Behind the Times

Survival in a Day of Suffocating News

Bethlehem Conference for Pastors | Minneapolis

I want to free you from the burden of news, and free you perhaps even to find a way to be refreshed by the news. I believe that can happen by engaging news with Christian order and balance and context.

I do not assume that my ways and sources and frequency of accessing world and local news should be yours. So I won’t even go there. We have different abilities and proclivities and callings. But I do want to consider with you the nature of news, and what biblical principles we might rally to together when it comes to how to engage the news — and not only as Christians, but especially as pastors.

Nothing but News

One of the great moments of gospel advance in the early church is when Paul preaches in Athens. We have Luke’s summary of the sermon in Acts 17, and we have his curious leading comment, in Acts 17:21, on why Paul was invited to speak at the Areopagus:

Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.

Now, I do not think that Luke was impressed with the Athenians’ use of their time. It is not a flattering comment when he says they were “spending time in nothing other than saying something or hearing something new.” Luke is not known for overstatement, but if anything, for understatement. So what might he have meant by saying they spent time in nothing other than the news?

He might say that this bent in Athens, this orientation on new thoughts and ideas and philosophies, had worked its way so deeply into their minds and hearts and habits that they, in essence, spent their time in nothing else. The spare moments they had went to the news. Their conversations about other things drifted to the news. They started the day wondering about the news, and went to bed at night thinking about the news, and over meals talked about the news. The news had slowly and subtly and devastatingly taken over their lives — almost as if they had a magic newspaper in their hand always at the ready to give updates with new things to read and talk about.

However far we take it, I think it’s clear that Luke’s comment reflects that he’s not impressed. He is not commending this preoccupation and inundation with the new thing. For them, it was new ideas and concepts and philosophy; but for us, in an increasingly secular age, it’s new events and happenings and phenomena. Luke is tacitly criticizing the preoccupation and warning us against it. In fact, if he were speaking to a gathering of college students in Athens, he might even plead with them, “Don’t waste your life!” toward this endless orientation toward hearing and saying something new.

News as Product

Perhaps, like me, you grew up assuming (or still assume) that keeping up with the daily news is a good, respectable, even virtuous habit. Responsible people diligently apply themselves and expend daily effort to stay informed of the news, and perhaps especially Christians. And perhaps pastors all the more. I think that’s a bad assumption.

When we talk about “the news,” we typically have in mind the product that various professional agencies and services generate daily (and now instantaneously). The nature of the “daily news” is as a product coming to us at some cost — though we may not be conscious of the cost. We might even assume that the news is just the news. It happened; professionals are reporting it; what could there be to analyze or further consider about that?

Well, as many of us are learning, “the news” is not just news. It is a product we purchase, sometimes with our dollars, but always (and most significantly) with a more limited and valuable resource: our attention. In the last generation, we have seen the news go from daily papers, to hourly television programs, and now to instantaneous feeds. So, in considering the productized nature of “the news,” we might ask what that product has to offer us, as pastors, and what might be its drawbacks? Let’s start with four drawbacks.

Four Drawbacks of Daily News

One is the “dailiness” of it — or better, now, the instantaneousness. The whole industry of daily news (including the chorus of voices, millions strong, joining the stream through social media) competes for limited human attention. This creates a rush to press that does not foster careful observation and reporting of the details of what actually happened, that does not consider whether a story is really worthy of occupying people’s attention or not, and that passes over what the reader or viewer is to do with that information.

A second drawback is that, in an effort to fill our daily and instantaneous appetites, “the news” gravitates to the most curious and fascinating stories, stories which are often far, far away from us. And even if they are in our same metro, in our modern megacities, there is often little if anything we can do about them.

Jeff Bilbro in his recent book Reading the Times calls them “distant dramas.” He quotes Barbara Klingsolver who observed almost twenty years ago, after the death of John F. Kennedy Jr.: “It’s possible to be so overtaken and stupefied by the tragedies of the world that we don’t have any time or energy left for those closer to home, the hurts we should take as our own.” And all the more for pastors! Brothers, it is so easy today to be “overtaken and stupefied by the tragedies of the world” that our time and energy for our own people, the ones we’ve been called to lead and feed, is severely compromised.

A third drawback related to the news today is its contribution to our information overload. One of the greater challenges of our time is learning to keep our heads and priorities and balance in the overwhelming glut of information. German philosopher Joseph Pieper wrote three decades ago, before the advent of the Internet, “The average person of our time loses the ability to see because there is too much to see!” (quoted in Bilbro, 11). And brothers, our “ability to see” is so precious to us as pastors — to see into God’s word, to see into our own souls, to see what’s really going on (not just at the surface) in our churches and in our world. As pastors, of all people, we cannot let the glut of information — so much to see! — keep us from truly seeing, at depth, what we are called to see.

