I believe there are unique dangers in the social media age we live in; dangers that young men and women keen on full-time Christian ministry face in particular.
Before I head into the warnings, just a bit of background, so you know this isn’t just a baseless rant from a middle-aged pastor who’s out of touch.
In my role as a pastor and church planter, and a leader in the RICE youth movement, I am constantly in touch with young adults. Some of these are young men I am personally mentoring and walking with towards full-time ministry.
One more thing: I myself headed towards full-time ministry as a young man (I was 23 when I started Moore College; 21 when I started MTS). And while what I have to write below in terms of warnings for young men are equally applicable to the 20-year old me (from the late 90s), I believe there are unique challenges and temptations in the ever-changing world that our young men and women find themselves today.
Almost all of them have to do with the social media phenomenon of Facebook, Twitter, WordPress and so on.
1. Greater opportunity to indulge in narcissism
Yes it’s an over-used word nowadays – ‘narcissism’, but I can’t think of another word for now. We are all, in our sinful natures, narcissists to a certain extent. However, with social media, it’s much easier to feed that aspect of our old selves.
While your friends post up endless selfies, the keen young person wanting to head into ministry is tempted to self-obsess in other ways.
You have a blog? How important is it to you to track how many people read it? You have a social media profile? How important is it that you present the perfect image, have that perfect DP – you know, the one that balances your fun-loving casual youthful self with your desire to be taken seriously as that up-and-coming theologian or pastor?
When the Apostle Paul tells Timothy to ‘flee the evil desires of youth’ (2 Tim. 2:22), I wonder if what fleeing our narcissistic selves might actually look like in this day and age?
2. Over-inflated sense of influence and importance
People reading and liking your posts, subscribing to and sharing your blog posts can create an illusion that you are more influential than you actually are. Before this brave new world of social media, if a young person wanted to influence others, the most he or she could hope for is an itinerant speaking gig somewhere. Not now. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, could be liking and sharing your posts, giving you the illusion that you have a group of others (mostly peers or teenagers) who are hanging on your every word.
It’s easy in this situation to get a big head. Your writing started off being less assertive because you’re not as sure about yourself and what you’re writing. But as you pick up more followers, likes, and shares, you soon gain more confidence, make more certain pronouncements about life, the Bible, and ministry. You start getting into endless arguments on your page or others’ defending your point of view. And why? Because deep down you’re beginning to think you’re more important and influential than you are.
3. The Shallowness of “wiki-theology”
Now more than ever, keen young leaders have open access to theology and sermons online. That’s mostly a wonderful thing. But we must remember that wiki-theology tends to be shallow; like getting your news from your Twitter-feed.
It grieves me that some young men wanting to head into full-time ministry talk about formal theological study as some sort of outdated hindrance to actually getting your hands dirty in ministry. I wonder if a lot of that is due to the prevalence of “wiki-theology”.
Don’t be fooled in thinking that reading lots and lots of stuff online is a substitute for serious theological study. That’s why I’m encouraged by Joshua Harris’ recent decision to do just that – to take some time off and study theology formally.
4. Devaluing the local church
The world-wide-web-“church” (if we can even call it that) seems far more exciting than the local church. Your ideas of church growth, church planting, church ministry, theological discussion and education comes more and more from ‘out there’ than from your local church (or local denomination or training college). It’s easy to develop an insatiable appetite for that which is ‘bigger’ and ‘better’ somewhere else in the world. And so you begin to slowly (and sometimes unconsciously) devalue the small, struggling, one-pastor congregation you’re part of. You begin to see churches and pastors simply as those who will aid you or hinder you in your personal growth as a young man or woman heading into full-time ministry.
5. Devaluing personal mentors
Related to the above, it’s easy to think that podcasting Tim Keller, reading R.C. Sproul, and following David Platt is enough to guide you into becoming the Christian leader you want to be. And so you devalue the vital mentoring and training that can only happen when a local older man or woman in full-time ministry walks with you over the course of years, in the context of a local church.
The last thing I want to do in this post is to discourage young men and women from heading into full-time ministry. I love that one of my roles is to walk with some of the best and most gifted young men I’ve ever met in this crucial stage of their lives.
Neither am I without guilt when it comes to some of the very things I’ve identified. I’m tempted – even as I blog – to indulge in narcissism, and develop an over-inflated sense of my importance and influence.
I write this because I believe it is a different world for keen young leaders than the one I grew up in. You’re immersed in this online social media-saturated world in a way I wasn’t. And so it’s more likely that you’re less aware of its dangers and deceptions. Call me old and old fashioned, but I’m hoping that a word of caution from someone in your world but a standing a little outside of it, will be helpful for you.
Signing off so I can go meet with the saints at my local church.