I still remember the excitement I felt when that first sermon series from Chuck Swindoll landed in my mailbox. I was in college and, having some rare cash in my pocket, I ordered his biographical teaching on Moses. Over the next few years I continued to purchase more cassette series. The tapes were perfect for my half-hour commute to work.
Cassettes soon gave way to CD's which eventually gave way to podcasts. Today we live in a world where pastors of churches large and small post their content online almost immediately. Many live-stream and some churches even offer sophisticated viewing experiences allowing viewers to provide feedback. What's more, the advent of smart phones and social media has made Sunday sermons an interactive experience. Social media on Sunday is filled with comments and quotes drawn from the church service. Christian conferences are chronicled live on Twitter with special hash tags, Instagram pictures, and commentary.
Some lament this new reality. They say we are eroding the value of the incarnational experience of hearing a message. This is a valid concern, but pastors and church leaders must deal with the world that is: a digital conversation that is here to stay. So preachers must reckon with reality: when you walk up to the pulpit or lectern, you are not merely speaking to the room. You are speaking the outside world as well.
This reality shouldn't change the substance of the old-time gospel story. But it should cause us to think through the content we deliver, knowing we are often speaking simultaneously to both the choir and to outsiders, some of whom are ready to pounce on every stray word.
Here are three rules to guide our public speech in this digital age:
Toss throwaway lines
There are things you might say in the context of a sermon that are designed to provoke, or to make people in the room laugh, but which sound offensive or wrong when ripped out of context and quoted in 140 characters on twitter.
Typically it is those comments you make after you've made your point. It's easy to get so comfortable in the pulpit that you sort of "work the crowd" and offer up red meat to a friendly audience. The phrases apt to start a brushfire online are usually the ones we could edit out of our sermons and not lose rhetorical thrust.
Speaking gospel truth will always invite opposition and controversy. We should not flinch from speaking countercultural truth, even if it means social marginalization. However, we should make sure it is truth that is causing us trouble, not careless statements designed to get a few laughs. Frankly, we shouldn't be using careless, throwaway lines, regardless of whether anyone is listening. The Scripture calls us to speak with both truth and love (Eph. 4:15) and to demonstrate both courage and civility (1 Pet. 3:15).
Social media is the enemy of context. This makes the proclamation of truth difficult and the shaping of narratives seemingly impossible. It's very easy for a mob mentality to take over on Twitter and before you know it, the world has adopted a completely different view of your message.