By Chris Martin
What are you doing with social media? And what is social media doing to you?
As I have written about social media and its often-ignored effects on Christians and the greater culture, I have heard from many pastors and church leaders not only about how social media impacts their congregations, but also about how it impacts them and their ability to lead.
Most pastors who have reached out to me don’t have a lot of good to say about social media regarding its impact on their lives and ministries.
Some talk about how social media has made it easier to stay connected with church members who are homebound or travel a lot for work, and there is something to be said for social media keeping many churches connected throughout the various ebbs and flows of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But for the most part, when pastors reach out to me about the ways social media is impacting them, they’re lamenting and asking for help, not rejoicing.
Here are three ways social media is affecting pastors.
1. Social media perpetuates division within local churches.
Where social media is perpetuating division within a local church, you will find a pastor being directly affected by it.
The reward systems of social media—likes, retweets, shares, etc.—are engineered to exploit human tendencies toward division and conflict, not unity and encouragement. As I wrote for The Gospel Coalition last year:
No social-media algorithm rewards grace. Encouraging tweet threads aren’t shared as much as angry ones. “Cancel culture” thrives because the reward systems and algorithms support mobs, and most mobs are angry. We are more eager to share negative content because fear and anger push us to action more than love.
As Christians, we understand human nature is inherently sinful, and only by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit can we begin to chip away at our sinful tendencies and become more like Christ. Social media is not exempt from our sin—it is real life—and it often puts our sinfulness on full display. Social media amplifies our sin and perpetuates division because we accrue the most attention, notifications, and engagement by being mean online.Social media amplifies our sin and perpetuates division because we accrue the most attention, notifications, and engagement by being mean online. — @ChrisMartin17 Click To Tweet
This increase in internet conflict is not isolated to social media. It spills over into the embodied local church. I have spoken to a handful of pastors recently in preparation for a book I’m writing, and all of them have said they’ve observed a noticeable increase in church conflict over the past couple of years—conflict they can trace back to interactions that first took place on social media.
2. Social media takes time away from important matters.
Ideally, pastors wouldn’t spend any of their time or energy shepherding their local churches on social media. But because social media is real life, church members’ conduct on social media can’t be ignored or treated as somehow separate from the rest of life. Pastors need to spend time on social media. If a church member goes on a racist rant in the Facebook comments of a local news report, pastors should probably know about it and confront the church member just like they would if the church member went on a racist rant using a megaphone in the center of town.While monitoring all the social media activity of every congregant isn’t feasible for pastors, ignoring church members’ social media activity isn’t a great idea either. — @ChrisMartin17 Click To Tweet
While monitoring all the social media activity of every congregant isn’t feasible, ignoring church members’ social media activity isn’t a great idea either. Monitoring the social media activity of church members is like trying to bail water out of a boat with a hole in the bottom—you can do it, but you’re never really going to feel like you’re getting anywhere.
Regardless, the entire phenomenon takes time away from other important matters like visiting sick church members, praying for specific church member needs, and preparing the sermon or other lessons for weekly gatherings. Pastors don’t want to police church members on social media, but pastors rightly feel the weight and responsibility of watching over their flock. And that extends to social media.
I have spoken with a few pastors who expressed discouragement over feeling responsible to care for their people offline and online, but they feel the effort it takes to oversee their people on social media is taking away from their everyday responsibilities. There is no easy, right answer here. It’s a conundrum of pastoring today.
3. Social media tempts pastors to perform rather than shepherd.
Sadly, many pastors have been ensnared in a common temptation of social media: the drive to go viral and become famous. Social media presents a unique opportunity for anyone, pastors or otherwise, to create a piece of content that makes you relevant and interesting to millions of people. This is an alluring prospect because it can provide a sense of appreciation that can be hard to come by in everyday life.
A lot of pastors are discouraged and run down for any number of reasons, including the first two items in the list above. Many feel their churches don’t appreciate them or understand the hard work it takes to be a pastor. Feeling this discouragement, some pastors try to find encouragement and affirmation beyond the walls of their churches.Pastors should be aware of the temptations to use social media for personal gain and create safeguards against them. Click To Tweet
Pastors can get caught up trying to grow a social media following for personal, selfish reasons. Some want to build a following to jump to a larger, more lucrative pastorate. Some accrue followers to feel appreciated and encouraged. Others invest in a social media platform in hopes of landing a book deal. For any number of reasons, pastors are tempted to devote time and energy to using social media for personal gain. Pastors should be aware of these temptations and create safeguards against them.
It isn’t easy, but God is faithful.
Some who were pastoring long before social media arrived on the scene in the early 2000s say they have never seen anything like this before. Pastors are in a bit of uncharted territory, but God is with pastors even here. It is not uncharted for Him.Pastors are in a bit of uncharted territory, but God is with pastors even here. It is not uncharted for Him. — @ChrisMartin17 Click To Tweet
Paul writes, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are in the household of faith” (Galatians 6:9-10, CSB).
Good work is often difficult. Let’s trust the Lord to empower us to do the good work He has called us to do.
Chris Martin is a content marketing editor at Moody Publishers. He writes regularly for his newsletter Terms of Service, and has published a book by the same name with B&H Publishing. His most recent book is The Wolf in Their Pockets: 13 Ways the Social Internet Threatens the People You Lead.