Last week I had the privilege of addressing the URC Pastor’s Conference on “Blogs, Facebook, and the Flock: What is the relationship between social media and the local pastorate?” Here’s the first part of that address.

“If the leader is not leading in the digital world, his leadership is, by definition, limited to those who also ignore or neglect that world, and that population is shrinking every minute. The clock is ticking…, if you are not present on the Internet, you simply do not exist, as far as anyone under 30 is concerned.” So writes Al Mohler, confirming the importance of social media for pastors.

Social media and the local pastorate
“Social media” means I’m not speaking about church websites, which are generally static shop windows without the social, interactive, relational component of social media.

“Local pastorate” also limits the subject. My task is to provide guidance for local pastors especially as they interact with their local church and local community. Although God may open a much wider door of usefulness via blogs, etc., it’s important that local pastors do not aim for that and, even when given such opportunity, do not make that wider audience the priority at the expense of ministering to their own flock.

Take a positive approach

Don’t be a digital dooms-dayer. Yes we must be aware of the dangers in social media, and, as pastors, we must alert and protect our sheep. But if we only or largely communicate condemnation and warning about social media, etc., then most people, especially young people, will just turn off. As Al Mohler said:

The digital world did not exist a generation ago, and now it is a fundamental fact of life. The world spawned by the personal computer, the Internet, social media, and the smart phone now constitutes the greatest arena of public discussion and debate the world has ever known.

“It’s a fundamental fact of life.” That means, if you want to be where people are, then you need to be in social media. But it shouldn’t be done holding your nose and wishing you were alive 100 years ago. Consider some of the spiritual benefits of social media.

Evangelism Benefits
The opportunities to connect and communicate there for the advance and benefit of the Gospel are unparalleled. Social media is carrying the Gospel into China and North Korea, into schools and universities, into the public square and our local communities.

Personal Benefits
There are personal benefits too, as I recently highlighted in How technology made me a better Christian. The digital revolution has increased our theological knowledge, our cultural engagement, our ministry reach, our evangelism, our apologetics, and our love for one another.

Community Benefits
Social media is often blamed for undermining social contact. However, for many people, social media has helped build community, especially for people who are perhaps more timid and nervous, or socially isolated. In The Blessings of the New Media, Ed Stetzer:

I do not believe that virtual community and real community are enemies. I see them more as friends, the former as a help to the latter….While social media cannot replace real-life interpersonal relationships, they can assist in building real community by connecting people in ways that allow them to share both the big and small things of life. Web services such as Facebook allow people who might see one another only during church on Sunday, or midweek in smaller community groups, to continue to share aspects of life they would not otherwise. This allows friends to look into the parts of life we share and respond with encouragement or exhortation.

Heart Problems
Although  social media has undoubtedly been used of the devil to damage souls, it’s important to remember that the problem is not so much social media but our hearts (Matthew 15:17-19). Technology journalist and social media addict, Paul Miller, was recently paid by Verge  magazine to spend a year offline. Initially he found that many of his bad habits were suddenly broken. However, by the end of the year, he said:

I’d learned how to make a new style of wrong choices off the internet. I abandoned my positive offline habits, and discovered new offline vices. Instead of taking boredom and lack of stimulation and turning them into learning and creativity, I turned toward passive consumption and social retreat…

A year in, I don’t ride my bike so much. My frisbee gathers dust. Most weeks I don’t go out with people even once. My favorite place is the couch. I prop my feet up on the coffee table, play a video game, and listen to an audiobook….

Make a positive contribution

So, I’m saying take a positive approach to social media. But also, make a positive contribution. The average person complains 15-30 times per day, with a ratio of 1 to 6 in terms  of encouragement to criticism. Research has demonstrated that the ideal positive to negative ratio in a relationship, in a church, or on a team is 6 to 1, the reverse of most people’s experience! In The Digital Leader, social media guru, Erik Qualman, warns what will happen if our social media presence is largely critical or negative:

We don’t want a trail littered with complaints and negative comments…If you habitually complain you will either a) have your followers leave you since people like to follow individuals that inspire hope, or b) have a legion of chronic complainers. Neither of these resulting scenarios will benefit you and you will cease being an effective digital leader.

Therefore, make Philippians 4:8 the general banner of all your social media work.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the most important question you can ask when using social media.