This past Lent, in an effort to foster and maintain our spiritual and emotional health, we (Michael Palmer and Danny Quanstrom) each took a break from social media. Over the next week, we will process and share with you the ways in which we were impacted by this disconnection. We will process through the lenses of science and pastoral care, and we’ll ultimately wrestle with what it means to move forward in health. You can read part 1 from the series here and part 2 here.
We (Michael and Danny) spent many phone calls processing our social-media fast. Maybe naturally, our conversations almost always gravitated toward the psychological and pastoral implications of our social-media habits. During conversations about Christ’s time in the wilderness and our own social-media-wilderness experience, Henri Nouwen’s work In the Name of Jesus kept coming to mind. The short text, written in 1989, offers his rather prophetic reflections on Christian leadership in the twenty-first century in light of the three temptations of Jesus, as recorded in Matthew 4:1–11. Here we’ll look at how social media has morphed the way pastors experience these temptations.
Nouwen argues that Christ’s first temptation—to turn stones into bread—is not merely a temptation toward sustenance but is also a temptation toward relevance. Just think of all those hungry people in Galilee he could feed if he only turns stones into bread! And just imagine the transformations that could happen in people’s lives when they are miraculously fed with heavenly bread! (Because the Israelites responded so well to heavenly bread.)
Relevance in the age of Twitter is fleeting. Whether we’re arguing about the color of a dress, our hatred (or not) of male rompers, or this week’s—nay, hour’s—national political crisis, relevance slips so quickly through the cracks of our ever-scrolling fingers. Perhaps its fleeting nature is what makes relevance so tempting. Trends shift quickly, and we’re tempted by our egos to respond to everything. If I don’t respond to this particular issue, people won’t know how compassionate I am. If I don’t share this event on Facebook, how are people going to know they should come?
Social media highlights our temptation to believe our posted or tweeted thoughts on today’s burning issue will lead to transformed communities that reflect the image of Christ. Thanks to my Lenten fast this year, I’m no longer convinced they will.
In response to this temptation, Nouwen offers the solution of contemplative prayer: “Christian leaders cannot simply be persons who have well-informed opinions about the burning issues of our time. Their leadership must be rooted in the permanent, intimate relationship with the incarnate Word, Jesus, and they need to find there the source for their words, advice, and guidance.” He continues, “Dealing with burning issues without being rooted in a deep personal relationship with God [through contemplative prayer] easily leads to divisiveness because, before we know it, our sense of self is caught up in our opinion about a given subject.” Social media highlights our temptation to believe our posted or tweeted thoughts on today’s burning issue will lead to transformed communities that reflect the image of Christ. Thanks to my Lenten fast this year, I’m no longer convinced they will.
Contemplative prayer grounds us in the eternality of God and saves us from the crisis of the day. Social media has filled our timelines and our hearts with one emergency after another that we feel must be engaged, lest we be seen as lacking compassion or a sense of justice—as if justice and compassion are practiced virtually and not incarnationally. Contemplative prayer saves us from the false urgency of today’s crisis or this week’s news cycle.
Christ’s second temptation—to throw himself off the top of the temple—is, according to Nouwen, a temptation toward the spectacular. Just think of all the followers I could get if they witnessed this spectacle! In the age of celebrity pastors and vast social-media communities, “stardom and individual heroism,” Nouwen says, “which are such obvious aspects of our competitive society, are not at all alien to the church.”
Oh, how social media tempts us to be spectacular! Social media has permitted us to generate low-risk spectacles. Thanks to the veil of a little screen, we can say things we might never have considered saying to someone’s face, and we self-promote and generate much larger audiences than most of us could command in person. Listen to this week’s sermon! (By the way, “I had fun preaching this sermon” is pastor code for, “I felt like this was a spectacular sermon.”) Or, if we don’t make spectacles out of our own timelines, we feel the need to participate in the spectacles of others.
