leading people astray. This is particularly true when it comes to theology. Mascall writes,
To avoid vagueness and ambiguity is even more of a duty in popular work than in learned treatise. The very fact that the Christian mysteries in their profundity outstrip our finite powers of comprehension makes it all the more important for us to express the limited grasp which we have of them with all the clarity and accuracy at our command, while fully recognising how very imperfect and partial our grasp of them is.
So how can we tweet about theology in a responsible way?
Get off Twitter.
No, really. How can we tweet responsibly, especially about theology, in light of collapsed context? We should aim for clarity, edification, and self-control.
1. Seek clarity in your tweeting.
“But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’” (Matt. 5:37, NASB)
Remembering that anyone might read and misunderstand what we’ve written, we need to be as clear as possible. Our speech should be open and honest. We should not give anyone cause to doubt our words or cause to question our orthodoxy. While it’s true that anything has the potential to be misunderstood and that no one can prevent that from happening all the time, our goal should be clarity.
How does this apply to Twitter? Retweeting quotes or snippets from sermons or conference talks without the context may lead to confusion. You understood what was meant, but is the tweeted quote clear to someone who wasn’t there?
The same question should be asked when attempting to tweet about a complex theological concept. Is your tweet clear or is it likely to be misunderstood? We’re aiming for sharing the light of the gospel, not muddying the waters. If the concept is particularly complex, maybe it would be better to write more on it elsewhere and link to it through Twitter.
2. Seek to edify with your tweets.
“Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear … But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.” (Eph. 4:29; Eph. 5:3-4, NASB)
It can be tempting to think that Twitter is fairly anonymous and that no one much will notice what you tweet, comment on, or “like” online. In truth, our words and actions are there for the world to see, and people are watching. People will not always agree with us, and the gospel itself will sometimes be offensive to others. But our words should be edifying, should give grace, and should glorify God. We’re not saying we can’t joke or tease. What we are instead saying is that our teasing shouldn’t be crude, and our jokes shouldn’t be double entendres.
Thom Rainer has a recent article “Five Reasons Why Pastors Are Getting Fired Because of Their Social Media Posts.” (source) In it he notes:
Unsavory comments. A pastor or church staff member making lewd or suggestive comments on social media gains nothing, even if it’s a quote from a movie or someone else. The consequences are always negative.
How does this apply to Twitter use? Be careful what you “like” and retweet. Consider how your jokes and things you respond to online might be viewed by others. We used to say, “Never write anything you wouldn’t want the whole world to see.” Now that the whole world can see what we write, consider this: If someone only or mainly knew you from your tweets, etc, what would their overall impression of you be?
It may seem harsh or unfair to have to police yourself so strongly. But when we are known to be Christians and especially known to be pastors or elders, we will be held to a higher standard. James tells us that this is the way life is.
“Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.” (James 3:1, NASB)
3. Finally, exercise self-control in your tweeting.
“For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things.
See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.” (James 3:2-10, NASB)
Self-control is included in the list of the fruit of the Spirit. Most often we hear it discussed in conversations about gluttony or sexuality. But it also applies to our behavior online. In fact, it’s the key to this whole discussion.
When we are self-controlled, we are likely to be clearer because we won’t be quick to speak and slow to think. When we’re in control of ourselves, we aren’t likely to be crude or inappropriate. And when we’re self-controlled, we are less likely to stir up trouble.
How does this apply to Twitter? As noted earlier, some pastors/elders/theologians appear to tweet intentionally ambiguous or provocative statements. They seem to enjoy the ensuing firestorm. This is a lack of self-control.
There are many temptations on Twitter to act and react without thought. As James points out, our tongues are hard to tame. It helps if we remember that those people on Twitter who provoke us and tempt us to respond in anger or in ugliness are people made in the likeness of God.
And if the struggle to control yourself is too much? Then maybe it is time to get off Twitter.