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Leadership Journal

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Tweeting My Life Away

Tweeting My Life Away

My online interactions were hurting my pastoral presence.

What if you took a break from blogging and tweeting?" I scanned the room, looking into faces of friends I'd known over a decade. What started as a simple retreat with seven of my closest friends began to feel more like an intervention. But that's why we were there—to spend a couple days away challenging one another to greater faithfulness and effectiveness.

When the conversation turned to me, everyone was in agreement. They each described my propensity for online arguments, how I focused so tightly on ideas that I often forgot the people connected to them. I nodded and said, "Yeah, I know I do that. I'm sorry. I'm not trying to hurt anybody's feelings."

One friend said, "Glenn, you want to be a pastor. But right now you're so worried about your digital influence that you forget to be present personally and locally."

That was tough to hear, but he was right.

"What can I do to turn this around?"

That's when they suggested it: a six-month fast from blogs and Twitter. They said my tweeting was only leading to a disembodied view of ideas. But ideas are attached to real people, embedded in real lives, with more context and nuance than a status update presents. My Twitter-and-blog-centric world only nudged me further in a bad direction I was already headed.

When I got home, I told my wife what my friends had suggested.

"I think I'm going to do this," I said. "I think I'm going to take six months away from social media." Her eyes welled with tears. I had been more distracted by the world of social media than I realized.

Hello, Social Media

I first entered the world of social media in 2007. I had just written a book and was doing my best to promote it. I created a Facebook account, primarily for book promotion. But as I used it, I began to appreciate its range of applications.

I could connect with friends from years past. Facebook was a window, and I could use it to see church members in their "out-of-Sundays context."

Social media played into the worst parts of me as a leader. It amplified my need to be seen and heard.

Then someone suggested I join Twitter. I was hesitant, but I gave it a try. I quickly saw its power for sharing links and following news or trending topics. It's a quick way to start dialogue or crowd-source an idea.

For me, Facebook became about sharing everyday life, and Twitter about the exchanging of ideas. Then came Instagram. I soon saw the beauty and simplicity of sharing life through pictures.

But I quickly learned that social media has a dark side, too. I became obsessive, always wanting to know what others were saying—especially in response to what I'd said! After posting something, I would repeatedly check to see who commented on my post. (Lame, I know.)

Social media was playing into the worst parts of me as a leader; it amplified my need to be seen and heard.

I began to compare myself to other leaders—which is especially easy on Twitter. I don't have to ask other pastors how big their churches are or know how many books or CDs someone has sold; I just have to check their number of Twitter followers. Yes, that's sick.

Social media wasn't forcing me to become narcissistic; it just enabled those tendencies. After all, the reason I joined in the first place was to build a platform for my books and CDs. This is not a bad thing when you consider that a publisher or record label has taken a risk on you and you're trying to match their investment with your own effort.

It is, in one sense, an effort to be a good steward of these opportunities. But it was in another way quite selfish and insidious. I was guilty of trying to be global and influential, not personal and local—a dangerous thing for a pastor.

So I accepted my friends' advice and took a six-month break from blogging and social media. And it was good. It was healthy to step back and ask, Why am I using social media? What are my goals with it? How is it changing me?

When I re-engaged, I was able to accept its healthy aspects, the ways it can support personal and local ministry and help me think out loud and process ideas, while fleeing the temptations. Here's a bit of what I've learned.

Three Dangers

Among social media's temptations:

1. Social media tempts me to get into heated debates with people I don't know.

Social media creates the illusion of intimacy. When you see leaders' thoughts pop up on Twitter every few hours, they feel like a part of your life. On Facebook you can read about their families, their history, even their favorite movies and music. But that doesn't mean you know them—or that you've earned the right to criticize them.

It's easy to see a megachurch pastor's Tweet and find something to disagree with. So with no context and with no prior relationship, I'd fire something back. Of course, I never got a response from them. Why should I have? It was an ideological drive-by. I was sticking my nose where it didn't belong.

