Glenn Packiam is associate senior pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs and the author of Blessed Broken Given. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
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.”