By John Sundara
Contemporary evangelicalism has always been adept at using technology to advance its missionary outreach. The latest iteration of this aptitude has been the way evangelicals turned on a dime to harness technology to continue providing worship services, Bible studies, small groups, prayer meetings, and so on during this season of sheltering in place and social distancing. But this is nothing new for evangelicals.
From the dawn of the digital age, evangelicals have been at the forefront of using digital media to preach the gospel. So many tools we take for granted, such as evangelistic videos and curated sermon clips, were pioneered by evangelicals, and now are almost ubiquitous in diverse traditions. Nadia Bolz-Weber, Bishop Robert Barron, and everyone in between, owe some gratitude to evangelicals. These days, it is a given that even a small rural community church will have a basic website with at least their service information on it, if not a few photos or sermons online.
These missiological practices suited contemporary evangelicalism’s mission just fine. But what was that mission? For the most part, the mission was inherent in the name, to evangelize. And to evangelize meant disseminating kerygmatic information for the purposes of conversion. Successful dissemination was measured through the number of “converts.” This did not necessarily mean how many people sought baptism, but rather how many people visited a given church building on a Sunday. Churches became tourist destinations, preachers became rock stars, worship spaces became concert venues, congregations became statistics. Over time, more criteria were added that emphasized membership, community involvement, leadership development, attendance at non-Sunday worship services and other events, or financial contributions.
In such settings, pastors were not just expected to preach and teach, but to preach and teach exceptionally at all times. They were expected to have that exhortative moment that could be extracted from the entire service, punched up with graphics, and widely disseminated the way popular music videos ran their course.
What ensued was the rise of the celebrity pastor. The celebrity pastor was expected to maintain their following — and gain more followers — through a heavily curated public persona. Their presence could not be limited only to Sunday morning; they had to be everywhere. As the market churned out more screens and social media apps, the celebrity pastor was expected to be present in all of them. As the market produced more trends and fashions, the celebrity pastor was expected to not just be familiar with but to partake of and master them. Many churches, probably unconsciously, preferred personalities who had the potential to become celebrities, with pastoral qualification as a nice bonus. These desires were masked by words like “authentic” or “relevant.”
The market dictated that personalities that thrived on liking to be liked gained larger platforms than those who did not. Thankfully, many had the theological substance to back up their celebrity status.
Now, it is commonplace to find pastors with multiple staff to run multiple social media profiles, like celebrities with an advertising team. Their opinions are no longer just expected to be religious. Sometimes their opinions are expected to be trendsetting, about everyday topics like sports drafts, craft coffee, music, especially if any of these things is remotely connected to the faith of a Christian musician or athlete or entrepreneur or film. And they are expected to be positive. To be liked.
The problem with marketing strategies, though, is that anyone can replicate them. Celebrity pastors and their teams use marketing strategies the same way businesses use ads to get people to buy the product. But what happens when instead of celebrity pastors, Christian celebrities use the same strategies? What happens when Justin Bieber or Chris Pratt or Kendall Jenner use #pray or #Jesus or #happyeaster on social media? Now you find celebrity pastors and professional entertainers communicating on the same platform with apparently the same depth of faith. Or at least that’s the perception.
But let’s take this one step further: imagine a generation that grew up seeing these social media posts, from celebrity pastors and Christian celebrities, side-by-side. While this generation’s religious upbringing would have much in common with the previous generation’s — church attendance, Sunday School and vacation bible school — there would be at least one crucial difference. These are true digital natives. They have never known a time that the faith was not mediated through a social media app on a smartphone.
Evangelism has taken the form of marketing and advertisements. The ads have become elaborately produced. But now there is no other product behind the ad. The ads are not promoting the works of pastors, authors, theologians, musicians, preachers. They aren’t promoting a church or a book or a conference or a sermon series. The only product is the post and the person generating the post. And a sentimental, emotional, vaguely spiritual pick-me-up disguised as evangelism and discipleship.
In such circumstances, how do you gauge evangelistic success? How do you gauge “converts”? Answer: the number of social media interactions — likes, reactions, retweets, comments, views, shares. And now there’s an immediate psychological feedback loop. As a consumer, with the tap of my fingertip, I’ve interacted with a spiritual social media post. This creates an addictive feedback mechanism: I as consumer receive a feel-good moment by interacting with the uplifting post, and my “like” provides the producer with his or her own feel-good rush. We enter into a codependent dance of “liking” each other and needing the other, under the guise of evangelism and discipleship.
