How Christian Leaders Interact with Twitter

By Zachary Horner
Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications
2014, Vol. 5 No. 2 | pg. 2/3 |

Findings and Analysis

Jefferson Bethke is one of current Christendom’s most popular young faces. His popular spoken word YouTube video, “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus,” has over 26 million views since it was released in January 20125, and the following book, Jesus > Religion: Why He Is So Much Better Than Trying Harder, Doing More, and Being Good Enough, is listed as a New York Times Bestseller6. He also has an extremely popular Twitter account, with over 134,000 followers.

Being a younger guy - he’s in his 20s - Bethke admittedly has a pulse on the current generation, a generation that has flocked to one thing in droves: social media, particularly Twitter. “It’s just how we communicate,” he said in an interview, “so similar to how older generations used the phone. Just a tool.”7 For a fair number of Christian leaders, Twitter being a popular communication tool seems to be one of the main reasons they utilize it. Speaking from a secular perspective, Twitter executive Claire Diaz-Ortiz said, “(Religion is) about relationships and social media is about relationships. A lot of companies don’t understand that. They think it’s a new way to market themselves. In contrast, religious organizations have been relying on word-ofmouth marketing and relational marketing forever, so they take to social media well.”8

Writing on a blog post on The Gospel Coalition, Trevin Wax, an author and former associate pastor, said, “Missionaries learn the language of the people around them so they can communicate the gospel and connect with the people theyare trying to reach. In the same way, pastors should engage social media as part of their overall communication and connection strategy.”9 According to Buzzplant, a Christian-based advertising agency, “45 percent of church staff use Facebook every day . . . (and) 56 percent allowed or encouraged staff members to update their personal social media pages while at work.” But perhaps the most revealing number is that 46 percent of churches claim social media as “their most effective outreach method.”10

Gospel outreach seems to be one of the main uses of Twitter for a lot of Christian leaders. “It’s how people communicate, share, learn, etc, so I enjoy it personally for that and also think it’s a great tool to communicate things about Jesus,” Bethke said. “It’s how people communicate and you want to be in the world and place where people communicate. It’s a digital coffee shop.”11 In a post on the Christianity Today website, Clark Campbell, a member of Social Ecclesia, an organization committed to helping churches adjust to the social age, wrote, “(Social media) is a tool for interaction and connection, not merely a megaphone to announce the next church program and party.

Social media opens doors and opportunities to engage with people who rarely, if ever, step foot in a church building.”12 Making a comparison to the parable of the sower found in the New Testament passage Mark 4:1-9, Ray Ortlund said, “The media we now have offer us a tremendous advantage for getting the gospel out. I think of the parable of the sower in Mark 4. He was not dropping one seed at a time along a little row, the way we do in a modern garden. He was throwing handfuls of gospel seed out there. Lots of waste. But also growth. And only God knows how it will turn out.”13

Ed Stezer, a blogger on ChristianityToday.com and president of LifeWay Research, went as far to say that pastors who weren’t on social media should “repent. You should get on Twitter and Facebook right away. If you don’t, you’re missing a great opportunity. These micro blogging platforms give you the ability to have short conversations to communicate helpful things to your people and beyond.”14 The consensus for most seems to be an emphasis on meeting the culture where they’re at.

Gary Hendrix, the lead pastor at Grace Reformed Baptist Church in Mebane, N.C., has just 179 followers, much less than the leaders studied for this research, but he has a unique perspective on using Twitter. His tweets usually revolve around three things: Jesus, Wake Forest University sports and music. He says that he doesn’t have an overriding Twitter philosophy, but he does see a use for Twitter as a ministry tool. “We need to say more not less sometimes if we’re really going to speak into the culture. There’s a lot we need to say. You can’t say very much on Twitter,” he said. “But that being said, C.S. Lewis, most of his most memorable statements were very brief, cogent. It’s a good opportunity to sharpen that skill, and for that reason I think it could be a good tool of ministry.”15

The following table is an analysis of tweets from the week of March 17-23, except for Mark Driscoll16, whose tweets from March 6-12 are shown:

Table 2. Analysis of church/ministry tweets over a week.

