A Pastor’s Antidote for Social Media Toxicity
A New Digital Landscape
As a pastor, I embraced the opportunity for our church to have our services televised. As a result, the community had an open window into our church every week. I’ve never been one to shy away from difficult subjects and certainly never attempted to present our worship expressions as anything but Pentecostal in every sense of the word. As a result, I would occasionally get the anonymous letter scolding me for my presentation of scripture and doctrine. Although it was a very rare thing, I even got some scorching hate mail here and there. For the most part, everything was tame, and our embracing media ministry had more benefits than curses. That was over 30 years ago and yes, times were changing, but there was still a predominant and civil respect toward ministry. Even when folks might disagree with a minister, the respect meter seldom dipped below the average approval range, but the explosion of non-stop social media changed all that. Like never before, ministers are targets for the rapid-fire bullets of criticism and vitriol that flies off of the end of busy fingertips typing away their emotions on a digital keyboard.
In Proverbs 18:21 we read that the power of life and death rests within the tongue. However, as Pastor Lewis Maklin of Holy Trinity Missionary Baptist Church observed, in the age of technology, the computer keyboard has become an extension of the tongue. “Some folks will display ‘keyboard courage’ in attempt to vilify, smear and damage others’ characters. And the truth is, any attempt to determine motive behind an individual’s malicious attack is really a waste of time and energy.”
Navigating the Toxicity
There is increasing toxicity on social media platforms, and it is occurring with much more frequency. It is often referred to as cyberbullying and it includes sending, posting, or sharing negative, harmful, false or mean content or statements about someone else. It can include sharing personal or private information about someone else to cause embarrassment or humiliation. For too many it does not matter if it is fact or fiction, unless it impacts them.
Knowing how to pastor in the age of social media can be bewildering. It certainly comes with opportunities, but it also has its perils. Baptist elder and writer, Jonathan Leeman wrote the following: “Social media places a Gutenberg Press in the palm of everyone’s hand—the smart phone. It makes accessible to everyone the publishing industry. It levels the playing field. A persons personal Facebook post may appear right next to a post from The New York Times. A disgruntled church member’s tweet may appear right next to the presidents. By their appearance in the feed, no tweet or post possesses more intrinsic authority than another. All offer an equal claim to defining reality. A woman might spend years earning a Ph.D. in a field, but one clever word of snark from the man who has read one article on the topic divides the crowd and leaves her looking frivolous.” (Pastors on Social Media 9marks.org)
Social media requires no accountability before the “Post” button is hit. Every man is his own editor. In a normal journalism playing field, writers wait for an editor to read their work. This means any flash of emotion that compelled a person to write something can at least be tempered with the review of another set of eyes. Yet, social media allows individuals to instantaneously announce to the world every flurry of rage and irritation. The medium affords no checks and balances. Unfortunately, this is the world pastors finds themselves contending with today.
So, what should a pastor do? What is the acceptable response?
Lewis Maklin wrote further in his recent article, “Remember a hater is simply a confused admirer. Trust God, period. If God be for you, who can be against you? Remember, they said all kinds of malicious things about Jesus, including lying on Him in attempts to destroy His reputation, undermine His influence and tarnish His character. Yet, we all know how that turned out. Your attackers are opportunists. In our own lives, we must rise above the issue or distraction of our own “confused admirers.” Admittedly, that can be a challenge, especially when mean-spirited people are simply exposing the nature of their own wicked heart.”
To be sure, technology is morally neutral. Social media technology can be used for the purposes of righteousness or wickedness, like any technology. A person can tweet or post on Facebook for the genuine good of others, exercising a proper restraint on themselves, accepting feedback humbly and graciously, and rejoicing in the victories and virtues of others. Yet every technology offers particular temptations and can encourage certain potentialities to moral, willful, fallen human beings. Granting everyone with Internet access a potentially global platform, opens up public speech to the foolish and the wise both.
Regardless of the size of your public platform, as a pastor, you are a target of someone’s social media scorn and your options for response are few and, in some cases, may be completely nonexistent. Some people just believe that their right to free speech is so broadly absolute that they have a free pass to say anything about anyone at any time on any platform. Thankfully, there are laws that do govern some very specific concerns but all in all, endurance and time are your best defenses.
English author, Evelyn Beatrice Hall is often quoted as saying, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” However, someone else had another version of that statement that went like this; “I may not agree with what you’re saying, but I will defend to the death your right to make a fool of yourself by saying it.”
It seems that this is pretty much where it lands with the slings and arrows hurled by social media. People are going to basically say what they please. When they do, the Lord will fight your battle. Don’t allow yourself to be held hostage to someone’s opinion and scorn. Their opinion is not your reality. Stay the course and remain faithful to your call. Preach on, pursue your dream and fulfill your vision.
God is with you!
Timothy M. Hill