Social Media and Social Witness

A recent post by Michael Kruse put a finger on something that has been bothering me lately.  Kruse is talking here about pastors and social media:

I unfollowed six people on twitter in recent months because of their incessant divisive political tweets, especially during the primary debates. The majority have been pastors or academics, including one person who has published several books and has a wide following. Her occasional barrage of tweets,  especially during primary campaigns, were so obnoxious that I am no longer prepared to hear much of what she has to say about anything else. From retweets by others this fall I see little has changed. I’m particularly puzzled by the number of religious leaders who routinely go to excess in social media. (And let’s face it, most of us who post regularly occasionally step across a line.) Most pastors I have known have been very judicious about making political remarks in face-to-face community. They would never say things from the pulpit or at a public gathering that they say in social media.

For a few months now, I’ve noticed how pastors launch into some very obnoxious messages, things I don’t think they would say in the pulpit.  It seems I wasn’t the only one looking into that.  Kruse then points to a recent message by Bruce Reyes-Chow where he talks about why pastors can be rather “two-faced” in social media:

“Here I can be the real me.” This is probably the most difficult aspect of online life to manage for a pastor. I understand the need for a place to vent, but as a general rule I advise you to never to vent online and when unsure, default to, “If you can’t say it out loud and in public, don’t say it online.” because you just never knows who is tracking what, who taking screenshots for future use or who will eventually see what is said. Again, I do see how safe online space can be beneficial, but you risk much when intentionally compartmentalizing yourself into two or more personas. I choose to believe that most thoughtful folks in a church, even if they saw some venting, would be able to understand. But what I would not want is for people to see your online life and experience a completely different person. For generations we pastors have been told to live two separate lives, church pastor and real person, and this has only lead to trouble. We feel confined, churches feel lied to and our unhealthy and destructive behaviors can be hidden from view. Social media has the capability to draw us into the same kinds of unhealthy dualities that can lead to broken relationships, congregational disillusionment and pastoral misconduct, so we must be even more diligent in how we live online.

I know that pastors can be very outspoken in social media, sharing what politicans they like and which ones they loathe.  And I’m not joking about the loathing here.  People make some very mean-spirited comments on Twitter and Facebook about candidates from an opposing political party.  Now, I know pastors have opinions on political issues.  I’m not against people sharing their viewpoints.  What I am against is the tone.  Why?  Because as a pastor you have to be a pastor to everybody.  Because there are probably folks in your congregation who might vote the opposite way you vote and might feel that they can no longer confide in you and think you no longer like them.

As much as I like social media, I think it has done a number on our civility.  We can run around in circles where everyone agrees with us and cheer us on as we dress down those we don’t agree with.  Places like Twitter and Facebook also give the illusion that no one is looking at what we say or how we act when the reality is that we are totally out in public. The incivility from pastors is a sign of what is important to us.  It’s a sign that we place politics above our faith.

In a recent post Timothy Dalrymple notes that Christians don’t need to escape politics, but it does need a better religion in politics.  He notes:

What we require is not less religion in politics, but better religion in politics. We require a religion in politics that is not reflexively partisan (and now that problem is just as acute amongst progressive Christians on the Left as it ever was amongst conservative Christians on the Right). We require more thoughtful ways of bringing the fullness of who we are, religious vision included, into the political arena. We require the kind of faith in politics that will hold us accountable to be humble and honest and searching and serving, that will hold the state accountable to use the power of the sword and the power of the public purse wisely and justly, and that will hold the church accountable to speak with a greater regard for the truth than for political power.

I think he’s right here.  It’s far too easy for Christians to basically take up liberal or conservative ideology, dressing them up in religious language along the way.  What is needed is for pastors and congregations to exhibit a new kind of faith that really discerns issues and helps people who place their faith above politics.

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