“Millions of Friends, but Not Very Popular”. This is the headline to the “New York Times” review of the 2010 feature film “The Social Network,” which chronicles the 2003 development and deployment of Facebook by its founder Mark Zuckerberg. From the launch of Facebook in 2003 to the launch of the iPhone in 2007, social media has gone from an occasional interaction to an ever-present event. The advent and availability of social media have shaped public discourse and private relationships. Our culture has begun to evaluate influence by Instagram likes and faithfulness by Facebook videos. Whether we would like to admit it or not, social media has changed our society and altered our minds. The ever-present musings of our online “friends” crowd our thinking, the perceived need to grow a platform plagues our minds, and the constant stream of news and information bombards our brains. As social media has shaped our society, it has inevitably influenced our preaching and our preachers. In the life of the preacher, social media represents a distinct danger and offers a definite delight.
The danger of social media for the preacher is the disastrous desire to grow a platform. Modern society shepherds us to believe that influence and acceptance are earned in likes, follows, friends, and retweets. The desire to grow a platform is actually a great temptation. It is the temptation for the preacher to elevate social media platform over the pulpit audience. It is the temptation to be “tweetable” that often trumps the desire to be faithful and clear in the exposition of the Word of God. It is the temptation to preach for the masses instead of preaching to the people God has given you to lead. It is the temptation to use your pulpit and platform for your opinions that fall well beyond the scope of your ministry. It is the temptation to preach sermons that earn likes but fail to make the difference in the way anyone lives. The disastrous desire to grow a platform is actually a symptom of the greatest temptation of all and the greatest threat to the ministry; the real temptation and threat is the preacher’s pride. There is nothing inherently wrong with preaching points that are clear, concise, and even rhetorically engaging. There is nothing wrong with preaching in a way that considers your in-person and electronic audience. There is nothing wrong with attempting to use technology to reach the masses for Christ. There is everything wrong with preaching sermons where the primary point is the preacher and the primary purpose is his platform. If preaching earns likes, follows, retweets, and likes so be it. Just be sure that the aim and ambition in preaching is to “see to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God” (Heb 12:15) instead of seeing likes increase and platforms progress.
In contrast to the danger of social media for the preacher, there is a definite delight: the people. The greatest benefit of social media for the preacher is the access that it gives him to his audience. From viewing social media a preacher can keep up with the positions, problems, and personalities of his people. In real time a preacher can see how his audience is interacting with current events, church partners, and community causes. With each social media interaction the preacher has, the picture becomes clearer of who his audience really is, how they process the world around them, and who or what they value most in this life. Just as careful study of the text helps the preacher exegete the word of God, careful study of social media helps the preacher exegete his audience. I say careful study to caution the preacher against over-engagement and interaction on social media as this can be hazardous to your ministry and personal life, but I also say careful to remind that social media can often paint a sorrowful picture of your audience. The landscape of social media these days seems to show people divided over party lines, desperate for attention, and demoralized by our current state of affairs. On the surface, these realities may lead to despair, but considered another way they may be a delight for the preacher. The divided nature of our social media landscape should show us that people are desperate to belong; they want to be in a group with people who think like them and encourage their ideals. The desperate nature of our social media landscape teaches us that people are looking for anything that will add value to their existence. The demoralized nature of our social media landscape teaches us that people are looking for anything that will bring them hope. The great delight for the preacher, when he considers this landscape of social media, is that his message is the remedy to each of these issues. In the message of the Gospel, people are invited into the family of God, given a new life with new meaning in Christ Jesus, and are given eternal hope through the promised Holy Spirit. The great despair the pastor sees on social media can only be remedied by the great Gospel of Jesus Christ which he should proclaim. The delight of social media for the preacher is the clear picture it paints of his audience and the continual reminder of the need for proclaiming the Gospel.
Considering the danger and delight of social media perhaps the best aim for the preacher is to emulate the headline of the New York Times. The preacher should seek to have many friends, but not to make himself very popular. Instead, he should seek to make Jesus famous in every social media, and face to face, interaction.
Garrison Griffith is the Dean of Students and a PhD student in Pastoral Ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.