Why Social Media Makes Pastoring More Difficult

Since I started writing about our relationship with social media and the myriad of ways social media affects our lives in ways we may not recognize, perhaps no group of readers have reached out to me for help as often as local church pastors. The common refrain goes something like this: “I just don’t get it. My people didn’t used to be this way. They used to love each other, submit to my leadership, and serve one another. Now they seem to be consumed by world news, wacky opinions, and conflict, and they don’t care what I say anymore.” Every situation is different. Some pastors talk about how conspiracy theories of various kinds have overtaken their churches. Other pastors talk about a surge in conflict and gossip. Regardless of the specific situations of each pastor, they often believe social media and their congregants’ relationship with it is at least partially to blame. I think they’re right.

To be transparent, I am not a pastor, nor have I ever been a local church elder. I have, however, served on staff as a youth minister, am a lay leader in my local church, and have a Masters of Divinity. I understand some of the challenges of church leadership, and I feel comfortable helping pastors navigate the choppy waters of ministry caused by the hurricane of social media. Pastors are just as susceptible to being thrown and tossed by the winds of social media described below, but when congregants are caught up in these winds, it makes church leadership a particularly challenging task. Let’s explore two of the core reasons social media makes pastoring more difficult, and how those two factors combine to make a monstrous leadership challenge.

Our relationship with social media disorders our priorities.

Priorities are the coordinates that set the course of our hearts.

Priorities are the coordinates that set the course of our hearts.

What we value determines what we prioritize. What we prioritize determines how we spend our time. How we spend our time determines how we spend our lives. 

Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). The temptation with this verse is to immediately think, “How I use the money God has given me reveals my heart,” and that is true. This verse clearly applies to our financial resources, but one could make the case that it is even more applicable to how we spend our time. Time is the most scarce resource on the planet. When we spend or lose money, there is always an opportunity to make it back. More money can always be scrounged together somehow, but we can never earn more time. Time leaks out of our life by the second, and we cannot save it or earn it back; we can only spend it well. 

A 2019 study suggests that the average person spends about two-and-a-half hours on social media every single day. This is how social media infiltrates our priorities—it sucks our time.

Social media is designed to make us feel good. It isn’t designed to deliver us the truth. It isn’t designed to encourage our hearts in the gospel. It isn’t designed to point us to the hope we have in eternity. The mathematical algorithms and organizational values that drive social media platforms are most interested in keeping our attention, and the most effective way they keep our attention is by making us feel good with entertaining content. This disorders our priorities in a host of ways, but primarily by making us more interested in comfortable entertainment than we are in hard truths. Social media coddles us, pats our heads, and makes us feel as though we are rulers of our own digital worlds.

You can imagine how this makes church leadership difficult. Pastors are faced with shepherding local churches that are more interested in being coddled with comfortable entertainment than they are in being led with difficult truths. 

Our relationship with social media warps our view of authority.

The internet as a whole, but especially social media, has revolutionized how we think about authority. In some ways, this is good! The way the social internet has transformed our global understanding of authority has toppled oppressive governments, addressed systemic injustices, and allowed masses of people to otherwise work for the collective good of humanity. Social media has given authority to groups of people who have historically had trouble achieving it, and has allowed those groups of people to challenge the people who have always had it.

Unfortunately, a by-product of all of this is that by making it feel as though everyone has authority, those who use their authority for good in the offline world have lost significant influence. By making everyone feel like they are an expert, the power of real experts has waned. 

By making everyone feel like they are an expert, the power of real experts has waned.

Then, when you combine this reality with the first, you get a deadly combination. We just explored how social media disorders our priorities and makes comfort the king of our hearts. Add to that the reality that traditional views of authority have been toppled and anyone can be seen as authoritative on any subject now. Mixing these two perversions of reality creates a situation in which authority is assigned to those who make us most comfortable, who tell us what we want to hear, and who coddle us into all manner of foolishness.

From what I have gathered, this lethal combination of disordered priorities and the eradication of positional authority is the primary stressor for pastors as it relates to social media. It is what makes it difficult to lead people. Why? It’s pretty clear, I think. 

If Christians have been duped into believing that comfort is king and authority is relative because of their totally-normal-but-terribly-destructive relationships with social media, you as their pastor are going to call them to a life of sacrifice and discomfort for the sake of Christ, and they are going to ignore you, choosing the authoritative voices of their comfortable screen pundits instead.

So, What Do Pastors Do?

In short, pastors need to check their own hearts and make sure they don’t fall prey to these deceptions themselves. It is foolishness to think pastors and church leaders are somehow immune from these issues. 

Beyond checking themselves, pastors need to desperately pray for their people, and pray that God would shape their hearts more than social media does. I am sure that if you’re a pastor reading this, you pray for your church often. I am calling you to pray specifically that God would give them the wisdom to recognize the ways in which their relationship with social media, and perhaps their phones in general, is leading them away from Christlikeness rather than toward it.

Finally, I think the most impactful action pastors can take to combat the problems above is to invest as much time as possible into having personal, face-to-face conversations with their church members. If the most personal interaction pastors have with their people is preaching on Sunday morning or praying with people amid hand shakes at the end of a sermon, social media will forever shape those churches’ hearts more than pastors and the Word. But, if pastors can be always chasing their people down, always scheduling lunches, grabbing coffee, and otherwise personally pursuing their church members, I think that can go a long way toward combating the insidious ways social media makes leading a church feel impossible today.

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