Name Twitter account Bible Verses Self promotion Others promotion Inspirational Messages Personal Statements Total tweets Tweets / day
Albert Mohler @albertmohler 0 7 6 6 22 41 5.86
Andy Stanley @AndyStanley 0 2 3 0 27 32 4.57
Beth Moore @BethMooreLPM              
Brian Houston @BrianCHouston 0 0 0 0 5 5 0.71
C.J. Mahaney @CJMahaney              
Chuck Swindoll @chuckswindoll 0 4 20 28 12 64 9.14
Craig Groeschel @craiggroeschel 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
David Platt @plattdavid 0 7 1 0 1 9 1.29
Greg Laurie @greglaurie 0 13 0 3 8 24 3.43
J.D. Greear @jdgreear 0 6 2 3 11 22 3.14
James MacDonald @jamesmacdonald 0 8 2 7 4 21 3
Jefferson Bethke @jeffersonbethke 0 3 1 3 14 21 3
Joel Oste @JoelOsteen 0 0 0 14 0 14 2
John Piper @JohnPiper 4 8 12 16 1 41 5.86
Joshua Harris @HarrisJosh 0 0 4 0 2 6 0.86
Joyce Meyer @JoyceMeyer 2 31 0 20 3 56 8
Judah Smith @judahsmith 0 0 1 1 3 5 0.71
Kevin DeYoung @RevKevDeYoung 0 3 1 12 21 37 5.29
Louie Giglio @louiegiglio 0 0 1 4 17 22 3.14
Mark Dever @MarkDever 0 0 1 5 6 12 1.71
Mark Driscoll @PastorMark 6 5 2 20 0 33 4.71
Matt Chandler @MattChandler74 0 0 11 1 12 24 3.43
Max Lucado @MaxLucado 0 0 2 10 0 12 1.71
Perry Noble @perrynoble 4 2 6 8 29 49 7
Ravi Zacharias @RaviZacharias 1 17 8 26 53 105 15
Rick Warren @RickWarren 0 0 1 3 1 5 0.71
Russell Moore @drmoore 2 15 26 5 58 106 15.14
Steven Furtick @stevenfurtick 0 6 2 0 2 10 1.43
T.D. Jakes @BishopJakes 4 27 5 69 31 136 19.43
Tullian Tchividjian @PastorTullian 0 11 2 25 6 44 6.29

There are a few interesting points to take from these numbers.

First, most leaders in the study do not take advantage of Diaz-Ortiz’s suggestion that Twitter is “perfect” for the Bible. T.D. Jakes, John Piper and Perry Noble led the 30 with just four Bible verse tweets each, and only six total leaders tweeted a total of 23 verses, just over two percent of the total tweets. Some leaders, Piper in particular, will sometimes tweet verses, parts of verses or the reference to a verse and add a piece of commentary or a thought of their own in addition. During the week the study was conducted, 15 of Piper’s 41 tweets were in this vein. For instance, on March 19 Piper tweeted, “ ‘Whatever was written in former days was written that . . . we might have hope.’ Rom. 15:4 All of it. Find hope every morning.”17 Speaking in an interview on his Twitter use, Piper said, “Basically, I just want to put in a sentence three times a day something that seems to me would be provocative concerning the character of God or the Lord Jesus or upbuilding for peoples’ faith or helpful in our understanding of what’s going on in the world.”18 His tweets reveal that he does exactly that.

About 30 percent of the tweets (301 of 988) sent out by these leaders come in the form of these “inspirational messages” tweets with statements meant to encourage or challenge their followers, often connected to spiritual things. On March 23, Tullian Tchvidjian tweeted, “People who know that they are weak are much more intimate with God’s grace than people who think that they are strong.”19 Another example is Joyce Meyer’s tweet on March 17: “We may not always get what we want, but God will always provide what we need.”20

Like any other hashtags that you’ll usually find in the Trending Bar with “Promoted” beside it, leaders will use tweets with hashtags to promote things they’re up to. During the week studied, T.D. Jakes (#INSTINCT - 64 tweets) and Mark Driscoll (#BoldJames - 11 tweets) used hashtags related to sermon series they were in the middle of, usually coupling it with an inspirational message or video from the sermons. Perry Noble (#OverwhelmedBook) and Max Lucado (#GRACEthebook) helped promote books they’ve written. Joyce Meyer used the hashtag #3030Challenge as part of an effort to encourage her audience to read their Bibles more. In this vein, many of the leaders used Twitter for “self-promotion,” tweeting links to articles they’ve written or sermons they’ve preached.

