The 21st century has brought a host of new realities for ministry that have never and could never have been a part of regular pastoral life in the past. At the forefront of these new realities are the opportunities and also the challenges of life in the digital age. The advent of mobile phones, along with email, texting and social media, have multiplied the communication options. Whether they have increased or even improved communication is a matter of debate. They have certainly redefined “accessibility” in pastoral life and shifted expectations on both the time when pastors are available for communication and the time within which they are expected to respond to communications. Long gone are the days of receiving numerous letters in the mail and going through the measured process of reading the letter, finding desk time to respond, or crafting with pen and paper the thoughtful reply that might guide the inquisitor into a pathway of truth. Expected response times are reduced to a few hours, if not a few minutes.
Among several negative outcomes in this is simply the lack of time to respond carefully and thoughtfully to so much of this communication. Quick and often terse questions are often met with quick and terse responses. Communication is exploding all around us. And yet, we should pause to consider the warning of Proverbs 10:19: “When words are many, transgression is not lacking.” For those who are Shepherds over God’s flock, this warning is all the more vital because we will be judged with greater strictness over the way we use our words (James 3:1). Communication, in other words, is vital to what we do, and to misuse our communication (our “tongue” in James’ warning) is to fundamentally forfeit our credibility as a spokesman for God’s Word. After a chapter full of warnings regarding our speech, James ends his chapter by reminding us that “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” These are the qualities that ought to validate our role as spokesmen for God.
And as we look at numerous accounts and admonitions in the New Testament regarding pastoral ministry and pastoral communication, one of the ringing characteristics is that it ought to be marked by gentleness, sincerity and a peaceable tone. Paul reminded the Thessalonian church that his speech had been “bold” (1 Thess 2:2), but at the same time it had been marked by the “gentleness” of “a nursing mother taking care of her own children.” Paul entreated the Corinthian church with “the meekness and gentleness of Christ,” even being criticized for being too weak or humble when he was with them in person (2 Cor 10:1, 10). He reminded the Galatians that those who are spiritual work to restore the wayward “in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal 6:1) Titus was to remind his congregants to “speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:2). And Paul urged Timothy to set an example in speech and in gentleness (1 Timothy 4:12; 6:11) . Even in tense relationships, Paul reminded Timothy of the need to correct those in opposition with “gentleness” so that God may perhaps grant them repentance (2 Tim 2:25). All this talk about gentleness is simply the application of the key principle of communication that reminds us that “a gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov 15:1).
These principles are clear in Scripture, and perhaps most pastors acknowledge them. Where many fail, however, is in contemplating the implications of these truths when it comes to digital communication. The reality is that digital communication is increasingly the way we interact with people, and yet digital communication poses significant barriers for demonstrating the kind of characteristics that ought to mark our words and pastors and shepherds. Attitude is not easily communicated digitally. Rather, we might say that attitude is more easily misinterpreted through digital communication than through natural communication. Some of the key components in our communication are taken off the table when we choose to communicate digitally. When that occurs, the oil of these godly attributes of communication no longer lubricating the friction of individual differences among believers. The result is tension, frayed relationships and too often a loss of unity within the body or among leadership times. People take a defensive posture because they have improperly (or even properly) perceived a tone in your digital communication.
Someone might respond that this is “just the way it is” in the modern world, and that in any other organization people have to adapt to this kind of dynamic in communication. People in secular organizations have grown accustom to the rapid fire digital communication and simply learn to deal with the matter of fact nature of terse lines of text. But this simply is not true. Several secular studies have are documenting the damaging effects of these trends in the marketplace. A recent study at Vanderbilt University entitled “E-Mail Escalation: Dispute Exacerbating Elements of Electronic Communication” details why is the relative rate of conflict escalation likely to be higher through digital communication rather than other modes of communication. The author indicates some of the obvious reasons for this, including the fact each party in the communication misses out on hearing “the timing of speech and intonation” which allows them to progress to a shared understanding and a shared sense of participation in the conversation. Other studies have noted similar observations. The conclusion is that digital communication may work well for basic logistical information, but in areas of anticipated dispute or disagreement live communication, preferably face-to-face, is almost always better.
We would like to imagine that everyone views us as generously as we view ourselves and that all those we interact with our mature enough to always “believe the best” about us, even in our digital communication. But the wisdom of Scripture would urge us to think better and more soundly. We are all still battling the flesh and the enemy is always looking for ways to divide brothers. We do not want to be outwitted by his devices (2 Cor 2:11). Biblical wisdom would demand that we consider the “way” we communicate as much as we consider “what” we communicate. This may mean that we rethink our participation in so many of those dialogues and disputes that take place in cyberspace (Facebook, blogs, email or text conversations), but it will most likely mean that we guard our credibility so that when we do speak we are recognized as those whose wisdom is “from above.”
Dr. Shane Koehler is one of our eleven TES campus pastors, having served as Teaching Pastor at Faith Community Church in Woodstock, GA since 2003.