Are you a cheap pastor on social media?

Are you a cheap pastor on social media?

There is a phenomenon on social media where someone will offer a command, framed as helpful advice, to an audience who are not likely to be people with whom they have any meaningful relationship. But the nature of their advice is such that a meaningful relationship should ordinarily exist, or the advice offered should be carefully argued rather than merely stated.

“Take your kids out of public school.”

“Christian Women: dress modestly.”

“Christian men: be leaders in your family.”

“Stop watching porn. Do better.”

“Dear Pastor, stop preaching yourself and preach Christ.”

And on, and on.  

Is it possible someone will be scrolling through Facebook or Twitter and see such wisdom and stop and think, “I need to take my children out of public school and first thing tomorrow I am going to start home-schooling them…well, my wife will…” Yes, it is possible. Is it likely? No, not likely.

Pastoral counsel that leads to meaningful change should usually be earned through a relationship of trust that develops over time. A pastor knows his sheep by name, and they will listen to his voice, but “A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers” (Jn. 10:5).

There are some pastors, of course, who have developed a reputation for faithful pastoring and their wisdom should be respected when offered publicly. What worries me is the vast amount of people who are not pastors who litter the social media with many commands to their audience. In fact, those who fail to understand the difficult nature of pastoring can be the worst culprits for “pastoring” online with their requirements for Christian living.

When a pastor speaks to a family or individual about an issue there must be enough trust for their listener(s) to heed a command that may lead to life-changing decisions. That trust is earned over years. Leading an individual or a family through a difficult problem because they know you are speaking not only the truth but also with love is an inestimable blessing of being a pastor.

Many young men have come to me over the last decade concerning their struggle with pornography. In each case there was a relationship of trust that had been built for years, otherwise I doubt they would have been able to speak about their sin. Their confession was met (I trust) with sympathy, which fostered a plan forward that involved more than a mere command to just stop looking at porn and do better.

In Paul’s pastoral letters we usually encounter an intense personal touch. He speaks to the Corinthians in a manner whereby they are assured of his love for them. He desired to be with them: “For I do not want to see you now just in passing. I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits” (1 Cor. 16:7). On one occasion, he had spent 18 months with the Corinthians (Acts 18:11), which surely gave him some credibility, quite apart from his apostolic credentials.

Due to his imprisonment, Paul couldn’t often gather with the churches, but it was always his great desire. He prayed that he would find success in visiting the Christians in Rome: “…to impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles” (Rom. 1:11–15).

Paul was not a cheap pastor.

You can offer up a load of wisdom each week online, but you must be realistic about the success of your commands or suggestions. You may think you are doing a great work for God, but in my experience the great work for God is won through patience, wisdom, faithfulness, tears, etc. We can all, not just pastors, play a decisive role in helping people become more like Christ. But let us not delude ourselves into thinking that hammering away on the keyboard is going to bring about these changes.

Offering advice is a funny thing. The 19th century English poet Philip James Bailey said, “The worst men often give the best advice.” But, as the 17th century French moralist, François de La Rochefoucauld said, “Men give away nothing so liberally as their advice” and while we give advice “we do not inspire conduct.” In other words, online advice can be very cheap.

Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller well said, “One can advise comfortably from a safe port.” However, we must be accountable for our advice, especially when framed as a universal command. Are you prepared to deal with the pastoral aftermath of that decisions that could result from your commands? Is your advice a universal rule for every Christian in every country? If things go poorly, will you be accountable in any significant way?

When a pastor advises families about life-changing decisions he must be responsible for what he says, which is why I often advise on important issues with the help of my elders. Yet the person on twitter has practically zero accountability. If things go horribly sour, what does it bother them?

Again, it is cheap pastoring.

Keep offering advice on social media. Some of it appears to be good. But don’t think people are really going to listen and make the changes you are seeking. And perhaps pray that they don’t! For, if they do, you might be responsible for a whole lot more than you bargained for.

Faithful pastors, when offering advice, count the cost. They have earned the right to advise those they love. They are the ones worth listening to because they are the ones who are most likely to stand with you if things don’t turn out so well. Offering advice that requires sacrifice from the listener is usually better received if there is a pattern of sacrifice from the one asking you to change.

Costly pastoring is at the heart of the gospel: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn. 10:11). We listen to our Savior because he has earned the right to our ears and our hearts. By way of analogy, I tend to think ordinarily we listen best to those whom we trust and love – those who have counted the cost and will count the cost.

Mark Jones (Ph.D., Leiden) has been the minister at Faith Vancouver Presbyterian Church (PCA), Canada since 2007.