Is this a news story? A new challenge for pastors: Smartphones that just won't leave them alone

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If you know anything about the lives of pastors and priests, you know that — when it comes time to help hurting people — they really want to be able to pull aside, slow things down, look into someone’s face and talk things over.

Life does not always allow this, I know.

But my father was a pastor and, at the end of his ministry life, a hospital chaplain who spent most of his time with the parents of children who were fighting cancer.

On the few times I was with him during those hospital shifts, I saw him — over and over — sit in silence with someone, just being there, waiting until they were ready to talk. He was there to help, but mainly he was there to talk, to pray and to wait — for good news or bad news.

It would be hard to imagine a form of human communication that is more different than today’s world of social media apps on smartphones.

That’s why an article that I ran into the other day — via the progressive Baptist News Global website — stopped me dead in my tracks. The headline: “Pastors and other church leaders: Give up social media. Not for Lent, but forever.” I posted the article as a think piece here at GetReligion and then decided that I really need to talk to the author, the Rev. John Jay Alvaro, the lead pastor at the First Baptist Church of Pasadena, Calif.

That led to an “On Religion” column this week for the Universal syndicate and, now, to a “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in).

Why did this topic intrigue me so much?

Well, first of all, it would be hard to name a more powerful trend in human communication today than social media and our omnipresent smartphones. That’s news. And Alvaro is convinced that these social-media programs are seriously warping the work of pastors. That’s a claim that would affect thousands of pastors and millions of people. So, yes, I think this topic is a news subject in and of itself.

Here is a large chunk of my column:

His thesis is that the "dumpster fire" of social-media life is making it harder for pastors to love real people.

To quote one of Alvaro's Duke Divinity School mentors -- theologian Stanley Hauerwas -- today's plugged-in pastor has become "a quivering mass of availability." …

After evaluating his own experiences in ministry, and talks with other pastors, Alvaro thinks that many people don't understand that social media programs are designed to amplify messages -- especially "negative emotional content" -- so that they spread as far as possible, as fast as possible.

This commercial system is "built to make you angry or sad, but with the promise that good news is one more scroll away. It is a slot machine of empty promises," he wrote. "When you try using social media to better understand your church people, you are mostly seeing a negatively distorted version of them. You want to know the deepest truth of their lives? That is not found on social media."

If you want a soundbite more biblical than “dumpster fire” or “slot machine of empty promises,” then hang on.

When you look at this from a tech point of view, most Americans simply don’t give much thought to the fact that social-media apps are commercial products designed to tempt people to use them hour after hour. They reward hot takes and emotions — especially anger.

Is this the lens that pastors want to use to learn about their people? Thus, Alvaro warns, about a social-media platform:

“That is its most basic design: to hold you captive. … That is called Babylon, and you are waist deep in it."

Now, I want to stress that Alvaro is not anti-tech (his website is here). There are valid ways for ministers to interact with their flocks using the Internet (blogs and bulletin boards leap to mind). It is also essential that congregations find out who — laypeople or associate clergy — has the skills to work in social media and thrive. Pastors may need to have a committee of media advisors that watch what is happening and look for explosions and trends.

The question is whether pastors — themselves — can afford to spend hours and hours in the main social-media apps and turn that into a lens through which they view their people.

I hope this discussion spreads. It’s a timely topic, to say the least.

Enjoy the podcast. And share it with your minister, if you have one.

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