If there are problems in the pews these days, most pastors will learn about them the way they learn about almost everything else -- their smartphones will blow up.
It may be a text messages, a blitz of tweets or an online post that ignites a long comments thread with the faithful trading theological jabs or making pious, passive-aggressive remarks about church life. Other messages will be specific and personal, often leaving pastors confused about the urgency of these terse signals.
"People can create online personalities that are simply not real. … A lot of what they say in social media has little to do with who they really are and all the fleshy, real stuff that's in their lives," said the Rev. John Jay Alvaro, of First Baptist Church in Pasadena, Calif.
Thus, Alvaro and the church's other clergy are committed to this strategy: Always move "one step closer" to human contact. "What we want is coffee cups and face-to-face meetings across a table. … You have to get past all the texts and emails and Facebook," he said.
In fact, Alvaro is convinced that online life has become so toxic that it's time for pastors to detox. Thus, he recently wrote an essay for Baptist News Global with this blunt headline: "Pastors and other church leaders: Give up social media. Not for Lent, but forever." His thesis is that the "dumpster fire" of social-media life is making it harder for pastors to love real people.
To quote one of Alvaro's Duke Divinity School mentors -- theologian Stanley Hauerwas -- today's plugged-in pastor has become "a quivering mass of availability."
"Any benefit you perceive social media is giving you pales when compared to the real losses of cultivating your online social presence," wrote Alvaro. "Or take it from the other direction. If everyone in your congregation got off Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc., your ministry and your pastoral life would improve immediately. Well, not immediately. First there would be withdrawal, anger and other addictive reactions. Drugs don't leave your system peacefully."
After evaluating his own experiences in ministry, and talks with other pastors, Alvaro thinks that many people don't understand that social media programs are designed to amplify messages -- especially "negative emotional content" -- so that they spread as far as possible, as fast as possible.
This commercial system is "built to make you angry or sad, but with the promise that good news is one more scroll away. It is a slot machine of empty promises," he wrote. "When you try using social media to better understand your church people, you are mostly seeing a negatively distorted version of them. You want to know the deepest truth of their lives? That is not found on social media."
Meanwhile, the pace of digital life is making it harder for pastors to slow down and discern what is real. The temptation -- when a church member posts that "vaccines are evil," or something else provocative -- is to fire back.
"There you are, typing a brilliant response. If you don't post it, it will cost you some cognitive energy," noted Alvaro. "If you do post it, you have fed the beast. And the cycle repeats, because the only incentive that matters is you staying on this platform for as long as possible. That is its most basic design: to hold you captive. … That is called Babylon, and you are waist deep in it."
The bottom line: Pastors have "a finite degree of time and energy" they can dedicate to crucial issues in their congregations and communities, said Alvaro, reached by telephone. The question is how much of this time and energy they will "pour into words and arguments online."
There are valid ways for religious groups to use online forums, weblogs and other Internet tools to help people, he stressed. The question is whether pastors need to camp in the social-media world, where it's tempting to think that faith is best expressed through "virtue signaling" and intellectual arguments -- instead of real actions with real people.
"If I am deeply concerned about racial justice," said Alvaro, "I'm going to learn a lot more from fellowship with pastors in black churches in my community, instead of hours chatting with all my white progressive friends in social media."