Love it or hate it, Donald Trump has infamously used Twitter to promote himself, to fan the flames of controversy and to promote his own take on divisive issues and events.
Many observers are raising concerns that some pastors share in the president’s hard-core fan-the-flames approach to social media. While done in the name of offering a prophetic witness, experts note that it’s all too often an effort at self-promotion and sowing confusion and falsehoods.
But there are, other ministers say, confrontational and gentle approaches to social media that can be healing and prophetic.
It’s possible for a minister to be controversial on Facebook or Twitter without lying or engaging in character assassination, said Craig Nash, a former community pastor at University Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, and now with the Texas Hunger Initiative.
Nash said his social media postings have been known to rub people the wrong way on political, religious and cultural issues.
“I have a reputation among my friend groups and others around town,” Nash said. “I’ve been called a pot stirrer.”
But he’s OK with that. Social media is an important tool for ministers’ pastoral or prophetic roles.
“Sometimes it’s necessary to shine light on division.”
But it’s important that pastors avoid the self-serving and character-assassinating tactics that have become common, if not acceptable, on social media.
“Donald Trump is very calculating in the things he says,” Nash said. “But there is a fine line between being authentic and being manipulative.”
Pastors: stop sharing fake news
Ed Stetzer addressed the issue in a recent article for Christianity Today titled “3 Ways Pastors and Church Leaders Undermine Themselves on Social Media.”
The first pitfall is using social media to get famous.
“It makes me sad when I see Christian leaders vying for the attention of people on social media when all they really want to do is make themselves look important,” writes Stetzer, professor of church, mission and evangelism at Wheaton College.
Trying to appear influential through Facebook, Twitter and other outlets undermines leadership and saps valuable pastoral and administrative time, Stetzer said.
“Pastors and church leaders ought to be on social media — without a doubt — but using social media to serve yourself instead of to serve others is a slippery slope to sinful pride and a pursuit of vanishing glory.”
Pastors must also avoid sewing unnecessary division, Stetzer said in the article.
Some conflict is inevitable, especially when commenters criticize ministers and churches. Where discussion threads go cannot always be controlled.
But stoking drama should be avoided.
“Pastors and church leaders, you must understand: engaging in unnecessary conflict on social media, regardless of the subject or how important you think it is, ultimately damages your witness and clouds people from receiving the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Stetzer said. “Stop it.”
Another killer, he said, is “Sharing fake news.”
Disseminating false information is damaging to the sharer along with the target.
“Pastors and church leaders undermine themselves on social media when they share fake news,” Stetzer said. “It hurts the gospel witness of the leader and ultimately makes people wonder about the integrity of anything the leader says or does.”
Striking a chord
If Ann Carter were to add another “don’t” to faith-based social media, it might be “getting political” on Facebook and Twitter.
At least that’s the advice she tries to follow as the social media associate at First Baptist Church in Richmond, Va.
But it can be a struggle.
“I could be so political if I wanted to,” she said. “It’s hard not to be.”
Carter notes that what is and isn’t appropriate may vary to some extent between pastors’ personal accounts and those representing churches and ministries. As the social media voice for First Baptist, Carter said she isn’t comfortable infusing Facebook posts with her own opinions on the controversial issues of the day.
“It’s a recognition that our audience is diverse,” she said.
Often, this isn’t an issue. The church’s social media accounts are used a lot for promoting ministries and special events.
But sometimes divisive moments in the culture cannot be ignored. The challenge is figuring out how to approach those issues from different angles, Carter said.
“How do I as the voice of our church speak into a situation that is heated and tense with compassion and with grace and maybe give a different perspective to what’s going on?”
The answer is to be gentle and humble in trying to find where Christ may be in a given situation.
Carter knew the church could not be silent during recent protests and counter-protests over Confederate statues on Richmond’s famous Monument Boulevard.
“We sit right there,” she said. “I didn’t want to take a political position at all. I wanted to take a loving position.”
So, she posted photos, taken earlier in the week, of chalk images that children had drawn on a sidewalk in front of the church.
“They were messages of love and grace and peace,” Carter said. “They were pictures of hearts and peace symbols and crosses and ‘speak love, think love.’”
The Sept. 15 Facebook post invited readers to consider those messages as the protests neared.
“As the City of Richmond prepares for demonstrations at the Robert E. Lee statue just a few blocks away, the youngest children of Richmond’s First Baptist Church have a message for anyone who walks down Monument Avenue this weekend.”
The post apparently struck a chord, Carter said.
“That post reached 25,000 people,” she said. “Most of our posts reach 2,000.”
Nash said he also sees the importance of church social media accounts not mirroring too closely the personality of those in charge of the accounts.
But there’s more gray area when it comes to pastors’ personal accounts — a view that has rankled some when he was serving a church.
“I was more open on my personal account to engage hot and divisive events as a pastor,” he said. “I didn’t exercise the caution that some people thought I should.”
Nash said he understands the concern not to offend people. But it is equally offensive for some to have a pastor who doesn’t speak on the issues of the day.
“If you refrain from being honest and you refrain speaking truth to power, you are going to run off a whole other group of people,” he said.