Now That You’re Online a Lot More: 5 Traps for Local Pastors In the Age of Social Media

So now that you’re online more than ever before, what’s happening? What’s at stake?

The fact that eventually all churches will be open in person again (the majority are now as I’m writing this) doesn’t change the fact that your internet presence has changed forever.  You can’t go back to the way things were, and the internet appears to be here to stay.

So what does it mean for you to be a leader of a local church in the age of social media?

The Disturbing News

The critics of online ministry are right to point out it’s not a panacea.

Social media and your life online are changing you and me in more profound ways than any of us imagine.

Like a growing number of people, I’m increasingly concerned with how addictive tech has become, and am leaning in on the arguments that some like Roger McNamee (who has a fascinating conversation with Sam Harris here) and Tristan Harris make that social is addicting us to outrage and challenging the underpinnings of what we’ve known as civilization. If you’re interested, for a good introduction on how tech is manipulating how you think, check out this article from The Guardian.

Here’s an excerpt that caught my attention:

“Harris, who has been branded “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience”, insists that billions of people have little choice over whether they use these now ubiquitous technologies, and are largely unaware of the invisible ways in which a small number of people in Silicon Valley are shaping their lives.”

In short, billions of minds have been hijacked by the social platforms we’re choosing to use. Not sure? Check your social feed for  everyone’s ‘expert’ opinion on everything from coronavirus, to schooling, to theology, to politics, to which vegetables you should eat.

The problem with technology is that while we’re its parent, we’re also its child. We don’t fully understand what we created.

And those who work closest with it often flee from it.

And yet, the internet and social are here to stay. And it’s the greatest tool we have to reach people.

Everyone you want to reach is online, and leaders who ignore online ministry ignore the future and everyone they’re hoping to reach.

Welcome to ministry today.

You Have Two Audiences

While all that is happening, I’m also increasingly sensitive to the fact that social media is also changing how leaders lead.

Especially at the local level.

Almost every leader has two audiences now: the audience we know (live local and in-person) and the audience we don’t (via social).

This is true for every local church pastor and for every leader who runs anything from a local coffee shop, marketing firm, Etsy shop, right on through to 7, 8 and 9 figure companies.

It’s a strange new world, that brings with it terrific opportunities and real temptations.

The key is to know how to navigate it.

1. You’ll Be Tempted To Ignore Your People In Search Of A Bigger Audience

There are two kinds of people in leadership: the people you’ve reached, and the people you hope to reach.

Like most leaders, I have a bias toward growth and expansion, and that means it’s really easy for me to focus on the people I hope to reach instead of the people we have reached. To be fair, that is a somewhat appropriate bias for a church leader, because the church is one of the few organizations that exists for the benefit of its non-members.

It’s also fraught with problems.

People can tell if they’re a means to an end. And people can sense if you’re using them to get to something other than them. And I promise you, that wears thin fast.

Scroll through your social feed.

It’s pretty easy to spot leaders who are trying to get noticed by a bigger audience at the expense of the audience they currently serve. And listen, that’s something I check in my spirit all the time.

Here’s the truth: most leaders motivated by wanting to reach a wider audience rarely reach a wider audience.

You want to know what gets you noticed?

Leaders get noticed when they do the hard work in front of them. When they love to serve the people they have so well that others line up to get in. When they love and care for what they have more than they focus on they don’t have, things tend to grow.

And it’s hard to love people you ignore. So church, be sure you aren’t ignoring the online audience you already have.

2. You’ll Spend More Time With People You Don’t Know Than With People You Do

It’s great to learn from leaders you’ve never met. I do it every day.

I listen to podcasts, read books, check out blogs, watch videos and connect on social with leaders I don’t know.

It’s never been easier to spend most of your life in the online world.

But wise leaders spend more time with people they know in real life than with people they don’t know online.

When was the last time you took out a local person for breakfast, just to listen, take notes and learn?

When was the last time you asked a stay-at-home mom what her biggest challenges were, or spent some time with a drywaller who’s battling cancer?

Or met with the guy running a local real estate office rather than listening to yet another podcast out of Silicon Valley or Austin?

Social media can move you into a world where you feel like you’re constantly connected, except you’re not. Not to anyone you know. Not face to face. Not real-life to real-life.

3. You’ll Try To Impress People You’ll Never Meet

If you’re on social hoping to get noticed, to pick up followers, hoping to ‘get picked’ as Seth Godin writes about, you’re signing up for a lot of frustration.

For starters, you’ll likely fall prey to imitation.  You’ll spend so much time trying to be someone else that you’ll fail to develop who you are.

You’ll kill the voice and gifting God gave you and you’ll stifle your real creativity.

Imitation is also the fastest way to kill innovation. If you spend your time trying imitate, you won’t innovate. Which again, should be a by-product of engaging the people you have.

Stop trying to impress people you don’t know. Start serving people you do know.

4. You’ll Focus More On Image And Less On Substance

One of the crazy things social has done to us all is made us think way too much about image.

Filters and apps abound that will make you look thinner, erase wrinkles, shrink your nose or slightly expand your eyes. It’s so sad, actually.

If that’s what you want your life to be about, more power to you.

The reality is we all get older. Most of us carry a few extra pounds. And every year, I get more wrinkled.

That’s honestly not what matters most.

My rule of thumb is to dress well enough not to be distracting one way or the other: not badly enough that people want to take me shopping, and not well enough that people spend time wondering how much something cost or where I got it from.

Well-known leaders like Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs made decisions to wear the same thing every day (grey T-shirt and jeans, black mock turtle neck and jeans, respectively). Albert Einstein bought several versions of the same tweed suit and wore that look every day.

Einstein reportedly said his decision to dress the same every day was so he didn’t need to think about what he was going to wear.

You know why these leaders got noticed? Nothing to do with their image. Everything to do substance.

Leaders who are focused on image tend to produce little of substance. Leaders who focus on substance find image and style really don’t matter.

5. Your Sense Of Success Will Rise And Fall With Likes And Shares

Most of us want to be liked. I do. I’m imagining you do too.

But too often we let our sense of self-worth be determined by others, and that’s a mistake.

If you’re not careful, your sense of success will rise and fall with like and shares.

And it will cause you once again to pursue the affections of people you don’t know instead of serving the people you do.

Here’s a rule I’ve had to adopt in my own life: I want the people closest to me to the people most grateful for me.

What does it matter if some follower 1000 miles away thinks you’re awesome if your spouse or staff thinks you’re awful?

Exchanging the love of people you know for a bunch of social likes from people you don’t know is a sure path to longterm misery and probable failure on all fronts.

The people closest to you should be the people most grateful for you.