In John 21, Jesus is talking to Peter about his future, and Peter says, "Lord, what about him?" referring to John. Jesus says, "What is that to you? You must follow me." I was too concerned about arguing theology with people I'd never met. Jesus was saying to me, "What is that to you? You must follow me." (Twitter pun intended.)

2. Social media removes nuance. It reduces people to words.

I used to read what certain people were tweeting and form unfavorable opinions about them. Then I'd meet them in person, and realize, I really like this guy! Their social media presence wasn't an accurate representation of who they really were.

This hit home when I found myself on the other end of these assumptions. When I was rethinking my understanding of congregational worship, I would tweet something about lights and smoke and rock 'n' roll. And some of my worship leader friends thought, Glenn hates what we do. But then we'd talk about it in person, and they'd say, "Oh, I get it, and frankly, I agree with you. I just thought you were attacking me." There was no context for my tweets, no nuance. It's too easy for tweets to be zingers.

3. Social media feeds narcissism.

My obsessive tendencies are difficult to control, especially when I have my smart phone. When I get home, I have to either turn my phone off, or consciously refuse to refresh my Twitter timeline—something I'm compelled to do several times an hour.

There were times when I would stand in the kitchen doing dishes, and my wife would try talking to me. But I'd be formulating a response to a tweet I'd just read. I wouldn't even hear her. Social media encourages you to be in two places at once. That's fine when I'm watching a ballgame, but my wife deserves my undivided attention.

The Benefits

As I learned after my fast, social media isn't all bad. If used rightly, it can actually help you become more present, more local. Among the benefits for pastors:

1. Social media can extend the influence of sermons.

In 2009 I started preaching every week. Some of my preaching themes were major paradigm shifts for our congregation, and they could hardly be covered adequately in short sermons. They needed more development, footnotes, links to more information.

For example, when I preached through Ephesians, I wanted to broaden my congregation's view of salvation from a private, individual understanding—me and Jesus in heaven—to a larger, more cosmic view of God's salvation. But I knew that was too radical a shift to get across in just one sermon series.

So I blogged about it. I linked to a 15-minute lecture from N.T. Wright in which he brilliantly summarizes the meta-themes in Ephesians. This allowed me to supplement my sermons with additional content. On our church blog, I post my sermon notes. During an extended series, I often post the books I'm reading as I prepare my sermons. If people want to reference those books, all they have to do is follow the link.

2. Social media allows you to address topics you can't from the pulpit.

Some topics a pastor just can't (or shouldn't) cover in a sermon. Election years are the perfect example of this. In Colorado Springs, Christians are sharply divided about how to change culture. I wanted to delve into this issue, but since our sermons generally are based on a particular text or book from the Bible, I wrote a blog post instead on "Five Reasons Why We Can and Should Be Politically Engaged."

A few years ago, during the controversy about Rob Bell's book Love Wins, I couldn't do a sermon on hell, because our church site follows the same sermon series as the main campus and I had to stay with the series. So I used my blog to reflect on the different ways to think about the final judgment within the evangelical framework. In a sermon it's hard to present competing ideas fairly, but in the blog post I could be more analytical, providing some shading to what many saw as a black-and-white picture.

When Osama bin Laden was killed, Twitter exploded with chatter: How should Christians feel? Is this a moment to celebrate, or mourn, or remain respectfully silent? Is this a moment to thank God? I stayed up late that night reading a lot of these responses. I wanted to address the topic, but I couldn't wait until Sunday to preach on it. I needed to engage this cultural affair immediately. In short, social media revealed my church community's concerns, and it gave me a way to address them.

3. Social media can build real-life relationships.

Social media makes quick, personal interaction easy. That's why I like Instagram: it's not automatically mutual. I don't have to follow everyone who follows me. I can focus on close friends and people in our church. By glancing through the pictures they post, I'm quickly updated on their lives, what they find important enough to share.

