The Twittering Pastor

The Twittering Pastor
Keith Anderson


In the summer of 2011, a police officer was shot while responding to a robbery at a local jewelry store in Woburn, Massachusetts. Three suspects were on the loose, considered armed and dangerous.

Twitter immediately lit up about the incident and the ensuing manhunt, with tweets from news outlets, community leaders, and residents. Most tagged their posts with #woburn, the general hashtag we use for community information. The rest of the day, Woburn was trending on Twitter. I started retweeting posts.

One person tweeted, “Police searching the woods near my house in west #Woburn. I can see them out the window. This is very scary.” I was retweeting news and information as quickly as it came in.

Then I realized that my role as a minister in the community was to offer some measure of solace, support, and to point to God’s presence in a horrific and confusing situation.

So I began to tweet prayers: “We pray for the safety of #Woburn residents and the police.”

“We pray that this manhunt comes to a just and peaceful conclusion.”

“We pray for those who weep and watch and work this night. Lord have mercy.”

I know these prayers connected because they were retweeted in Woburn, by ordinary residents and leaders alike. Kathi Johnson, a tweeter from Texas, even appropriated one of the prayers for the central Texas fires: “We pray for those who weep and watch and work this night. Lord have mercy. #woburn #centraltxfires.”

“It struck me how tenuous both situations are, and the prayer seemed right for this, too,” she said later.

At an earlier community event, I joked about being a “Twitter chaplain,” but now it was no joke. I was pastor to those in Woburn and beyond who were trying to make sense of the violence and tragedy.

The Arts of Digital Ministry

Digital ministry isn’t just about the new spaces that technology opens. It’s about how we adapt the practice of ministry to these spaces. Our newness to these digital spaces sometimes obscures the fact that we rely on very basic and traditional modes of engaging that have served us well for generations. Four of the most important modes are seen in the “LACE” model of ministry.

Listening—taking time to get to know people in social networks based on what they share in profiles, posts, tweets, and so on, rather than making communicating your message the priority.

Attending—noticing and being present to the experiences and interests of others as they share themselves in digital spaces.

Connecting—reaching out to others in diverse communities in order to deepen and extend the your networks.

Engaging—building relationships by sharing content, collaborating, and connecting people to others.

Those participating in digital communities need distinctive ministry practices. This contrasts with what amounts to an online marketing effort aimed at getting a message to as many people as possible without regard to who they are as individuals.

This vocational distinction is about being present as servants of God’s people in digital spaces, much in the way that ministers in some traditions wear collars in local spaces so people see and understand their vocational calling. Pastors can do this by focusing on a few digital ministry arts—each of which incorporates listening, attending, connecting, and engaging in concrete ways.

The Digital Narthex

Where does hospitality begin? For many churches it happens just inside the front door. There, in the narthex or entryway, greeters welcome members and newcomers to worship. Visitor packets stuffed with information are stacked near the door. Guest books and visitor cards wait to be filled out. Ushers hand out worship materials and help people to their seats.

Social media can serve as a good leading indicator that there is something amiss with someone.

These are certainly good practices of welcoming. The problem, of course, is that only the people who show up for church experience this hospitality. What’s more, even those who come through our church doors can get the impression that they only matter to us once they fill out a visitor card. Our welcome is more of an introduction of us than an embrace of the visitor.

Today, social media enable congregations to extend hospitality and welcome beyond the church door into digital spaces. Actually, digital culture demands this. Rather than passively waiting for people to walk through our doors, ministry leaders and congregations must be active and visibly participate in social media communities—making ourselves available, greeting strangers, finding points of connection—creating a digital narthex. The relational emphasis of social networking presses us to connect in ways that move well beyond the visitor card and brochures about church programs.

Logging In

The paradox of social media is that people will share intimate and sometimes life-and-death matters in these spaces, even though sharing immediately becomes both public and permanent. New loves, breakups, engagements, marriages, divorces, birth and death announcements, health news, and personal locations, are all shared online.

Social media can serve as a “leading indicator” that something is amiss with someone. People share that they’ve had a hard day, that one of the kids is sick, that dinner was a disaster. They post their grief, news, and changes in jobs and relationships. Even updates about lousy weather or political frustrations give us insight into the lives of people. When we login, pay attention, and listen with heart and mind as people share their lives, we become aware of things we may not have otherwise discovered.

One of the common critiques of social networking is that people are just sharing mundane stuff. And, yet, this is all part of their holy calling. The Protestant Reformation shifted the seat of vocation from the spiritual elite to everyone—from the priesthood of some to the priesthood of all. It claimed the holy in the midst of all the stuff of everyday life.

Among the most meaningful things digital ministers can do is name their relationships, their parenting, their work, and their volunteering, with all the associated joys and struggles, as expressions of their faith—as the holy action of disciples.

“I think we can all agree that cheese is sacred,” a member of the Episcopal Foodie Network posted on Facebook, sharing with the quip the true holiness of our food preparation and meal sharing practices. Such posts insist on the sacred possibility of all creation—digital and physical—and they witness to a Christian understanding of ordinary holiness that nuances the extreme characterizations of Christians in most broadcast media.

One of the biggest critiques of social media is actually one of its greatest gifts: the brevity of digital engagement still offers enough space to celebrate small everyday blessings, to share mustard seeds of faith as we comment, “like,” tweet, and retweet, and with the people we connect with online.

Keith Anderson is pastor of Upper Dublin Lutheran Church near Philadelphia and previously pastored Lutheran Church of the Redeemer near Boston.

The above article, “The Twittering Pastor,” is written by Keith Anderson. The article was excerpted from July 2013.

The material is most likely copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.