Whispering in the Storm
Preaching in a social media saturated society.
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I was running for the train station as the storm hit Seoul, Korea. I hoped against hope that I would get to the airport, and my plane would make it out of the country before the promised hurricane arrived. As I rushed through Seoul's travel hubs, I whispered a prayer. But by the time I got to the airport, I could see on the display that one-by-one, every plane was being cancelled. These huge, heavy jumbos had no chance against the oncoming tropical storm. They may look strong and sturdy, but this storm would see them picked up and tossed around like a paper airplane in the hands of a toddler. Watching the clouds gather and lightning streak across the sky I suddenly felt very small. The power of the storm grounded me far from home, as the unstoppable force attempted to destroy whatever lay in its path.
Sometimes when I pick up the microphone to speak at my church I am reminded of that moment in the storm. To my right the teens are already ignoring etiquette and each other and scrolling through their mobile devices. Even some of the children are being kept quiet and occupied by videos on their parents' phones. And I know that as soon as I start preaching, those parents may well be checking out more than the Bible passages on those same phones. I admit it is hard to break away from the never-ending media feast that is continually pumping into our hearts and minds in our always-on digital culture. Christian and secular content fill my social media streams: adverts and advent reflections, sponsored posts and sponsorship promotions, political slogans and psalm quotations, social orthodoxy and biblical heresy side-by-side on my Facebook feed and Twitter stream. It is a veritable storm of messages, what hope does my little sermon have to carry this congregation away into the things of God?
Paul's balance of conservation and innovation
The apostle Paul warned the church about the dangers of high winds. In his storm alert he tried to help the church in Ephesus be prepared by exhorting pastors, teachers, apostles, evangelists, and prophets to do their job well, so that "we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming" (Eph. 4: 14). I wonder what Paul would have made of the whirlwind of information the average Christian finds themselves exposed to today?
My initial instinct is to think that he would rush to defend the flock against being buffeted by targeted marketing messages that pop up on our social media feeds, as well as all sorts of mixed-up spiritualties and theologies being thrown at us through viral videos, blog posts, live streams, and comments. Paul definitely had a defensive posture to the gospel-his last face-to-face words to the leaders of the church in Ephesus was that they should watch out: "after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!" (Acts 20:30-31).
But defense was not the only strategy in Paul's missiological playbook. Paul is also the one who is keen to seize every available opportunity to preach the gospel. He was not tied to location-he preached everywhere from Tyranus' lecture hall to on board a boat caught in a storm off the coast of Malta. He utilised cultural artifacts-he cited pagan poets and referenced philosophers and idol inscriptions in Acts 17. Whether in a synagogue, a prison, a pagan lecture theatre, or a basket dangling down the side of a wall, Paul could be flexible and creative in order to find appropriate ways to preach the gospel. Or in his words:
To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings (1 Cor. 9:21-23).
Paul's engagement with cultures for the sake of the gospel demonstrates both defence and offense. He had a passionate desire to protect the flock and guard the gospel but preach the message and spread the good news. How can we achieve that same balance between conservation and innovation when it comes to preaching in a social media-saturated society?
Beware of 'Frankenstein Syndrome'
I have noticed that many books and articles I read by Christians about our digitally connected cultures take a negative and even alarmist stance. "Google is making us stupid" says the headline, "The internet is radicalising us" says another, "Children are being cyber bullied" warns a blog post. Our face-to-face relationships are being degraded and our social skills are apparently impoverished.
I call this kind of catastrophizing "Frankenstein Syndrome"-;a fear reaction elicited by technological innovation. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was written during the industrial revolution, Godzilla was dreamt up as the atomic age was kicking off, The Terminator was filmed as the internet was becoming accessible. Our natural reaction to new technologies often involves suspicion, fear, or panic, and that is sometimes echoed in the church.
In a culture of fear, the world needs a church full of hope. We need to recognize that social media presents as many opportunities as it does challenges. In the time of the early church, the Romans brought roads that provided for better communication of the gospel as well as the amphitheatres where Christians were bated for sport. The printing press allowed not only for the better availability of Scripture, but all sorts of other teachings too. So the church needs to not only see the problems of social media, but also to take an opportunistic and entrepreneurial approach to the benefits it may bring.
If we only give negative messages about social media in our preaching we may well be failing to equip our congregation to make the most of the opportunities social media provides. But even worse we may also isolate ourselves and our congregations from the culture in ways that prevent the church from doing its job in the digital age. We need to take a hope-filled redemptive story with us to the world in general and social media in particular.
Exercise: Think about what has been said about social media from the pulpit. Have you ever addressed it? Was your message predominantly negative or overly positive? What might a balancing sermon look like?
Develop digital discernment
Thanks to the internet, everyone is an expert, and anybody can be taken down. Our search history, Facebook algorithms, and predicted targeted advertising, reveal that we are mostly influenced by confirmation bias. Therefore, it is easier for us find articles that support our personal theological heroes and dismiss those outside of our trusted circle. Everyone from high school students to journalists are using the internet as their primary source for research and it is understandable and indeed inevitable that our congregations will do the same.
Instead of condemning it, we need to help Christians to develop digital discernment. When we teach the Bible we need to model good Scripture handling and actually explain how we are doing it. This will help the church develop the skills needed to assess whether the blog post they are reading is making a sound biblical case or just an angry rant. This can be helped along by our own humble and balanced approach to the good and ill of social media, in the way we show how we have gone about our own research on the web, and by modelling the centrality of Scripture as our primary source.