I can’t believe Nouwen wrote these words before the internet existed: “There is so much fear, so much distance, so much generalization, and so little real listening, speaking, and absolving that not much true sacramentality can be expected.” The sacramentality to which he refers are the corporate practices of confession and forgiveness. Without confession and forgiveness, Christian leaders “separate themselves from their own concrete community, try to deal with their needs by ignoring them or satisfying them in distant or anonymous places, and then experience an increasing split between their own most private inner world and the good news they announce.”
Social media tempts us to disengage from our present—spatially and temporally. Confession and forgiveness root us back in our communities. And, for pastors, confession and forgiveness root us back in our congregations. One of the most important things my social-media fast taught me is that I can’t be anywhere but where I am. Social media peddles the false notion that we can have lasting and actual influence or authority in places we’re not. This might be true for a blogger or an author, but it’s not true for a pastor. Pastors can’t pastor where they aren’t—which leads us to the final temptation of Jesus.
The final temptation of Jesus is the temptation to rule all the kingdoms of the world; the temptation of power and expediency. When the kingdom of God is fully realized, all nations will surround the throne and claim Christ as King (Revelation 7), so this is a temptation not just to grab hold of power but to do it by means that are less risky and less vulnerable than the Father’s plan for Jesus. If he bows to Satan right here and now, he can skip that whole crucifixion business. And if he is ruler of all, if he can simply grab hold of that power, he can command all peoples to worship him!
Love cannot be so easily administered virtually. Solidarity, sure. But love is harder to express without voice, let alone actual presence. Love is incarnate.
Social media tempts us to exercise power in the form of virtual influence and perceived authority. If you have a lot of followers or generate a lot of “likes,” you’re probably influential or have authority. But this influence and authority are so often void of actual intimacy, and, as Nouwen says, “the temptation of power is greatest when intimacy is a threat.” The power offered by social media can so easily become a “substitute for the hard task of love.” And love cannot be so easily administered virtually. Solidarity, sure. But love is harder to express without voice, let alone actual presence. Love is incarnate.
The solution to this most challenging of temptations is equally challenging: theological reflection. Nouwen clarifies, “Most Christian leaders today raise psychological or sociological questions even though they frame them in scriptural terms.” This, he argues, isn’t theological reflection. “Christian leaders have the arduous task of responding to personal struggle, family conflicts, national calamities, and international tensions with an articulate faith in God’s real presence. They have to say no to every form of fatalism, defeatism, accidentalism, or incidentalism that makes people believe that statistics are telling the truth.”
I would argue that we need particular reflection on the incarnation of Jesus. Salvation wasn’t brought remotely or virtually. It was brought in flesh. The pastoral charge is a fleshly charge. From the celebration of new life to the grieving sorrow of death, ours is an incarnational vocation. If Christ couldn’t atone apart from his body, we cannot pastor apart from ours.
This theological reflection on the incarnation that insists on bodily presence is revealed most clearly in the supper the Lord administered before his crucifixion. Something happens in the liturgy of the Table that can’t be replicated virtually. (And we don’t yet have Star Trek’s food replicators that can materialize food and drink before our eyes.) We, the community of Christ, can’t replace our gathering around the table by gathering behind a screen.
If we listen to Nouwen’s prophetic voice, our theological reflections will guide us toward real, fleshy community gathered around real, fleshy bread in the name of our real, fleshy Christ.
Continue reading part 4 here.
Michael R. Palmer is a husband, father, ordained elder, and writer who serves as pastor, along with his wife, Elizabeth, of Living Vine Church of the Nazarene in Napa, California. He is an avid Cardinals fan, lover of blues and jazz, conversation instigator, and deeply passionate about issues of justice and spiritual formation. You can follow him on Twitter at @ and Facebook at @mryanpalmer85.
Danny Quanstrom, husband of Kayla, is the lead pastor of Hastings Church of the Nazarene in Hastings, Michigan, and president and co-founder of A Plain Account, a free, online, Wesleyan Lectionary commentary resource (www.aplainaccount.org). Danny is an unashamed gamer, lover of eclectic music, and extremely passionate about the local church. You can follow him on Twitter at @