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Don't Tweet that Sermon!

When a new technology explodes on the scene, there is always a period of time in which society negotiates the rules that will surround it. When the telephone first gained popularity it took time to learn what would be considered the polite way of answering it. Alexander Graham Bell suggested “Ahoy!” Others tried, “Who’s there?” Those would be considered rude or ridiculous today, but that is only because society successfully negotiated “Hello?” as the preferred greeting. In years to come we will negotiate the polite way of using a mobile phone (Is it rude or acceptable to use it on a crowded train?). What is considered rude today may become normal; what is considered normal may become rude. We won’t know until it happens.

Electronic devices are quickly becoming the new norm in church. Almost three years ago I said Don’t Bring Your iPod to Church, but today that rebuke seems almost quaint. Just a few years later it is not at all unusual to see all kinds of iPods and iPhones and iPads and iEverythingElse being used in place of a printed Bible. That’s not necessarily a good or a bad thing; it’s just reality. As times goes on, printed Bibles will likely fade into history.

But what about using that same device to do more than read the Bible? What about using it to take notes? And what about sending out Twitter or Facebook updates during the sermon? This is something we often experience at conferences or political events. While people sit and listen to the speaker, they grab ahold of memorable phrases, type them down, and send them out to the world via social media. Is it a good idea to tweet during a sermon?

Let’s get this out of the way: Tweeting during a sermon is not sinful, at least not in the abstract (though certainly your motives could make it sinful). The Bible does not forbid it. However, even though it falls within the realm of Christian freedom, this does not necessarily make it wise or helpful. In fact, I’ll just go ahead and lay my cards on the table and say that I am convinced that it is neither wise nor helpful, either to you or to the people around you. At least for now, I would suggest that you refrain. Here are five good reasons:

Tweeting suggests that the sermon is as much for the global church as the local church. By sharing the highlights of the sermon with others, you are changing the sermon’s focus from the local church community to the wider church community. You are taking what is primarily an inside matter and making it a global matter. If we believe that there is something especially and mysteriously powerful about preaching, we must also acknowledge that this power and mystery is primarily local, primarily meant to influence and impact the local church community. Tweeting snippets of the sermon confuses this.

Tweeting changes your focus from yourself to others. As you send out updates via social media, you are now thinking about how other people need this message more than how you need it. You are trying to apply it to them rather than yourself. This is one way in which tweeting is inherently different from writing notes in a notebook. You take notes primarily for your own benefit and as a way of helping your memory. You tweet for the sake of others. 

Tweeting reduces a sermon to it’s tweetability. Inherent in Twitter is the 140-character limit, which means that all you can tweet to others is snippets of 140 characters or less. The social media value of a sermon is thus reduced to the few phrases that fit within that limitation. Our minds begin to look for these phrases, as if they are the point of the sermon. If we dedicate ourselves to tweeting sermons, ministers may begin to craft sermons with Twitter in mind, allowing that medium to transform their message.

Tweeting is two-way. A notebook hasn’t ever responded to you, it hasn’t ever replied, it hasn’t ever interrupted you or distracted you. Twitter is two-way, so that when you open the program, you are barraged with other messages from other people. That is the whole point of it! We may attempt to keep ourselves from being distracted, but this is a fool’s errand; the medium is inherently distracting and inherently responsive. We may resist for a while, but in time we will end up reading as well as writing.

Tweeting distracts people around you. It is one thing to glance over and see that the person beside you has his phone in his hand and is using the ESV app. It’s another thing entirely to glance over and see that he is accessing Twitter or Facebook. A day may come when we believe the best about people who are using their iDevices in the church service, when we look over and think, “That guy is sending out a Twitter update and definitely not reading any replies!” For now, though, we assume, often for good cause, that our devices own us more than we own them.

There are five reasons not to tweet that sermon. I’d love to get your take on it, so go ahead and leave a comment if you’ve got something to add!