Should We Use Twitter in Church? A Response to Josh Harris

Although not really the main focus of this blog, I was stimulated by Josh Harris's post on the use of Twitter in church.

His conclusion is to leave the tweeting out during the church meetings and his reasons are as follows:

1. Doing so will be likely to distract me from the word of God (as I am likely to be tempted to check emails, etc.)

2. Tweeting, even in response to the sermon, is time spent not actively listening to the sermon.

3. Tweeting focuses on me broadcasting rather than listening and, thus, is a different activity to that needed to benefit from the word.

4. We may set the wrong example to other people - they may think we're merely checking our emails and this may lead them to do likewise.

5. Popularity in the culture does not make an activity appropriate in the church.

6. Nothing will be lost by tweeting after the Sunday meeting.

Judging by the number of comments on Josh's blog, this seems a pretty live issue, with John Piper even entering the debate. So here goes with a response, point by point:

1. If it is true that tweeting distracts you from the word of God, then it is certainly an activity to be avoided.

My difficulty with Josh's first point, however, is that, having been honest about his own struggles in this area and sharing the effect that tweeting during the sermon has on him ( I assume he has tried it), he moves from that to a general claim that the action must have the same effect on every human being.

A superficial consideration of this premise, or a familiarity with the varieties of human experiences, will reveal it to be unsustainable. Everyone is different and one man's meat is another man's poison. The Lord Jesus only required us to cut off our hands if they were causing us to sin. If they were not, we are permitted to keep them attached to our arms.

2. Tweeting is not time spent listening. This is surely being righteous over-much. The act of listening (to God's word) is far more multi-faceted than the mere act of sitting still and hearing. It involves, for instance, thinking about what is heard, engaging our will and emotions in response to it; applying it to our lives as we hear; praying while we listen, etc. Actively listening to the word of God may also involve us weeping or trembling at it (a response that God says he "esteems") .

Any or all of these excellent actions may involve us, temporarily, "not listening" in the narrow sense that Josh suggests. But, surely, they are all very much at the heart of how a godly congregation should listen. If an individual finds that they can use a tool of some kind to focus their response and enrich their capacity to engage with the message, that is surely a valid act for them, subject to it being done unto the Lord and with due regard to the needs of the weaker brother. I note that, annecdotally, several of those commenting on Josh's post do in fact state this to be the reason they use twitter during the sermon.

Furthermore, Josh's assumption that the act of tweeting cannot be done while actively listening is, presumably, a statement which he himself has found to be the case in his experience. To make a rule based on this experience, however, appears unwise and a possible case of imposing one' s own freedom (or lack of it) on another.

I would disagree with those who compare tweeting with note taking. I compare it more with saying "amen" to a particular point in the sermon. I don't know if he still does it, but CJ Mahaney was one of the first Christian leaders I observed giving verbal feedback during Bible teaching - often of a vigorous kind. Are we to prohibit this activity because it is "not time spent listening"? Please see my concluding comments for more on this point.

3. I agree that tweeting is broadcasting, but this action does not have to be seen as incompatible with listening. My definition (above) of what is involved in active listening is, I think, relevant to this point as well as to the previous one. I am not qualified to comment on listening from a neurological or educational perspective, but there may be more to discover from those fields of knowledge and common grace about what it is exactly that is involved in effective listening.

A subsidiary point could be made here that, by sharing the individual's response to the sermon, the effect of it is being spread in real time and in a natural, relational way.

4. Example. Oh! The great argument that has stifled innovation in God's church for centuries! Exactly the same argument has been used repeatedly in connection with a hundred and one developments in church that are now uncontroversial, including (in no particular order):
  • using TV monitors in the meetings (people will think they've come to a cinema, etc)
  • using guitars (people will think that it's OK to listen to rock music)
  • wearing suits (people will think they've come to a business convention)
  • not wearing suits (people will think they've come to a hippy festival, etc)
This argument is really a dead end for two reasons. Firstly, because it focuses so much on externals at the expense of heart attitude that it is difficult to see how such an argument will tend towards producing anything other than ....... well, externalism!

Secondly, it suggests that Christian adults who are often handling major responsibility in the world of work all week, are incapable of dealing emotionally or intellectually with another individual who is accessing a palmtop or other device during a public meeting. Do such people actually exist in our churches? If so, I would want to ask the question, "Where did they learn to be so uptight?" My concern is that they might have learned such unseemly traits in church itself.

5. Josh's analysis of the relationship between church life and the surrounding culture is, to my mind, the weakest element in his article. To say that we do not need to incorporate a thing into church life just because it is popular is at one level, a mere truism.

At another level, however, it reads a little bit like the age-old line, "We don't want change just for the sake of change" to which I reply, "Why not? We're quite happy with predictability for the sake of predictability."

Anyone who argues that we should "start doing something" in church because "they do it in the world" is clearly a sad person who needs befriending and taking out more. The fact is, people are using twitter increasingly in public conferences and other presentational settings and it is a trend that is naturally finding expression in some churches. The issue, therefore, is a pastoral one - should leaders encourage or discourage this practice for the good of the body - not one based on making the meetings more culturally relevant to the outsider.

6. Several things will be lost by tweeting after the Sunday meeting instead of during it. Most significantly, I would suggest, is the sense of immediacy. Preaching, if I have understood correctly, is meant to cause a response now. Of course, such a response cannot only be expressed through tweeting! But, if the point of preaching is that it is meant to have an effect in the moment, we should be careful that we do not confuse this aim with the ability to form a considered evaluation of a sermon at a later point.

Some final thoughts:

Listening (to paraphrase Jonathan Edwards in his Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World) is a subordinate end not an ultimate end when we gather to hear God's word. The ultimate end of listening to preaching is, of course, to glorify God, but between the subordinate end of listening and the ultimate end of God being glorified, other subordinate ends exist. In particular, we should expect the preaching of the word to effect change in us, conforming us in greater measure to the will of God and the character of Jesus Christ.

If this is happening, we should rejoice whether or not tweeting is happening. If it is not, tweeting or sitting still is a non-issue.


Paul Hunnisett said...

Outstanding post - entertaining in addition to be well argued. Well done!

If I feel so inclined tomorrow morning, I shall tweet to the glory of God!

atlanticwriter said...
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