Serving Up Tweets: An Interview with Ray Ortlund on Social Media

Dr. Ray Ortlund Jr. is an author, pastor and a former seminary professor. He also blogs and tweets regularly. Given his experience, responsibilities, and his devotion to social media, I asked him to explain more about why and how he uses Twitter and blogging.

Ray, thank you for answering some questions. You speak at conferences, write books, and you blog and tweet. You communicate in many various contexts. My questions for you are mostly related to pastoral ministry and social media. As a pastor, how does the rise in social media – blogging, Facebook, Twitter – complement and complicate pastoral ministry.

The media we now have offer us a tremendous advantage for getting the gospel out. I think of the parable of the sower in Mark 4. He was not dropping one seed at a time along a little row, the way we do in a modern garden. He was throwing handfuls of gospel seed out there. Lots of waste. But also growth. And only God knows how it will turn out.

The dark side of our media, obviously, is that the sins of the tongue have never had more opportunity. The book of Proverbs speaks clearly about the impact of our words. With our media, we can now harm and embarrass and stigmatize people with greater force than ever before in human history. We don't have to be political heavyweights to wield that power. Any blogger will do. Self-restraint has never been more important.

In your forthcoming commentary on Proverbs you write, "Twitter and blogs and emails would be cleared of much conflict if we humbled our opinions before Christ. What are we here for, really? What does God want to be stirred up in our hearts? He says, stir one another up to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24)." Unpack that for a moment. What, in your mind, is the effect of a failed tweet? What is the intended effect of a successful tweet?

A failed tweet displays Self.

A successful tweet displays Christ.

Who cares about the details of my daily life? I hardly care myself.

But I think we can all agree on this: we must decrease, but he must increase. What I aim at in using the media is another person being able to click in and click out quickly, with maximum benefit to their souls. Everyone is so busy. But everyone matters. I want to ask little of them, and add much to them. I am there to serve, not to demand or impress, by giving them more of Jesus.

In what context do your tweets mostly originate: sermon preparation, book writing, private devotions, etc? And how much is off-the-cuff when you see the empty update box on Twitter?

They most often originate in desperation. I want my life to count. But where can I find something to say that might actually help someone? What I end up doing is mostly off-the-cuff, flashes of inspiration, insights from reading I happen upon. I have no plan. I'm always 24 hours away from total emptiness, but the manna keeps falling!

Should pastors use Facebook, Twitter, and blogs to directly communicate with their churches?

I don't use it for my own pastoral connectivity here at Immanuel Church, primarily. It's mostly for reaching out to others, far and wide. What I love about pastoral ministry is the eye-to-eye, intense interactions with actual people. Virtual relationships don't exist. But electronics can broadcast gospel concepts, which is worth a lot.

I suppose one benefit for me as a pastor here in Nashville is that the media help me guide and flavor the conversation at Immanuel. In every church, there is a 24/7 conversation going on – phone calls, tweets, emails, chance meetings at the grocery store, and so forth. What are we talking about? It is easy for the devil to change the subject with his wretched negativity. So the more chances I and others in the church have to keep the conversation lifted up in a positive, Jesus-focused way, the better.

Has your use of social media impacted the way you preach sermons or write books?

Blog posts and tweets are fun. They are a creative discipline. How can I say something worth saying in a compressed manner, with unmistakable clarity, not one wasted word, with high impact? I enjoy that challenge. It clarifies my own thinking.

Blogging and tweeting have coached me in what helps others and what only interests me. I am instructed – not defined, but instructed – by what arouses other people's interest and what doesn't.

Plus, a blog post can publish a statement – maybe a quote from a great thinker of the past – which the reader can linger over for a time, if so desired. But that same quote might come across in a sermon as clunky and tiresome. But it's still worth thinking about.

You often quote books on your blog. Has blogging changed the way you read books?

No. But I am always on the prowl for quotable statements, especially those that "fill in the blanks." That is, every age has its blind spots. There are some great truths and insights we don't even have categories for. I hope I bring a few of those to light, to help us stay prophetic, not limited to our own generation.

Well said. Thank you, Ray, for your time.

You can follow Ray Ortlund daily on his blog and on Twitter (@rayortlund).