Twitter is big. Really big. To date there are over 175 million registered users. As I write this, Lady Gaga has more Twitter followers than anyone, even Barack Obama. This popular microblog is used by everyone from celebrities (Oprah, Ellen DeGeneres) to recording artists (Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift) to news corporations (CNN, New York Times).
Christians are no exception to the twitter-rage. It is used by pastoral giants like Rick Warren, prolific authors like Donald Miller, and guilty pleasures like Petra.
But how should Christians react to Twitter? Is it nothing more than a mindless annoyance? Narcissistic? Self-indulgent? Pointless personal trivia?
Let’s be clear: Twitter as a digital network is none of these things—it is only a technological tool. On the other hand, Twitter as a social phenomenon and a personal outlet has all the trappings of a digital skinner box. For some, there is the urge to over-follow: to track the minute-to-minute thoughts of hundreds of cherished friends and celebrity favorites. For others, there is the urge to over-tweet: shouting painfully meaningless and incriminating phrases into the dispassionate darkness of cyberspace.
For the Christian, is there such a thing as a healthy and redemptive use of Twitter?
Pastor Doug Wilson, quoting the great Puritan preacher Thomas Watson, says there is a tendency in some of us to engage in “verbal scribbling.” Our Savior said it is out of the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks, and “on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36, italics added). The word used here for “careless” is the same word used throughout the New Testament for idleness. The expression “careless words” paints a vivid picture of busybodies sharing endless gossip or lazy people chatting in the marketplace during work-hours. Wilson calls this “cotton candy discourse.”
On the flip side of this thought is the command to speak in such a way that it edifies others (Ephesians 4:29). “Language is a very great gift of God,” says Wilson, “and it ought to be honed and disciplined and purposive.” This means what we say—and what we tweet—should be substantive and calculated.
Pastor Wilson clarifies, this does not mean that everything we tweet or post should be somber and serious, but if humor is used, that it should be purposeful and genuinely clever.
From Scribbler to Scribe
Tami Heim and Toni Birdsong have popularized the concept of becoming a Digital Scribe™. This phrase combines the newness of online communication with the ancient craft of writing and record-keeping. Jesus Himself spoke of the redemptive influence of a “scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 13:52). He promised He would send not only prophets and wise men after Him to share His message, but also scribes (Matthew 23:34).
Heim and Birdsong define a Digital Scribe as “a networker, connector, servant, activist, and passionate minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ” who agrees to speak, write, post, tweet, and blog the message of eternity and “add buzz to the stickiest story ever told.” They even suggest “tithing your time” online to building the kingdom of God.
Birdsong offers advice for her readers about how to be a Digital Scribe on Twitter. Read “10 Ways You Could Be Blowing It on Twitter.”
Pastor John Piper says it best: “Tweeting is to preaching what the book of Proverbs is to the book of Romans.” Being forced to say something compelling, winsome, and provocative in 140 characters or less is not a lazy form of communication: it is demanding. And this kind of epigrammatic form of writing is best seen in the pithy sayings of the Proverbs.
Piper, who has over 190,000 followers on Twitter, believes Twitter and other social networks need to be inhabited by Christians. One tweet might arrest the attention of someone in the digital world and make them look up to heaven.
Piper is aware he might be rocking the boat for some in the church. He comments:
One says: These media tend to shorten attention spans, weaken discursive reasoning, lure people away from Scripture and prayer, disembody relationships, feed the fires of narcissism, cater to the craving for attention, fill the world with drivel, shrink the soul’s capacity for greatness, and make us second-handers who comment on life when we ought to be living it. So boycott them and write books (not blogs) about the problem.
The other response says: Yes, there is truth in all of that, but instead of boycotting, try to fill these media with as much provocative, reasonable, Bible-saturated, prayerful, relational, Christ-exalting, truth-driven, serious, creative pointers to true greatness as you can.
Piper says he leans towards the latter position. His passion to express a passion for Christ and the gospel combined with Twitter’s word-limit forces him to communicate truth in a capacious, concise, and compelling way.