Pastors Compete With Social Media for Their Churches' Trust and Attention

A beautiful pulpit on a big stage has no chance against a tailored feed in eager hands.

Jonathan Leeman is the editorial director of 9Marks, an organization that works to equip churches to be biblically faithful. In his work, as one would imagine, he interacts with many pastors. I have benefited from the work of 9Marks over the years, like thousands of pastors and church leaders, even if I don’t agree with all of their material. On Friday, Jonathan tweeted the following thread:

I don’t talk to as many pastors as Jonathan does, to be sure, but the handful of pastors I do engage have the same problem Jonathan identifies here; that is, that they feel they have a small amount of influence in the lives of their people compared to social media.

In his short thread, Jonathan identifies the problem and provides a few possible solutions. Of course expositional preaching and a culture of gospel-centered sanctification are important, but those two elements are important to address sin generally, no matter the variety.

To be frank, though, rich expositional preaching is not going to fix the negative effects posed by the outsized influence of social media on the lives of congregants than bland topical preaching. Why? Because the core problem is the one Jonathan addresses in point number two: time. And as much as I think expositional preaching and gospel culture are important, if the time engaged in those elements of church life remains significantly lower than time on social media, they aren’t going to fix the problem. Yes and amen to their importance, but I’m skeptical that a weekly community group and expositional sermon series on Ephesians is going to outweigh the effects of 30 hours a week scrolling Instagram and Facebook in the life of most congregants.

The Core Problems

Here is the question at hand: “Why do pastors struggle to compete with social media for the attention and trust of their congregants?”

I think there are really two core problems: time and ignorance.

1) People spend more time on social media than almost anything.

Churches have wrestled with competing against influential sources of media in the lives of their congregants since before the age of social media. Perhaps the most clear parallel example is the ways in which church leaders have struggled to compete with the influence of cable news media in the lives and minds of their congregants for the last 30 years or more. I have heard countless complaints over the years from pastors and church leaders who feel that Fox News or CNN have a greater hold on the minds of their congregants than they do. This problem and the social media influence problem are really just different manifestations of the same problem.

According to data published in 2020, people in North America spend roughly 2 hours and 6 minutes per day on social media. That comes out to an average of almost 15 hours a week, which is nearly a part time job. The most active churchgoing Christian is probably engaged in “church” activities 3-4 hours per week. I’m not sure it matters whether you’re preaching topically or expositionally in those 3-4 hours, to be honest, given how time on social media dwarfs time engaged in church activity. Spending an hour expositionally preaching Ephesians 2:1-10 versus spending an hour talking about what the Bible says about marriage isn’t going to make a huge difference when you congregants spend the rest of their Sunday afternoon scrolling Instagram and developing a lust for all that a seemingly beautiful influencer life promises.

Time matters. This is why I think Jonathan’s point about creating a “thick” congregational culture so that the Scripture can permeate our lives throughout the week is so important. Program-driven models of church have never proven to be weaker than they are right now. In order for churches to do real discipleship and cultivate a longing for God and his goodness in their congregants’ hearts, a local church must create a culture in which Scripture and the things of God infiltrate all aspects of a 24-hour day and a seven-day week.

If pastors and church leaders continue to rely on the time they spend physically standing in front of their people for influence and authority, they will soon learn that a beautiful pulpit on a big stage has no chance against a tailored feed in eager hands.

Beyond spending more time on social media than just about any other activity except working and sleeping, most congregants have another problem: their ignorance at the morphing power of social media.

2) People are unaware of how their time on social media is changing them.

This is the common refrain of this newsletter, isn’t it? We are all being changed by our relationship with social media in ways we don’t realize. Every time we open our preferred social media apps we are accepting an invisible terms of service as mindlessly as we did when we accepted the real ones upon sign up.

With every tap and swipe and scroll we are agreeing to have our hearts and minds and souls changed in ways we can’t quite see. This change happens in such small increments over such extended use that before we know it, and seemingly out of nowhere, our views on beauty, success, happiness, and perhaps the purpose of life itself have changed.

We come to see friends as competitors for attention. We see our children as props for content. We see potential mates as possible partners in the pursuit of an influencer lifestyle.

In regard to influence, we come to trust the influencers on our feeds more than we trust many people we see in our offline lives. How could we not? We spend so much more time with the influencers than we do others in our lives. This has, naturally, been exacerbated by COVID and the socialization restrictions it has required.

So perhaps the biggest problem pastors and church leaders have is not that their congregants spend so much time on social media, but that their congregants have no idea how that time on social media is changing them, often for the worse. If everyone saw their massive amount of time spent on social media as the poison it can so often be, this problem would be easy to address! But that’s just it: convincing people that extended social media use is often unhealthy is like convincing a child that it isn’t a good idea to eat cookies for every meal of the day. The cookies and the social media just make us feel so good that any attempt to convince us they might be bad will often fail. The problem must first been recognized for what it is before a solution will be heard.

No Easy Solution

So what’s the solution? There is no easy solution. I think perhaps some sermons (topical, but exegetical) or Sunday school lessons from church leaders on media, time, influence, and habits could go a long way toward helping congregants see that social media has deleterious effects, especially when engaged in such quantities as it is.

Beyond that, perhaps most important, is what Jonathan lays out in point two of his thread: churches need to create “thick” cultures in which congregants are being influenced by Scripture, brothers and sisters in Christ, and church leaders beyond the programmatic times throughout the week. It has perhaps never been more clear that the Christian faith is primarily lived in the mundanity of daily life, early in the morning through bleary-eyed quiet times, in the car through songs of praise, and beside our beds in quiet prayer.

The Christian’s fight for control of his or her mind is more like guerilla warfare than it is organized combat. We must figure out how to make holy and worshipful every nook and cranny of our day rather than confine our faith to calendared times of faithfulness.