When thinking about ministry in a digital age, we lean in one of two directions. One is to focus only on the content: “As long as it’s the gospel, it doesn’t matter what we’re using to spread it!” This misses what brand gurus know: The medium is the message; forms form us. The other approach is to focus entirely on the container, the new media. “Technology is changing us. Facebook is killing social interaction. Instagram is destroying community!” These critiques often fail to acknowledge that all new inventions result in new conventions. There was much hand-wringing over the printing press and the automobile and the telephone. And yet, the human species adapts and adjusts.
I want to move beyond evaluating content and container and reflect instead on the creature: the human person. Is there a way for us as pastors to bear God’s image in online interactions, to be a kind of icon of Christ? Let me suggest three areas to consider: identity and self (who are we?), presence and place (where are we?), and authority and power (what are we capable of?). These questions will guide us even as specific apps and devices change in the years ahead.
Identity and Self
As Christian leaders, who do we present ourselves to be, and how are we perceived? John Frederick, a lecturer in New Testament at Trinity College, Queensland, suggests that we create a digital self by selecting which moments to post, which angle of our face to show, which features of our self to magnify. But these fragments leave others to supply the missing context according to narratives they construct.
In his paper “Cyber-Genesis of the Digital Self,” Frederick writes,
Our internet activity leaves in its wake narrative codes, segments of text, data, and information that—when ideated by future readers—creates a residual narrative self that may be different than the bodily self of non-cyber reality. This alternate digital self becomes a presence and a power when the recipient . . . pieces together the various component parts thus conjuring up a phantom presence, a residual narrative self.
For example, as a pastor, I sometimes hesitate to post a picture of a book I’m reading for fear that people will see that one image and conclude that my day consists of leisurely reading at coffee shops as I sip artisan lattes. That is, in fact, maybe an hour of any given week. People, void of the context, will supply their own meaning of the posted photo.
Take another scenario. Someone shares a story about President Trump along with a snarky intro. People begin to comment, their responses written quickly: perhaps in a car at a stoplight (please, don’t) or in a doctor’s office or at their child’s soccer practice. Odds are they moved on, forgot about their words, and had an otherwise normal day. They aren’t beastly people. They’re the people we see every day at the grocery store and gas station. But if their words on Facebook were sarcastic or caustic, that is now how you will think of them.
Every once in a while, a congregant will refer to a post I made a few months ago and say something like, “Man, you say a lot of bold things on social media.” I always smile, wistfully trying to recall the post or the reason behind it. It all happens so fast. Yet it lives on forever—not only on Facebook but in the minds of those read it.
Frederick says our “phantom selves” are
the ideation of a being that is independent of our physical bodies and control, an alternate, residual self. . . . There will be as many of us as there are interpreters and ideators of us. We will exist as cyber shadows of our former selves . . . with the power to cause either cruciform blessing or catastrophic destruction.
Long before search engines, Paul the apostle knew the specter of his sins loomed large over the life he called people into. So, he named it: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim. 1:15, ESV). To the Philippian Christians, he boasted about his misdirected religious zeal and credentials that he later counted as loss. The only thing that mattered now was knowing Christ.
There is a great comfort here. No matter what “cyber shadows of our former selves” lurk in the digital abyss, no matter what phantoms of our selves hover in people’s memories and minds, our sins really are forgiven. But there is also a high calling. Let your digital self also be no longer you who live but Christ who lives in you, and the life you now live in the flesh—or online—you live “by faith in the Son of God” (Gal. 2:20).
I try to live this out by being a reconciling voice in a tribalized space. When I join an online conversation, I am conscious that I am doing so as a pastor, and thus a reflection of Christ in a particular way. So, I try to post things that illuminate the issue, acknowledge the complexity of a situation, or provoke empathy for the “other.” But beware, this may get you crucified from both sides.
Presence and Place
The internet is, in one sense, a tool: something we use to communicate, to connect, to query our curiosities of the moment. But social media’s ubiquitous use—nearly 3 billion people are on Facebook—has made the internet a place we inhabit. Moreover, it is more accurate to speak not of a digital world but of digital worlds. This is already apparent in the nicknames people have for various platforms: “Facebookistan” and the “Twitterverse,” within which there are other planets like “Anglican Twitter,” “Academic Twitter,” and more.
What does it mean to be present in digital places? Is online presence a disembodiment of the self, a detachment from the material world, a new kind of Gnosticism? Brent Laytham, dean of the Ecumenical Institute of Theology of St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, argues in his book iPod, YouTube, Wii Play that being online by definition means being “dis-embodied and ex-carnate.” Kutter Callaway counters in a paper entitled “Interface is Reality” that Laytham has confused the internet with an interface. Via an interface, human beings re-present themselves into a digital world, thus creating not substitutes but “duplications of physical reality.” “Indeed, at the level of the interface, it’s not that virtual bodies are replacing our physical bodies. Rather, it is here that our bodies are augmented and extended.” Callaway goes so far as to say that
rather than moving us either out of or even away from our bodies (i.e. ‘excarnation’), digital interfaces can be highly incarnational insofar as they ... serve as extensions of our bodies through their constant negotiation (and renegotiation) of the boundaries between self and world.