Exercise: What is your own digital discernment code? Think of the sources you have used for quotes, illustrations, and theological queries recently? What helpful filters can you put in to make sure you are modelling digital discernment?
Bust out of your echo chamber
It is fascinating to watch how Christians use social media to debate controversial issues. Recently, I have seen Twitter wars burst out over Christian approaches to gun ownership, Donald Trump's presidency, universal health care, and immigration. Often our posts reveal more about us than the subject we are commenting on. Sometimes our social media engagement demonstrates that we are reading the Bible through the lens of our political convictions rather than having our political convictions be shaped through our reading of the Bible. How can we make sure that as preachers we are not just listening to voices that will reinforce our prejudice, but allowing ourselves to be challenged to see different perspectives and also hopefully coming to a fuller understanding of Scripture?
Social media is not the sole solution here. But because so much of our time is spent consuming online content, we should acknowledge that social media for many of us has become the amniotic fluid in which our view of the world and the Bible is formed. For the sake of our own understanding and the sake of our congregations, we need friends who may have radical and fundamental different opinions from us politically and theologically, and can ensure we are checking for blindspots and lazy thinking. "The wounds of a friend are trustworthy," as Proverbs reminds us, but not only do they helpfully remind us that we are not infallible, they also enable us to be better equipped to help our congregations by hearing all the same voices that they hear. There is enormous benefit from being exposed to alternative perspectives as they can drive us back to the Bible, perhaps to look more closely, or with fresh eyes.
Exercise: Look through your social media feeds: Who are the voices that bring you a different perspective politically and theologically? Who are the ones you can count on to play devil's advocate, or to kindly point out your weaknesses?
Embrace the soundbite, but don't be its prisoner
Thanks to Twitter's limited number of characters, the popularity of memes, and text over images, there has been a renaissance in the art of wordplay. Through social media, wit and wisdom are offered to the world in a constant stream of erudition and eloquence. The discipline of reducing complicated theological, pastoral, missiological, and political topics into pithy sentences is paradoxically one of the greatest blessings and the greatest curses of social media. For some, our theology has been reduced to tweetable "bumper-sticker" slogans. Clichéd platitudes, theologically suspect pronouncements, and politically correct slogans shape the thinking of a generation. On the other hand, both the Book of Proverbs and the teaching of Jesus demonstrate the power of crystallising teaching into memorable soundbites. A memorable and simple sentence can lodge vital truth into hearts and minds for a lifetime.
I am grateful to those who instilled in me from an early age the JOY priority principle-thinking of Jesus first, Yourself last, and Others in between; or the What Would Jesus Do "WWJD" check for decision-making. Jim Elliot's reflection on Jesus' call to discipleship "He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose" was a lifesaver in my university years. Bonhoeffer's "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die" helped my wife and I decide what our first job after university should be. We can help our congregations to go out into the storm of social media messages by giving them memorable, sharable, biblically-based soundbites to help ground them.
Social media has made this form of communication particularly potent, and as preachers we can take advantage of that in the way we craft our sermon, or our application perhaps. On the other hand, some preachers rely so much on the soundbite that they fail to go deep into Scripture, expound truth, explore paradoxes, or engage with the practical relevance of the teaching. But this is not an either-or problem. We can make use of our culture's appetite for the well-crafted soundbite, as well as providing full sermons.
Exercise: As you prepare your next sermon, why not create the tweetable sentences you would hope that someone might share having heard your talk. Work them into your PowerPoint presentation or use them as a repeating theme throughout the talk to help aid memorization.
Engage social media as an opportunity for congregational preparation and response
In times gone by, preachers were often thought to be the best educated person in the congregation. They seemed to be the fount of all knowledge. They could read, write, study, pull strings, influence people, hold the community together, and they were the one called upon when you had a problem in life, health, or faith.
This is no longer the case. Many in our congregations are better educated, better paid, and better respected in the community than our church leaders. So the average church member is more likely to ask Google than ask the pastor. The problem with this is that for some people the shrinking authority and influence of the pastor demonstrates a shrinking respect for the gospel. Christianity is in danger of being reduced to a spiritual antidepressant or a get out of hell free card. Without falling into the traps of trying to reassert the pastor as the omniscient guru, or passively accepting the privatisation of the gospel, social media offers us some great ways forward.
As preachers we can use social media to call on and release the expertise of the congregation. For example, often when I preach at my church I host a discussion online about the relevant issues. This could be about healthcare, discipleship, reading, evangelism, or forgiveness. Sometimes I use Facebook polls, or I ask people to send articles or videos, or post photographs, comments, or suggestions. Sometimes I end up interviewing a respondent in church, if a story begins to develop that could help others. There are so many benefits to this approach. Not only does it release me as a preacher from being the all-knowing expert, it also affirms the skills, stories, or vocations of those in the congregation. Plus, the sermon stretches out beyond the 30 minutes behind the microphone, to the week before and the week after as people meditate on and process the topic before and after the Sunday gathering.
Exercise: Why not ask your congregation a few questions on social media ahead of your sermon this week. Follow the conversation and allow the interaction to inform the crafting of your sermon.
It doesn't look like the high winds of social media are dying down anytime soon. As preachers we can try and wait the storm out or, like brave sailors, try and find a way to capture the storms power as an opportunity to evangelise the world and disciple the church.
Networked Theology: Negotiating Faith in Digital Culture (Engaging Culture) by Heidi Campbell & Steve Garner published by Baker (2016)
Dr. Krish Kandiah is the founder of Home for Good a fostering and adoption charity. He is in demand as a speaker, writer, and theologian. His latest book is God is Stranger: Finding God in Unexpected Places, IVP ( 2017).