Recently, one of our staff members posted a picture of her husband receiving an award. So when I saw her the next day at church, I said, "Tell me about that award Bobby got." I could offer my congratulations and support because I followed her on Instagram. It gave us a connection we may not have had otherwise.

Eugene Peterson tells a story of how George Buttrick used to invite seminary students—Peterson among them—to his house on Sunday nights for informal conversation. One night he was asked, "What's the most important thing you do?" He said, "Preach. But that wouldn't be possible without another thing I do: walking the neighborhoods each week."

Part of sermon preparation is walking through our people's worlds. This is where social media helps. On Facebook our people write about how stressed they are, about the difficulties they face, and their worry about their kids. And I can listen for the brokenness and sadness. I can't physically walk around the neighborhood and see all of our congregants. But I can use social media to "walk the neighborhood" now, to see their lives and enter their worlds.

Keeping the Balance

Here are three things I'm trying to do to avoid the dangers of social media while holding on to the benefits.

1. Use social media only for what it's good for.

To avoid abusing social media, you have to understand its limitations. For example, Twitter is not conducive to a drawn-out conversation. You're limited to 140 characters. It's good for pointing to an interesting link, but you can't have a heart-to-heart dialogue on a nuanced topic. It's more like trying to carry on a conversation using bumper sticker slogans. If something is important, it's better to say, "Hey, let's talk about this over coffee." And if you can't do that, perhaps it's better to have not started that particular conversation.

Some people (like me, at first) use Facebook for promotional purposes or as a bill-board for church events. But people don't respond well if that's all you do. The appeal of Facebook is the proximity it gives you to another person. People who use it best allow you into their lives a little bit. Then they can tell you about things they think you should read or buy or look at. But those things should be part of a larger ongoing conversation.

While writing a book on recovering the sacrament of the Eucharist in non-liturgical churches, I wanted to hear from others in the non-denominational stream. So I asked about their view of communion: Is it the central element of worship, or an interchangeable element? It was clear that most saw it as interchangeable. So I realized I needed to start my book by addressing that assumption. I talked about my book in the process, but it wasn't promotional or manipulative; it was conversational.

2. Don't make flippant replies, snappy comebacks, or snarky comments.

Everything you say on social media is public. I discovered this the hard way. On Twitter, someone quoted a conference speaker—a pastor I knew. I replied to the tweet: "That's not true. This speaker should know better than that." And I tagged the speaker so he could see my post. (It didn't occur to me that everyone else could see it, too.)

I use social media to "walk the neighborhood" now, to see our people's lives and enter their worlds.

An hour later the speaker phoned me. "Glenn," he said, "you know me. If you want to question something I'm saying, you can call me or talk to me in person."

I was embarrassed. I realized I was out of line. We ended up having a wonderful phone conversation. But now, when I'm on social media, I try to remember that comments represent real people.

Snarky comments portray Christians as angry, judgmental, and prickly. There's a difference in saying something directly to a person and saying something about a person to everyone else. I don't want to use social media as a bullhorn to amplify gossip.

3. Periodically take a fast from social media.

I feel obligated to stay connected. And the truth is I enjoy it. Social media can be an important space for pastors to inhabit. And yet I know I need to fast from it to keep it from becoming unhealthy.

Our church service ends at 11:30 a.m. My kids wait patiently while I greet people in the lobby until about 12:30 p.m. By the time we get to the car, they're hungry. But for a while I would be on my phone trying to recap the sermon in a few more tweets. They'd say, "Come on, Dad. Let's get lunch. Why do you have to tweet after church?" And I'd say, "It's kind of a part of my job." They didn't buy it.

Now, at least at home, I try to set my smart phone aside, to live with my family off the grid for a while. My kids and my wife are happier when I can engage them fully.

Social media is a powerful tool that can broadcast the best we have to offer or amplify the worst parts of us. But it is also a new kind of "place" where the Word can be made evident. In this way, social media can be used redemptively.

Glenn Packiam is pastor of New Life Downtown in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Glenn Packiam will be speaking at the WFX convention in Dallas in October, expanding on the themes in this article.