One final drawback is that news avoidably traffics in “ephemera” — information that is here today and gone tomorrow, reports that are ephemeral in nature. In other words, trivia. When you’re producing news in real time, you have little context in which to discern what truly matters. You don’t know amidst what happened today (that is, the little bit you’re aware of) what’s most important. Time will tell.

“Feeding daily on the news inevitably habituates our souls to trivia.”

Many things “the news” reports prove over days and weeks and months and years to be somewhat important, stories that good citizens and good pastors might benefit (in modest ways) from being aware of. But much of it (even most of it) will prove ephemeral and trivial. Which means that feeding daily on the news inevitably habituates our souls to trivia in some sense. At least when you watch a movie or documentary, you’re seeing a product that took months to make. When you watch the news, you’re consuming a product thrown together in just hours, if not minutes.

So, how might we think positively about the news?

Edwards and the News

The news can provide us an opportunity, with biblically informed eyes, to consider God’s work in the world. Here’s where pastors might have a particular opportunity to lead the way in helping our people with how to engage the news with a Christian order, balance, and context. It begins in our own souls.

One way to get at this at a Bethlehem conference might be to ask, What would Jonathan Edwards do? Does he, of all people, have anything to say about the news? Edwards may be especially helpful since he lived a century before the telegraph, and the roaring news revolution that came in its wake. News in his day was markedly different. When he served as a pastor in New York in 1722–1723 (after graduating from Yale), he had there, in that port city, access to regular news (not nearly, of course, the flood we have today).

Here’s Marsden’s report about Edwards related to news:

Living near the docks in this seaport town [of New York] enhanced Jonathan’s keen interest in world affairs. As with everything else, he saw world events as . . . outward signs of spiritual realities, of what God was doing through human history. During his stay in New York he began making entries in his notebooks on the mysterious revelations of the last book of the Bible as a framework for understanding current events. This subject soon became a lifetime preoccupation. As he recalled of his New York days: “If I heard the least hint of any thing that happened in any part of the world, that appeared to me, in some respect or other, to have a favorable aspect on the interest of Christ’s kingdom, my soul eagerly catched at it; and it would much animate and refresh me. I used to be earnest to read public news-letters, mainly for that end; to see if I could not find some news favorable to the interest of [Christianity] in the world.” (Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 48; my emphasis)

Now, note that he is making entries in his journal, to reflect deeply on these things. Provided that there is a space for adequate reflection, he gives us a vision for redeeming the news: view it deliberately and unapologetically through the lens of Christ and his kingdom.

So, given the drawbacks and Edwards’s example, how might we today, as pastors, engage the news in such a way that it does not suffocate us, but actually refreshes us; that it does not conform us to the world, but opens our eyes to God’s work; that it does not pull us down and make us groaning pastors, but lifts our eyes, and hearts, and helps us do our pastoral work with joy — so that we might be an advantage, not a disadvantage, to our people.

That’s Hebrews 13:17. Hebrews instructs the congregants to do their part so that the pastors do their work “with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” And we pastors are supposed to hear: how important it is that we labor gladly. We cannot let news rob us of our joy in ministry. When we access news, we want it to animate and refresh our souls, as it did for Edwards, so that we might be workers with joy for the joy of our people.

How, then, might news refresh, rather than suffocate our joy, for the good of our churches?

1. Priority: God’s news first.

When we first get up in the morning, we often find in our souls an urge for something new or fresh. It’s a new day; what’s new for today? I do not think that this desire for something fresh first thing in the morning is a sinful desire. God gave it to us for him, to come first to him in the morning through his own words in Scripture, by the life-giving power of his Spirit, to find new mercies in the old, old story. We dare not replace the sweetness and the substance of his voice, first thing in the morning, with productized, marketed “news.” How tragic to aim our God-given desire for new morning mercies at the world’s reports on its patterns.

Rather than letting the world’s news set the mood, tone, and terms for our day, we want God to speak first. We prioritize him, through his word. And when he has fed our souls, and decidedly set the mood, and tone, and terms, then we are more ready, as the day unfolds, to navigate the world’s news with a full heart and level head.

Another way to frame it is where we go to “set our minds.”

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. (Colossians 3:1–2)

“Rather than letting the world’s news set the mood, tone, and terms for our day, we want God to speak first.”

Where do you go, first thing in the morning, to set your mind for the day? As Christians, and pastors all the more, we want our best, most focused, most engaged moments of the day — typically the first moments of the day — to be an unhurried season, away from noise and distraction, in which we steep our souls in God’s word.

It is telling that G.W.F. Hegel (1770–1831) said, “Reading the morning newspaper is the realist’s morning prayer.” The secularist awakes to the world’s news. The Christian awakes to Christ. Marvin Olasky, who worked in news for decades as the longtime editor of World Magazine, gives us this caution: “If we’re more desperate to keep up with the news than to keep up with the Bible, it’s not the gospel we trust, but our Facebook feed.”

So, first, brothers, are you keeping up with the Bible? Prioritize God’s daily new mercies. That priority then leads, secondly, to proportion.

