Marketing a Christian Self: Pastoral Care in a New Media World

I had a moment on Facebook the other day. I was flicking through my feed disinterested about my PhD edits. And a friend who I admire greatly had posted a video clip. It disturbed me.

 Firstly, because of who she was in posting it – a thinker and church leader with great influence.

 Secondly, because of what it was communicating about Jesus.

The video was entitled “Keep yo’ business off of Facebook.” The urban dictionary defines business as “pointless meaningless life-consuming spirit-draining activity.” So, I guess, in this context, “business” means anything from a bad romantic break up through to study woes, through to ventures gone wrong.

Now, the song is very catchy, with beautiful gospel harmonies. It’s a contemporary Christian original, clearly sung for a congregational audience.

It’s not singing to or about Jesus, per se, but it’s a humorous take on Christian engagement with social media. It’s written by a pastor. And the chorus pleads with Christians to (breathe) “Keep yo’ business off of Facebook.”

The underlying theme is that it’s unwise to put all the messy details of your life online. And sure, oversharing (and personality disorder, for that matter) is a thing. But the whole point of Facebook is self-disclosure. So before you get all judgey at me, let’s remember that.

I suspect some people will disagree, so I’ll outline my thoughts, and then it’s over to you for comment. This video makes me intensely uncomfortable for a number of reasons. I’ll try and explain.

You can view it and sing along here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a2axEKrms2g

I wish I had this video clip when I wrote a chapter about Christian pastoral care in the 21st century (and particularly its intersection with worship ministry) for the book entitled Congregational Music-Making and Community in a Mediated Age.

A couple of months before I was asked to write this chapter for my colleagues, I had a mind-bending moment in which I moved for a brief second from the “church is wonderful and I love it” group into the “maybe church is a brainwashing cult” group and back again. I personally think every Christian leader needs a window into life on the other side. Now, I see this event as a gift, which I’ll explain here.

I’d been happily attending choir practice for six months every week (that I feel like some people may not believe this is kind of the point of this story). I knew I had a European music tour and scholarly fieldwork coming up, and I was nervous about both. So, I thought maybe I could “ground” myself in Sydney between these trips by singing. I’ve sung all my life, including at Fuller Theological Seminary, where I helped lead the chapel team. I thought that if I participated in my local church every couple of weeks, it would make the lonely “on the road” nights a little better.

It wasn’t really very complex. I didn’t even care where I sang – on the front row, in the back row, behind a curtain. But I did feel like I wanted to serve in weekend services, because that’s what marks “legitimate” from “non-legitimate” involvement in the Christian musical context…

So I went to the vocal training sessions and tried to get a hold of a leader to do an audition, which I knew was the right process. There was some really weird stuff going on, in my opinion. I clearly hadn’t been seen by the right people, or at least, I had people regularly lean over to me and say in a weird meaningfully-edging-on-sinister tones “I haven’t seen you around lately” while I stood right there beside them in the room. I’ve perfected the art of sliding under the radar in public meetings, I guess. Or not. Anyways, it was a comedy of errors, and I couldn’t work out how on earth to get an audition. Which was all I really wanted.

When the girl I was driving home each week ended up chatting to me happily about her audition date (and later tearfully let me know she had failed), I honestly wondered what was wrong with me.

The next morning I posted something vaguely funny and very confused about this experience on Facebook. And within ten minutes I had forty comments. I guess that should have been a clue. By the end of that day, it was two hundred.

That day I got over five calls from pastoral care leaders, including staff and non-staff from my church and other churches. Some knew me, but others I had never officially met. I had clearly shamed people into acting. And they did with a range of responses – everything from getting the facts straight, to apologies, to empathy and inviting me to another church, to outright anger and blankly asking me to remove my post.

Gosh. What a mess. I could hear myself in every single one of those phone calls and text messages. I’ve “cared for” hundreds of young musicians and singers. I’ve been a worship pastor at a medium sized church. I’ve led interns in chapel in two different seminaries. I felt exhaustion in their tone, and I related to it.

How is it, after all these years as a Christian leader, I still don’t have the tools to help myself when I’m slowly disintegrating in this fast paced global life? When I’m tired, I ignore it. When I’m upset, I read the Bible, pleading with God for clues.

I’ve pastored people through miscarriages, death, grief, singleness, and marriage troubles. I’ve seen other very good pastors completely destroyed. And I wear the scars on my heart like trophies. I’m still around. Those who get it, they rejoice with me. Others look at me with skepticism or get competitive. But what I don’t say often is “oh my gosh, at times it hurts.”

Christian leaders are usually really, really good people. But I think we set ourselves up to fail.

We do it in our seminaries, in our bible colleges, but more than ever we do it in the way our internalized models fail to engage our emotional lives, online or otherwise. We have largely abandoned the notion of pastoral care in favour of good biblical teaching, and better communication methods. But this is not how we do the “soul work” of being a Christian.

We market an attractive Christian self. We call it evangelism. Anything less, we think, will embarrass our pastor.

I was genuinely and completely shaken by this really dumb experience. I had an audition (they were kind enough to move heaven and earth to give one to me) and I shook like a leaf the entire time. I passed it, but in the end, I had to let my desire to sing with the team go. I can only explain it as finding myself trying too hard to fake the correct emotion in the one place that had always been a place of non-performance or truth for me. In worship.

This has made me hunger to see something deeper and more profound in my own pastoral care, and the care offered by churches across the globe. And so, my chapter was a manifesto on how I wanted to care for other Christians. I’m not sure I’m there yet. But I’m trying.

Pastoral Care is an ancient art. It began in the early church, and is first noted in Latin through the word “pastorem”. It drew upon the image Jesus painted of himself, as a shepherd. The interaction between watching, and hearing is important to Jesus. Sheep hear the voice of the shepherd, and keep close. But if lost, they must be found. And this is the shepherd’s role.

The shepherd follows the sheep to the place where they fell off track, and he picks them up and he carries them home.

According to Clebsch and Jaekle (1994), pastoral care takes the form of four roles:

  • encouraging congregation members towards wholeness and healing
  • sustaining them in situations where healing is impossible
  • reconciling relationships and embedding them into the community
  • guiding decision-making via wise advice

I’ve had to recognize that our Neoliberal world wants workers to perform and to look a certain way. It asks us to navigate our losses and risks and continually get up again unscathed. This is often made into a virtuous pursuit by Christians.

But you don’t need to appear “put together” for the shepherd. Jesus (as well as those who follow in His way of shepherding) sees it all anyway. That gritted teeth moment. That comment where you’re slightly insecure. That one you wish you hadn’t said. The fact you’re on Tinder and your profile shows you’re not celibate. All your business, whatever that is.

So as far as I’m concerned, you can put your business on Facebook. Because it’s not about censorship. When you’re transformed by Jesus from the inside out, we really want to see it, and celebrate it with you.

What is more important than looking like you’ve got your business together, is engaging in the deep work God asks of us. It is cultivating the soul. And whether you preach on the weekend, or you’re in the back row – we’re all in that together, honey.

Christianity is not about having it together. It’s about having a shepherd.

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2 thoughts on “Marketing a Christian Self: Pastoral Care in a New Media World

  1. “Christianity is not about having it together. It’s about having a shepherd.” YEEESSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    So many yes’!!!!!

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