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GRAPEVINE, Texas (BP)--Having graduated from two seminaries and a Bible college, I've attended a lot of chapels. One particular day sticks out in my mind. A well-known pastor of that era stood before us, opened his Bible and began a message punctuated with non-sequitur ridicule of various political figures.
He commented on those who were liberal, some who were funny looking, and even strayed into some assumptions of immorality for which no proof existed. His exposition was solid but instead of our usual discussion of the way he handled the Bible, we students spent our time criticizing the way he misused the pulpit.
Our preacher had, no doubt, looked out there and assumed he had a friendly audience that would find his comments amusing, even refreshing. He did not know who was visiting campus, what prospective students were in the audience, or what his hearers needed to hear from the Lord that day. He missed an opportunity at the very least.
I've been reminded of that occasion when I receive any number of goofball forwards in my e-mail box. Some of them address immigration reform, some the president, some patriotism in general, and occasionally I'll get one about women drivers. By the time I get the forward, it has hundreds of recipients attached to it. I don't know some of these people and the sender has no idea whom I'll pass it along to, with his name and address book attached. I can easily imagine that some of the more disrespectful messages will reach a lady who's tired of jokes about the driving habits of her gender, maybe another will be a barb to someone who sees the joke as being against anyone who's come to America recently, legally or otherwise. Jokes about the president risk edging into the truly racist or at least demeaning of our legally elected office holder.
And then there's Twitter. I have a Twitter account for the TEXAN (sbtexan) that I use to announce new posts on our news site. Some folks that I follow are clever, others offer short devotional thoughts, still others use the forum to promote their speaking schedule or writing ministry, a few regale us with the details of their daily menu or workout schedule, and a few use it for short bits of political advocacy. If your primary identity is pastor rather than pundit, I think Twitter or other immediate electronic media are poor forums for political commentary, especially when the Tweets go beyond what the Bible clearly says about morality.
Maybe this is something I've learned from writing columns pretty regularly since 1989. I've written at least a handful of embarrassing articles. A couple stand out in my mind for their poor research. More than a couple have been riddled with grammatical mistakes. A few times I've gone off half-cocked and misused the platform my readers have provided. Those are the times I regret most. Currently, my column is read at least twice by me, once by my managing editor, and usually by my wife. If I'm concerned that the column might be provocative, I'll ask Southern Baptists of Texas Convention Executive Director Jim Richards to read it. My process has become more elaborate as experience has taught me to dread communicating poorly. If you're speaking in a more immediate forum -- e-mail or Twitter to name two -- then use the following filters. I try to remember them as I write a column for print.
-- Think of your readers, those you know and those you can't imagine: Even in the day when newspaper articles had to be photocopied and manually passed around, I was surprised where something I wrote turned up. Occasionally I'd be surprised to hear a counterpoint I'd never considered from someone I'd never thought would read it. Now, I frequently think of who might find what I'm saying most unwelcome and try to make my case to that person, not just those who mostly agree with my opinion. Who's going to read your mail or message? Forwards and retweets make your message worldwide in seconds. Would you have said what you said about Hillary Clinton if you knew your lost and less-conservative father-in-law would read it? Then don't say it; because he will likely read the message you'd most rather he didn't.
-- Think of what people will mistakenly infer: It is a truism that our messages are more interesting if they are negative. We can fall into that easily and present a false picture of ourselves and our ministries. Collecting hundreds of followers or "friends" or readers only increases the likelihood that most people who see your words will know little of your heart. To avoid this, a writer could map out everything that's important to him and make sure that he gives those things some significant attention on a regular basis. That being a boring and silly idea, we should go with a second option -- write less and say things that have some intent. It's OK to amuse people, write something with a little bite, even preach at folks when you've got something to say, but say things that you can stand behind. Say things that are as kind and thoughtful as you are, even when you must say something edgy.
-- Reflect your priorities: What's your calling? What role do you play in your circle of influence? While I have some doubts that one can have a deepening relationship with another using 140 characters at a time (that's the limit on a Twitter posting), I believe we can damage a relationship in fewer characters than that without much effort. If you're a pastor or church leader, visitors will judge your church by what you post. Is it at least harmless? Is the outcome of the healthcare debate or immigration reform more important to you than your relationship with those church members who voted for Barack Obama in 2008? If not, watch what you say. Will people who receive e-mail forwards find those treasures consistent with your life message or at least not contrary? If in doubt, just delete them.
The problem could be called transparency gone mad but it's really a caricature of that overused virtue. We can be transparent when our motives are pure and our hearts are striving for holiness. Bad transparency is really poor impulse control that drives us to say and do everything that passes through our minds. Save some of those jewels for people who know you well -- people who understand you well enough to forgive you when you're a dope.
No, I am not going off on technology. I use it and I am sometimes grateful for the strange minds that come up with new ways of communicating. None of these tools should be our master, though. Just because we can impulsively tell our rapt audience we're having Spam for breakfast or that we strongly dislike the governor is no reason that we must tell them. If we'll run counter to the stated purposes of some communications tools; if we'll think half a tick about our readers and our priorities before hitting "send," we stand a better chance of keeping the doors open to the kind of old-school communication that matters most. We might find people drawn to what we stand for rather than confused or offended by what we appear to be.
Gary Ledbetter is editor of the Southern Baptist TEXAN, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, on the Web at texanonline.net.