In total, 187 of the 988 tweets (18.9%) were “self-promotion.” This took a few different forms. David Platt, who tweeted just nine times the entire week of study, posted the link to register for his “Secret Church” event taking place on Good Friday in seven of his tweets. In several tweets, Joyce Meyer linked to her Facebook page (5.5 million likes) to point her followers (about 2.7 million) to more content. In total, Meyer had 31 tweets that were classified as “self-promotion,” the most of any of the leaders. Ravi Zacharias had 17 tweets of “self-promotion,” often related to his trip to Texas A&M University and his speaking engagements there that week.

The fourth category considered was “others-promotion.” These were tweets that linked to articles or sermons or events that they were not responsible for. “Others-promotion” tweets accounted for 126 of the tweets from the leaders. Examples include Russell Moore tweeting a link to a story about Kenya legalizing polygamy without consent from the wife21 and Andy Stanley posting a link to an article by Jonathan Merritt on Religious News Service.22

The final category to determine tweets was the most-used one, called “personal statements.” “Personal statements” are tweets that reflect a personal, more informal statement made by the leader. It can simply be a picture of the weather, a happy birthday to a child or a sports reference. On March 20, Matt Chandler simply posted, “0-1 #MadnessBegins,” in reference to the start of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.23 On the same day, also in reference to college basketball, Kevin DeYoung tweeted, “It is impossible for me to watch (Michigan State basketball player) Travis Trice and not think of Hector Zeroni,” the latter name a character from the book Holes by Louis Sachar.24 In terms of numbers, this was the most popular category, with 351 of 988 tweets (35.6 percent).

Hendrix sees a great benefit to tweeting personal statements. He often tweets analysis of Wake Forest basketball. But he said it’s important for pastors to realize who they are when they tweet. “I believe that it’s important for a pastor to realize that he’s a pastor on Twitter, and if you’re going to tweet about basketball, football, I think it’s good,” he said. “Sometimes people need to see a different side of pastors, their humanity. But you’ve still got to be mindful that you are a pastor, you represent Christ.”25

Leaders have found different ways to utilize their Twitter profiles in this personal statement vein. Nearly every Sunday, you can count on a tweet from Noble regarding the number of salvations that took place at his church. During the week of study, Chuck Swindoll posted five tweets regarding his trip to Israel with the hashtag #Israel2014, with updates on what the group he lead was doing. Eleven of the tweets C.J. Mahaney posted were retweets, all NCAA tournament brackets, from the @MahaneySports Twitter handle, a sportsrelated account used to “bring a unique gospel-driven discernment to sports.”26 Hendrix has used his Twitter to reach out to some Wake Forest athletes and coaches as well as other Christian sports figures. He shared a story about exchanging private messages on Twitter with Paul Tesori, who’s a Christian and the caddy of Webb Simpson, a professing Christian and professional golfer. “I know that often I’ll quote a text, just print the text, or make a statement relevant to the gospel or truth, I know at least there’s a possibility it’s going to some of these athletes, coaches,” he said. “I wouldn’t have access to these guys (without Twitter).”27

The plurality of the tweets being in the “personal statement” vein is indeed interesting because pastors and other leaders are seeming to say, “We’re people too.” Whether it’s sports or music or their kids, these leaders saw fit for whatever reason to dedicate the plurality of their tweets to displaying who they are. Thirteen of the 30 leaders had a plurality of their tweets in the “personal statement” category, with a mix of younger leaders like J.D. Greear and Jefferson Bethke and some of the older guard like Ravi Zacharias and Dr. Albert Mohler.

Hendrix’s use of Twitter is just one method of using Twitter that just might be considered appropriate for pastors. There aren’t bookstore shelves full of volume on “Twitter theology” or social media Christianity. Christian author Jon Acuff said, “Social media’s like a brick — you can use it to build an orphanage or throw it through somebody’s car window. . . . There’s no precedent. We can’t go, ‘Here’s how C. S. Lewis handled Twitter.’ ”28 There are different ways Christian leaders approach Twitter, and perhaps that’s because it’s such a relatively new tool of ministry that they haven’t quite figured out how to do it properly yet.

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