We want pastors to lead from the pulpit, but what about from the keyboard? In today’s digital world, many influential religious leaders have taken their message to Twitter — for better or worse.
John Piper recently made headlines not for an inspiring new book or an empowering conference, but for his derogatory Burger King tweet. In his tweet, Piper announced his boycott of Burger King after they released a video in which a little girl says, “I love my two mommies!”
Good-bye, Burger King. http://t.co/jCFLPgJjN2 (If you wonder why, watch the last five seconds of the video, and weep.)
— John Piper (@JohnPiper) July 4, 2014
The tweet was a knee-jerk reaction to a two minute video meant to sell fast food. It did not advance a new biblical interpretation or idea that would contribute something of value.
Religion on Twitter isn’t all bad. Whatever your opinion of Joel Osteen or Pope Francis, the majority of their tweets point to an alternative way to use Twitter.
Life is going by. You don’t have time to waste another minute being negative, offended or bitter.
— Joel Osteen (@JoelOsteen) July 10, 2014
Peace is a gift of God, but requires our efforts. Let us be people of peace in prayer and deed. #weprayforpeace
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) June 6, 2014
Osteen and Pope Francis show that it is possible to convey a deep idea through a short statement. The nuggets of insight in tweets sometimes do challenge and invite productive discussion.
Yet troubles arise when leaders try to use Twitter to make a religious argument. Insights may be appropriate, but debates are not, because there are not enough words available on Twitter to make a meaningful case. On July 11, well-known atheist Richard Dawkins tweeted:
You are no more born with a religion than you are born circumcised. Should we start calling religion mental mutilation?
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) July 11, 2014
Dawkins’ tweet overlooks the numerous people who do contemplate how their beliefs translate into action. Again, it does not add anything productive to the religion debate, but divides and polarizes.
Another good example of the Twitter dilemma is a March tweet from Pastor Andy Thompson in North Carolina.:
Pastor Thompson later apologized for using the label “hoe” in his tweet and in the process, recognized a key downfall of social media: “You’ll have to forgive me. I understand it’s so easy for there to be misunderstanding.” Even though he expressed regret, he still overlooked a crucial implication of his tweet: that women are responsible for a man’s infidelity.
Is Twitter a suitable space to make a quick comment on hundreds of years of religious division, or carefully address issues of today? Even thoughtful tweets are easily taken out of context. Religious leaders in particular have an obligation to their followers to portray their faith in a positive light, but even if they manage to do that via tweets, others may still misunderstand their words in a way they never expected or anticipated due to the compact and hasty nature of Twitter. It’s tricky to convey complex thoughts well within the boundaries of one hundred and forty characters.
No one wants to ban religious thoughts from Twitter, but it would be valuable for religious leaders to reconsider whether Twitter is the most appropriate place to continue a theological debate.