In almost every gathering of pastors these days, someone will make the comment, “Pastoring right now is really, really difficult.” Everyone nods in agreement and quietly hopes someone has discovered a few simple solutions for these complex times.
Adding to the complexities in caring for our flock, one issue in particular is rising quickly to the forefront for tired shepherds: a congregant’s social media. This is becoming a frequent topic of discussion when I gather with other pastors. How should we pastor people and their social media?
- One member regularly posts “unverified” or patently false information.
- Another is using their social media platform as a “pulpit” to persuade others about medical or political matters that fit their convictions and perspectives.
- Conflicts between church members spill out in the comment section, the uncharitable back and forth on display for the church and the world to see.
- Old-school church “watchkeepers” print off instances of “observed transgressions,” bringing them to you so you will take action.
As pastors, we have accepted the call to care for people and the congregation well. We also recognize that accepting a role as the social media monitoring task force could be an unending, unpopular and potentially unfruitful endeavor. In truth, we pastor a whole person, all of them, including their social media.
How can we rightly pastor people and their social media? Consider these five questions:
1. Is the communication a matter of personal expression or is it befitting of a Christ follower?
When it comes to speech and free expression, there’s a huge need for grace and love. Brothers and sisters in Christ should bear many things in the name of love. We hold differing views and opinions; we do not have to think alike on every matter. However, as Christ followers, we are called to pursue Jesus and live our lives for His mission and according to His Word. Most every church spells this out in membership documents and statements of faith that find their basis in Scripture. Covenant members are accountable for those commitments before God and to the other church members. If, as a member, I live otherwise, I should rightly expect to be lovingly pursued by those in my church family. This absolutely applies to personal social media.
2. How would you respond if what was said online was said in person while you were present?
Studies have revealed that there is a phenomenon known as “keyboard courage.” In short, it’s the tendency to communicate in a way online that we would not in person. Pastor, how would you respond if what was communicated online was said in a Bible study, at a fellowship or small group gathering? What if you heard it in the hall as you passed? My guess is that you would likely address speech that runs contrary to Ephesians 4:29.
3. Is this creating a growing concern or undercurrent of unrest within the church body?
Social media creates amazing connections, but they also can be revealing. During one conversation with a church member, the social media posts of another member were mentioned—not in a malicious way, but out of concern. The tone, sheer number and content of the member’s posts had drawn attention and were creating concern. This wasn’t a case of disagreement about the posts; it was genuine concern for the other member’s spiritual well-being. In an unrelated and separate conversation with a different member within a matter of a few hours, this concern was repeated. The body was becoming aware and concerned.
4. Can we equip members to express love, care and concern personally?
As pastors, we are called to equip the body for ministry to the body and for mission to the world. One of the often-overlooked parts of ministry is exhortation, which is to occur within the body, to the body, by members of the body. As concerns arise, we must equip members within our churches to lovingly and carefully converse with their brothers or sisters over matters like social media posts.
5. Are we making this appeal in humility and with love?
When conversations come across as exclusively corrective, when they lack grace and are shaded with a tinge of anger, the recipient of our words notices—quickly. Defensiveness could be the immediate response, outright rejection of any encouragement or expressed concern might follow. Addressing concerns in another person’s life requires Spirit-driven confidence that expresses love and truth seasoned with grace.
Recently I made an appeal to a Christian brother whose social media posts concerned me. I said the following in summary:
I wanted to connect with you about a concern and observation. Increasingly your social media posts seem to have a consistent tone of frustration, even anger mixed with a sense of hopelessness and deep longing. … Your posts often carry heat and intensity that seem to convey an inner rage. ... I felt led to offer you some exhortations: Find your ultimate rest in Christ, let your longings and prayers be formed by the Scripture (if you need to lament, Jeremiah’s psalms of lament are good guides. … Certainly, you are free to accept or reject all that I’ve said. Regardless, I still will call you friend, and I do love you deeply.
Published September 4, 2020