My friend and I were hanging out one morning, having coffee and reading. He mentioned an article that I should read, and I mentioned an excellent quote I found from a dead guy. Then out of the clear blue sky he leans over and says, “If you’re not going to church to hear the word preached then you’re not going to church, but to a social club.”

And I said, “Ok…”

In evangelical Twitterland, content is not king; the appearance of content is.Actually, this was not a live conversation, but an illustration of what is becoming a ubiquitous trend on Twitter: dropping self-authored, pithy proverbs.

There are two kinds of people: Christians on Twitter, and everybody else. I’m addressing the former group.

I can tell you a surefire way to grow the number of your followers on Twitter, as well as how to gain increased engagement from complete strangers. It’s easy.

The key to gaining success on Twitter among evangelical Christians is delivering clever rhetoric, often in the form of an aphorism. That’s it.

Twitter allows 140 characters per post, so think of Twitter posts as slightly longer than a newspaper headline. Those who can communicate a message of substance through it are few and far between, and most Twitter posts by necessity link to a longer blog post, a web article, or to other content that does the heavy lifting of conceptual substance.

So at least in evangelical Twitterland, content is not king; the appearance of content is. I’ll give you an example of a recent tweet:

“Conservatives say get your hands off of my money. Liberals say get your hands off of my morals. Jesus says it’s all mine.”

Brilliant. This takes the two labels that cover the overwhelming majority of everyone in America, sums them up with parallel, reductionist party lines, and offers the freedom of a transcendent third way. The tweeter’s moral high ground shakes the dust off of a committed political stance and instead opts for…Jesus.

Now besides the quoted tweet residing in the same rhetorical neighborhood as the bemoaned Jesus Juke, with just a bit of reflection we can point to some snags in this clever-sounding nugget. First, it lumps the two main political parties into simplistic catch phrases that many in either party would perceive as inaccurately representing their political posture. Second, it displays a category confusion, putting Jesus’s rightful ownership of finances and morality into an implied contrast with government’s involvement of those things. One might argue that there is no implied contrast intended, but even given that, the tweet’s ambiguity proves the point; what exactly does this tweet even mean? And if the answer to that question seems unclear or at least not obvious, how difficult is it to find truth worth expressing behind a foggy haze of ambiguity and vague language?

I don’t want to suggest that every aphoristic tweet that pops up in your timeline comes packaged with a diabolical scheme to rise up the evangelical Twitter rankings. Nor am I saying there aren’t some excellent original quotes out there that should be shared. But I am saying as a loosely general guide that there are 2,014 years of church history (give or take) from which to choose a helpful turn of phrase.

To quote a quote on quotes from a screenplay by David McKenna, “Someone else has already said it best.” Taken to the extreme, that can seem like a gag order against original content in posts, but I’m only overstating the case because of what I observe in this weird world of Twitter. For the vast majority of evangelical Twitter aphorisms, I find myself siding with Ben Stiller’s character in Mystery Men: “Am I the only one who finds these sayings just a little bit formulaic?”

One example of a trendy twitfall is an oft-used phrase, “A Christian is someone who…” Unless this phrase follows with “confesses the name of Christ as Lord,” anything beyond that fits squarely into the legalism category. To say something like, “A Christian is someone who…worships with his whole heart” smacks of putting heart-worship as essential to one’s salvation. Should heart-worship be present every time? Yes. Does its absence on occasion mean one is not a Christian? I hope not.

Or take the ever-present theme of theological consistency and Christian behavior. “Those who don’t speak the truth in love never had the truth to begin with.” Or something. Here’s the formula: start with some solid theological conviction, like Reformed theology, scold a hypothetical person’s behavior who holds to that conviction, and voila—you’ve taken away a hypothetical person’s conviction because of this hypothetical person’s behavior.

But this brings me to my last point involving tweets of the Matt. 7:3 plank-eye variety. It is all too common to see Twitter accounts piled up with Scolding Tweets. Scolding tweets make followers look at their own behavior and ask, “Am I doing this right?,” which can be either helpful or spiritually crippling depending on their frequency. Scolding tweets address another person, usually a hypothetical person, and criticize their behavior.

