There was an article in the New York Times today about how evangelical leaders have become Twitter Dynamos. Though they have far fewer followers than pop stars like Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga, Christian leaders such as Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, Max Lucado, and Andy Stanley outperform them by as much as 30 times in terms of response percentage.
This finding has led Claire Díaz-Ortiz, a senior executive at Twitter, to appeal to more religious leaders in her effort to grow Twitter’s user base. And in turn, this article has led me to consider whether or not I should make a Twitter account. Four red flags were immediately raised in my mind about Twitter.
Decontextualization of the Message
Pastors who Tweet argue that Twitter is tailor-made for the Bible. At first glance, this is not far off the mark, since, “on average, verses in the King James Version are about 100 characters long, leaving room to slip in a #bible hashtag and still come in under the 140-character limit.” However, tweeting isolated verses can be misleading, because appropriate interpretation of the verses often depend on their wider context. This is also the reason why “proof-texting,” a method of proving a doctrine through isolated verses, can be dangerous. For example, Ecclesiastes 10:2, “A wise man’s heart inclines him to the right, but a fool’s heart to the left,” is not an espousal of political conservatism.
A Methodist anecdote illustrates this point: “A man dissatisfied with his life decided to consult the Bible for guidance. Closing his eyes, he flipped the book open and pointed to a spot on the page. Opening his eyes, he read the verse under his finger. It read, ‘Then Judas went away and hanged himself’ (Matthew 27:5b). Closing his eyes again, the man randomly selected another verse. This one read, ‘Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise”’ (Luke 10:37b)” (Elizabeth Tokar, “Humorous Anecdotes Collected from a Methodist Minister,” Western Folklore, Vol. 26, No. 2, p. 92). Tweeting can be an effective way to share nuggets from the Word of God, but one must be wary of misrepresenting the text in a way that violates its context. One would be wise to tweet Bible verses with links to the rest of their context.
Diminution of the Message
The article also mentions a woman who claims that tweets from Soul City Church have changed her life. Skeptical, I checked out the Soul City Twitter, which consisted mostly of relationship advice with little discussion of the gospel. Recurring themes included “Relationship Revival” and “Relationship Roundtable,” with characteristic tweets such as “What have you done this week to demonstrate better relational intelligence?” and “On dating: If the other person has to know Morse code to figure out your signals, that’s not good. Don’t play games.”
This illustrates another danger of Twitter: the diminution of the message. Pragmatic advice are helpful, but they can never get at the root of sin. A Christian leader interviewed in the article says that Twitter is successful as a source of spiritual support because “in a fast world, [people] get what they need from that one little tweet.” While it is true that some truths can be expressed simply, it is also true that some truths cannot be adequately expressed in 140 characters.
As Tremper Longman III writes, the Bible is not a “treasure chest of golden truths,” a “grab bag of promises and comforts,” or a “talisman with magical power” (Reading the Bible with Heart and Mind, 1997, pp. 53-55). The Bible is not a manual for self-improvement; it is the grand narrative of God’s redemptive work through the ages. This sort of “spiritual feeding” on Twitter can only provide an illusion of spiritual health. It is not unlike the man with an overly indulgent dietary habit who opts for Diet Coke instead of regular Coke to ease his caloric conscience. Therefore, Christian leaders should be wary of substituting the profundity of the gospel with Twitter practicality.
Distortion of the Message
Another popular class of tweets among Christian leaders is the proverb, but atomized truths are liable to distortion. In fact, even the time-tested axioms such as “God hates the sin, but loves the sinners” do not convey the whole truth. This pithy statement attempts admirably to reconcile the love of God with the wrath of God. However, God does not merely hate sin, he also hates the sinner: “The Lord tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence. Let him rain coals on the wicked; fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup. For the Lord is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face” (Ps. 11:5-7).
Divine wrath is not an automatic, mechanical reaction to sin, it is the personal and willful response of a holy God. In fact, it is because God’s wrath is so fully personal that his mercy becomes so fully personal (Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, p. 134). The well-intentioned axiom rightly emphasizes God’s love, but it misses the fact that God, who is angry with sinners, must be propitiated by Christ’s atonement. For this reason, Christian leaders who tweet should take care to not to distort the message in the service of brevity.
Distraction from the Message
My final concern with Twitter is that it can be a distraction. It can become a tool for self-promotion, rather than a tool for Christlike influence. It can be a fodder for procrastination that holds one’s attention hostage. It can provide an endless stream of diversion. Therefore, Christians leaders who use Twitter should do so in moderation.
With these four admonitions to myself, I am gingerly entering the world of Twitter, because I recognize its potential to reach people outside of the traditional church structure. I pray that God will enable me to use it wisely for His glory.