My entire adult career has involved words. The use of words takes many forms for a pastor. The most obvious being the sermon. Once a week I stand before my congregation with a faithful task to “preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:2). The pastor is called upon to exegete the text; explaining it, illustrating it, and applying it. Preaching is more than just reading the text aloud; it involves the preacher (with his unique style and personality) explaining the text to the people.
In addition to the sermon, I find myself using words in team meetings, emails that I type, counseling sessions, and prayers that I pray with people. It is no understatement to say that the use of words is incredibly essential in the ministry. Because of this great importance, we must be cautious with how we use our words.
Jesus himself warned us about the use of words. Matthew records Jesus saying, “I tell you that on the day of judgment people will have to account for every careless word they speak. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Mat 12:36-37). As Louis Barbieri Jr, in the Bible Knowledge Commentary, states “People are responsible for all their actions and words, which will acquit or condemn them on the day of judgment” If the lost are responsible for their words in the day of judgement, how much more should pastors be mindful of the use of their use of words before their congregation.
Here’s my confession. I have continually failed with the use of words. The Bible character I identify most with is Peter, who always seemed to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. I have always been quick to give an opinion (without correctly thinking about it), and there have been many times that I merely should have just remained quiet.
Unfortunately, I have finished many sermons and immediately regretted how I phrased things. A sermon illustration came out wrong, the use of a particular word was just not appropriate for the setting, or I gave an opinion or chased a rabbit that had nothing to do with the text. What is even more troubling is the realization that I live in a digital age. My sermons are recorded and uploaded to the internet. The internet allows my sermons to reach others in my city, state, and world, but it also allows the world to hear my misuse of words!
Now consider the pastor and social media. A leader cannot ignore social media. Digital platforms allow the pastor to connect with church members, promote the church, and even evangelize. Admittedly, these social media platforms, are more commonly used to share photos of kids or grandkids, catch up with old friends, or to be used for news and information. But, and this is no secret, social media platforms allow us to give our opinions (often on controversial issues) and to enter into dialogue (sometimes online fights) with others who have shared their ideas. When posting anything on social media, the pastor must be cautious with the use of words.
The pastor would be wise to remember that one of the qualifications for his ministry is to “… have a good reputation among outsiders, so that he does not fall into disgrace and the devil’s trap.” (1 Timothy 3:7). The digital world magnifies the watching eyes of the outsider. Thomas Lea writes in his commentary on 1 Timothy 3:7, “Christians must realize that unbelievers scrutinize their actions with a searchlight of fault-finding investigation. Paul’s implied appeal is that church leaders give no opportunity for unbelievers genuinely to find fault.” The digital age has made the fault-finding investigation even easier.
Here are some practical proposals for the pastor in the digital age.
Consider every sermon illustration or joke that is used in the pulpit.
Preacher, do not forget your task! You are to preach the word. The inerrant and infallible word of God is what our people need. Exegete the text, illustrate the text, and apply the text, but do so correctly. You are not called to be a comedian (though jokes and humor have a place). Likewise, you are not called to comment on every social problem (but you must not be afraid to call a sin a sin and even make hard statements that may offend). Finally, you need to illustrate the text (Jesus was the master of illustrations) but remember that a diverse crowd is hearing your illustrations. Avoid using illustrations that reference R-rated movies, borderline on crude or inappropriate, or that distract from the text. Again, I confess that I am guilty of all of the above, but I am becoming more mindful of words that I am using in the pulpit, especially when my sermons are digitalized and archived.
When using social media remember that outsiders (and your congregation!) is watching.
Personally, I like social media (Facebook and Twitter included), but I must be mindful of what I post. As a pastor my congregation may like my post, comment on my post, or share my post. Regardless of what they do with my post, I do know they will read my post! I must be wise with what I post because of the broad audience of influence that a pastor carries. Pastors should recall James’s wise advice with anything they post, “5 So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things. Consider how a small fire sets ablaze a large forest. 6 And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among our members. It stains the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” (James 3:5-6) Social media has a fantastic ability to spread the fire (or to bring life) every time a post shared.
It’s okay not to comment on every post you read.
Pastors have opinions, and we are not afraid to give them, especially regarding our Southern Baptist heritage. I have been guilty of being involved in online spats about issues within our denomination. Someone has posted something about Baptist life that I did not agree with, I commented on it, and this led to an online debate which (as mentioned above) led to the onlooking eyes of the outsiders. After some hard lessons learned, I am discovering that I may not need to comment on every post in my newsfeed. What I can do is observe the thoughts of others, contemplate them, research them, and then enter into a healthy (face to face) dialogue with other brothers about the issue. I must resist the urge to comment on everything I see on Facebook.
Pastors are to preach the word. Likewise, they are lead with the word, counsel with the word, conduct themselves according to the word, and even be bold with the word. What pastors, especially including myself, must be cautious with is how we use “our very own” words. In a day and age of digital sermons, social media, and constant online debates we must be careful not to disqualify ourselves from the ministry. There are just too many lost people and too great of a commission to carelessly toss around our words.
Kenny Rager is pastor of Life Community Church in Owensboro, Ky.