But if this is the faith, if this is discipleship, does one still need the celebrity pastor? Does one need Christian books and sermon series and Christian conferences? Does one need the theologian, the artist, the musician? And thus, we see the decline of the celebrity pastor, and the rise of the Christian social media influencer. The social media influencer is just as successful as the pastor, and only has to work half as much. There is no congregation to shepherd, no team to manage, no sermon to prep. In fact, they can post about any number of things that has nothing to do with the faith because they are fluent in all manner of social media languages with the stroke of a finger. But they gain just as much a following because they use the same hashtags. And without even knowing it, we see a slow erosion within contemporary evangelicalism of ecclesial commitments, sacramental participation, excitement about the Bible, articulation of the gospel, prayer retreats, ministry to the poor and the unevangelized. The faith stops short of running through our muscles and our limbs, and resides primarily as brief emotional moments.
And in fact, the theological superficiality of this approach is only further unmasked during this pandemic. Families are stressed; virtual engagement fatigue is real; people are being laid off; anxiety about disease spread and restrictions and the ever-changing landscape of information has even coined a new term: coronacoaster. The last thing Christians need right now is to be constantly bombarded by saccharine images of verses in fun fonts. Or worse, to engage in a one-sided spiritual relationship through more screens.
If this sounds dire, contemporary evangelicalism does have a solution. It’s for celebrity pastors to do the work of ministry beyond the Sunday morning stage. It’s to put leadership and team management to the back burner, even if it is for a just a season, and instead to begin getting to know their congregations in a way that their congregations imagine they know their pastor. To pastor is to shepherd. To shepherd is not primarily to preach and teach, but to care for sheep. To even call or text or email their sheep instead of waiting for the sheep to initiate contact with the shepherd, to see how each sheep in their flock is doing. Did they lose their jobs in this pandemic? Were they furloughed? Has parenting been stressful? Did anyone get sick? How can they pray for them? Celebrity social media influencers don’t have a flock or a congregation, per se, just the illusion of one. But celebrity pastors do.
A church I know, because of the lack of ministry happening at the church, rallied its staff team, pastoral and support, to make calls to the 5000+ names and households on its rolls. They started first with those who were most vulnerable in this pandemic —seniors, and those living in long term facilities or in hospice care. Each call probably took around 5 minutes. But people didn’t feel abandoned. They felt cared for. Once this was done, the church now knew who was in dire need, and set up a system to keep in touch with those vulnerable folks. But it also opened the lines for communication and connection amongst those who were vulnerable but not in urgent need to reach back to the church in case things should change. So, for example, if those who were in hospice care took a turn for the worse, they and their families knew to call the church right away for prayers and presence, and this many did.
Then the church decided to slowly work down its list — to call young families, empty nesters, young adults and couples. It did not matter if these folks had been coming to the church sporadically or frequently, if they had only visited once in the past five years or were regular tithers and leaders, everyone got a call. Staff called, sometimes texted, sometimes bouncing their own children on their knees, while putting together sandwiches and managing Zoom calls. Sometimes, the callers received voicemail, sometimes a brief conversation, but the pastoral connection that folks experienced, especially during these times, was decidedly Christian. It reflected the work of the Church, of Christ, reaching down to minister through his hands and feet, his voice and ears. If this does not reflect the mystery of the Incarnation, I don’t know what does.
We do not know to what extent or how permanently this pandemic will change the Church, although this agnosticism has not stopped many gurus from prophesying bigger and better digital ministry. But we do know this: the future of pastoral leadership, evangelical or not, cannot be primarily unidirectional and virtual because that empties Christ’s Incarnation of its power. It cannot be primarily stage driven and celebrity driven. If this were so, we would have little to no stories of Jesus touching the vulnerable. And perhaps this kind of decline of the celebrity pastor is a good thing. Because it ought to lead to the rise of the pastoring pastor. If anything, the virtual experience ought to supplement what we were always supposed to do — to be present, even if over the phone and socially distanced, with those in need. Indeed, evangelicals know this because some of the most widely circulated articles on prominent evangelical websites are of Christians ministering to the sick throughout various pandemics and plagues in the history of the Church. But those stories can’t remain as feel-good artifacts of the past. And so, if evangelical churches and pastors would risk the same, it would go down in history as the time that contemporary evangelicalism got back to its roots of evangelism: not the bland evangelism of only proclaiming Christ, but the dynamic evangelism of proclaiming and being Christ in and for the World.
The Rev. John D. Sundara is a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.