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.