Examples tend to increase on a Sunday, where you see a lot of pastors and others telling people what to do/think/feel and what not to do/think/feel about church and worship. “Don’t enter worship focused on all your own problems, but with a concern for your brothers and sisters around you.” Despite whatever good intentions may be behind a string of scolding tweets (concern for the church, a desire to see another’s heart in the right place, etc.), they can produce all the effects of legalism, where one’s audience regularly worries whether they are doing church correctly. There are better ways to encourage proper worship.

Not every pithy saying I conjure up needs to be shared publicly, and almost all of them serve the church only minimally, if at all. The textbook definition of aphorism is “a short phrase that expresses a true or wise idea.” Evangelicals could use a hefty dose of truth and wisdom to go along with our publicly posted ideas. Whether that translates into a large following, a bunch of retweets, or any other form of human praise should pale in comparison to quality and faithfulness of content, whatever its form.

img via tash lampard


9 Comments

  1. Good post. But I have to take exception to this line:

    ***Unless this phrase follows with “confesses the name of Christ as Lord,” anything beyond that fits squarely into the legalism category.***

    Mormons also claim that Christ is Lord. It isn’t legalistic, is it, to say that there is something they are missing?

    1. Good comment, Joe. No, it isn’t legalistic, and I should have made it more clear that “confesses the name of Christ as Lord” was shorthand for whatever is essential to Christianity.

  2. I think I nodded approvingly at each sentence of this piece. The question, then, is how much more can I nod approvingly? The answer is none. None more nods of approval. I once read one worship pastor share that his wife quipped one Saturday evening that Twitter on a Saturday night is essentially a bunch of young pastors/church planters telling other equally young, or even seasoned, pastors/church planters what to do and what not to do tomorrow (Sunday). I first experienced the “Pastor/Worship leader…” tweet sharing useful bits of ministry insights for Sunday morning a few years ago from Scotty Smith. And, they were really helpful for me as a worship leader. Then, as you’ve stated, everyone jumped on that bandwagon and there were so many tweets in my feed from people using that same tweet tactic that it all just became white noise. Now, in a lot of ways, it’s just become ridiculous and Christian Twitter, in some respects, is begging to be parodied by a Clickhole-style site. And, that’s pretty sad. So much teaching and edification can be done through Twitter, but, for me, there are so many folks just playing a game that it’s less than helpful anymore. My current favorite is the little-known pastor/church planter/worship leader sending out the “My friend @(Insert well-known Christian) just released a great book/record/whatever. Check it out!” It’s the “my friend” part that gives me a chuckle. It’s a qualifier meant to communicate that, you know, you’re connected. Watch for it, you’ll notice it if you haven’t already. It’s one thing for John Piper to tweet, “My friend Tim Keller released…” because you know he and Keller are friends. So, it works. Again, I can’t agree with much of the sentiment of this piece, Joel, if I tried. You’re on point here and more pastors, church planters, and worship leaders would do well to read this and let it marinate for a while. As you said, “There are two kinds of people: Christians on Twitter, and everybody else.” I don’t just follow Christians, but a lot of non-Christians as well. Designers, artists, musicians, thinkers, comedians, and other misc. users, and I can honestly say that, yes, Twitter right now consists of Christians on Twitter, and everybody else. And, in some ways, as you’ve clearly pointed out here, that’s not entirely a good thing. It can actually be a bad thing in some respects. I don’t mean to be heavy-handed or mean-spirited, but I think you’ll see more folks, like me, who just get burnt out on all the games. So, I give many thanks for the folks out there who aren’t playing a game and following the latest “Christian Twitter Trends.” Thanks for this article. It’s on point, man.

  3. I found this post to be very uplifting and encouraging. I do not use twitter for much except to share blog post and enter contest. In my case it is Facebook that is my place of looking for likes. I have a FB ministry page Salvation is Free Ministries that I post to using quotes from Logos as memes. I guess we all long for some way to see some type of validation and Twitter/Facebook offers an immediate form of that.

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