2. Proportion: Access distant and local news with balance.

Proportion relates to being in the world, but not of it — or better, not of the world, but sent into it. Proportion means finding the balance of how often you access news, and for how long, and through what sources — and all the while counting the cost of what you’re not giving your mind and heart to when you do.

Olasky counsels that we learn to “hear the news without being occupied by it.” I will not pretend to know what that is for you. We have various callings and capacities and temperaments and sensitivities; and we find ourselves in different seasons of life. And even different days of the week might look vastly different. You might reasonably check in on local news more often if there’s a riot in your city. Or when a global pandemic first descends, that might draw you in more than usual. But, as a pastor, charged to work with joy for the joy of my people, I want to keep asking the Edwards question: Where do I see God at work? (Not that I make public pronouncements about my speculations!) Am I being “animated and refreshed” for spiritual purposes, or am I becoming burdened and depressed with “distant dramas” that I can do little, if anything, about?

For two thousand years, the pastoral vocation has consistently trafficked in books and sermons. Brothers, we are on good, solid, time-tested ground when we give the lion’s share of our spare moments to reading books and to carefully preparing sermons for our people. It is far from established that the work of our vocation transfers well to the new media. I would grant that some efforts by some pastors may be worthwhile by way of experimentation, but not by way of transfer or replacement. When Neil Postman, in the book Amusing Ourselves to Death, observes that “not all forms of discourse can be converted from one medium to another” (117), he does so in his chapter on religion, with sermons in view. And when Jeff Bilbro gives his content diet advice to “avoid marshmallows and eat vegetables” (57), he points to “long-form essays and books” as the vegetables. I’d only add sermons.

The Pastor’s Diet

In terms of proportion, Bilbro suggests we would be wise to “spend at least one — and probably more like two or three — minutes reading books or meaty essays for every minute we spend scrolling through a news feed, listening to the radio, or surfing around the internet checking in on the latest news” (59). Recently I heard Alastair Roberts suggest something similar: three minutes in a published book or thoughtful essay for every one minute in news or social media.

“We have an opportunity to model how little the daily trivia that fills our people’s week matters in light of eternity.”

As pastors, we have an opportunity on Sunday mornings to model for our people how little the daily trivia that fills our people’s week matters in light of eternity. At our church, at least, we do not pray for the latest news every Sunday, or mention fresh news stories regularly in the context of worship. We want our people to have Sunday mornings as a respite, a shelter in the storm of trivial, instantaneous news. We try to saturate our welcomes and prayers and preaching and teaching with God’s words and the eternal good news, not endless references to ephemera.

In John Piper’s first sermon as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, on July 13, 1980, he quoted the longtime pastor of First Baptist Dallas, W.A. Criswell, who said,

When a man goes to church, he often hears a preacher in the pulpit rehash everything that he has read in the editorials, the newspapers, and the magazines. On the TV commentaries he hears that same stuff over again, yawns, and goes out and plays golf on Sunday. When a man comes to church, actually what he is saying to you is this: “Preacher, I know what the TV commentator has to say; I hear him every day. I know what the editorial writer has to say; I read it every day. I know what the magazines have to say; I read them every week. Preacher, what I want to know is, does God have anything to say? If God has anything to say, tell us what it is.”

So, priority leads to proportion, and then proportion, we might say, is best worked out in the context of a good plurality.

3. Plurality: Work out your capacities among brothers.

By plurality, I mean fellow flesh-and-blood, real-life humans, consistently in our lives, committed to us and our good, whether in families, or churches, or fellow elders. We need post-Zoom embodied communities that help us recognize when we’re losing our balance. But especially for pastors, plurality means that our fellow pastor-elders — the plurality of leadership in the local church — have a critical role to play in our engaging the news well, and not falling into extremes.

We need to speak into each other’s lives as pastors on this very issue. Maybe you, or a fellow elder, are becoming jaded, and becoming unhealthily disengaged. I doubt that’s the most powerful temptation for many. Maybe you, or a fellow elder, are being pulled too much into the wormhole of daily news, and you need your fellow elders to help bring you back to your calling as a pastor, to feed your people and tell them what God has to say. As we pastors are among our people, not just our fellow elders, we not only model this for our people, but also get our own bearings in relation to the real-live flock God has given us. Whether your church is rural or urban, small or large, young or old, will make some difference.

To close — back to freeing some of you, who do not now feel refreshed by news, but suffocated by it — as a human, and a Christian, and a pastor, you are not responsible to know everything about anything, or something about everything, or even to know something about many things. But you are called, by the risen Christ, to know his word and feed his sheep.

Our people desperately need us to know the Bible and Christ’s good news backward and forward. Our people are living in a noisy, distracting, interrupting, demanding, unnerving, often depressing era of almost suffocating news, and they need us to be men of God’s word, and men of Christ’s gospel. They do not need for us to know the news better than them, or even as well as them. But they do need us to know them, and live among them, and graciously and untiringly, tell them what God has to say.