What does this mean for pastoral ministry? Eugene Peterson spent much of his life resisting the rise of impersonal modes of pastoral ministry. Drawing from the textured stories in Scripture of place and people and the agrarian parables Jesus told, Peterson was convinced that our obsession with immediacy and efficiency is a plague to the pastoral soul. He summed up the vision of his vocation in his memoir, The Pastor: “In the mess of work and sin, of families and neighborhoods, my task was to pray and give direction and encourage that lived quality of the gospel—patiently, locally, and personally.” To do things locally meant that he “would embrace the conditions of this place—economics, weather, culture, schools, whatever—so that there would be nothing abstract or piously idealized about what [he] was doing.” To do things personally meant that he “would know them, their names, their homes, their families, their work—but would not pry.” He “would not treat them as a cause or a project,” instead “with dignity.”
Can such work be done in digital places? Perhaps. But online relationships produce the most positive effects when there is also an offline component to those relationships. When we know the person beyond social media, we are less likely to be irritated by their posts. Almost every Sunday, I strike up a conversation with a congregant by referencing a recent Facebook post from them—a new job, a fun vacation, an illness, a graduation, and more. It gives me a glimpse into their lives that I certainly could not have had were my interactions limited to face-to-face encounters. Facebook and Instagram work best when they allow us to extend ourselves and encounter each other there—admittedly through curated re-presentations of ourselves. The offline component provides context and commitment. This speaks to Peterson’s point about patience. It takes time to develop relationships, and it takes time for our commitment to be tested. When social media is a supplement to and not a substitute for physical presence, it can help community to form.
The temptation here is that our expectations of community become re-shaped by how online networks function. Our people may want constant availability from us as their pastor but maximum convenience for themselves. Despite these expectations and our digital prowess, we are mere mortals; we are not truly omnipresent.
This raises another question: What is our digital presence costing us in physical presence? For instance, live-streaming a church service is a great way to keep up while sick or traveling or deployed. It’s even a nice way to check out a church before going. But it is no substitute for flesh-and-blood fellowship with the family of God. It’s helpful to remind our congregations of that.
Authority and Power
The internet has been a great equalizer. Anyone can post. Anyone can search. Anyone can learn. This access to information has a democratizing effect, so much so that authoritarian regimes around the world implement heavy-handed censorships and firewalls.
Social media platforms, however, have re-shaped power in the form of followers and “likes.” Now the number of followers on Instagram is enough to make a person an “influencer.” A viral video can launch a career or end one. Popularity has replaced credibility.
What does this mean for church leaders and those who carry “religious authority”? Pauline Hope Cheong, professor of human communication at Arizona State University, notes the dominant view that “religious authority is eroded by online religious activities.” One reason is that as “the internet allows access to information previously . . . only understood by elites who are certified and/or ordained,” such access by non-professionals can “undermine the plausibility structure of a religious system.” New authority figures arise, such as “online forum leaders and web masters.” Observe how the outrage of the day is fueled by the blurring of lines of authority. Who says that’s wrong? How do I know you’re right?
There is good here: Unhealthy power dynamics can be held in check. Congregants fact-check a preacher’s claims mid-sermon on their phones. But there is also a temptation to think that all views are equally valid. Without a sense of authority given to the historic global witness of the church as a mitigating influence, each person does what is right in their own eyes (or in the eyes of the podcast they listened to this morning).
Many church leaders are using online platforms to extend or reinforce their authority, honestly or dishonestly through crafted self-presentations. The digital age does not prevent the misuse of power; it simply creates new conditions in which it occurs.
A Christian reflection on power must name both its source and its purpose: Where does our power come from, and what is it for? Saul, Israel’s first king, made the mistake of thinking the people were the source of his power. He misused his power—from making a rash vow to acting beyond his authority—and seemed most concerned with protecting his appearance of power before the people. How apropos for our social media age. If our power comes from popularity, we will obsess about how we are perceived. If we mistake the source of our authority, we are bound to mishandle it.
By contrast, in John’s gospel, Jesus, “knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God,” removed his outer robe and began to wash the feet of his disciples (John 13:3, ESV). As Christian leaders, we know our power and authority do not come from our number of followers, “likes,” or “shares.” It comes from God, and it is to be used in service. Post about someone else, highlight the hidden saints in your church, shine the light on someone else’s good works so that others may see and glorify the Father in heaven.
In all the ways that we shape and present our identity, in all the ways we are present in digital places, in all the ways we gain and use power, we must be agents of love and icons of Christ.
For the Christian, being in an online network is never enough. We are to become “members of one another.” A network may be good for power, but a community is where love takes place. As the body of Christ, the church is how Jesus is available in the world; as the Temple of the Holy Spirit, the church is how God is present in the world; as a royal priesthood, the church is how God’s kingdom continues to arrive on earth—and in our digital worlds—as it is in heaven.
Glenn Packiam is associate senior pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs and the author of Blessed Broken Given.