[ 6 minutes to read ]Computer programming and pastoral ministry
… and never the twain shall meet.
– Rudyard Kipling Donald Knuth is a computer scientist most well known for his multi-volume work, The Art of Computer Programming. His magnum opus was first conceived of in 1962 with the first volume published in 1968. Since then, he has continued writing and revising and publishing. This work is so long and difficult that Bill Gates once urged anyone who could read the whole thing to send him a resume.
Knuth is also well known for not having an email address. A computer scientist who doesn’t have an email address? Of course, he had an email address from 1975 to January 1, 1990, back when most of us had never even heard of email. He opted out of email to concentrate on finishing his books and he does have a postal address and fax number where you can send communications, which will be filtered by his secretary and looked at by him every 3-6 months. He has a statement on his website, if you’re interested in seeing it.
The nexus of programming and pastoring
In Knuth’s statement about email, he wrote:
Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study.
If you think about it, that statement is not too far off from the primary work of pastoring. The pulpit ministry is an area where the preacher has to get to the bottom of things and needs many hours of study, thinking, writing, and unbroken concentration. He has to learn the text exhaustively and set about the work of translating that into an understandable and accessible form for his people. I honestly doubt that too much time could be given to this work to do it adequately. Pastoral ministry is truly a calling to lifelong, dedicated study for preaching and teaching.
On the other hand, the pastor cannot devote all his time to getting to the bottom of things because he also has to be on top of things to an extent. The calling is not to preach and teach to a video camera, but rather to shepherd a particular group of people. You are called to serve a people in a time and a place. Being on top of things as a pastor means being in communication with and accessible to your people. It means remaining in touch with real life, current events, and the issues facing them daily. It means being aware of the dominant worldviews around you and being ready to defend the truth and help bolster the faith of your people from the attacks they are receiving.
Pastoral ministry is a delicate balancing act between getting to the bottom of things and staying of top of things. A pastor should block out some time and concentrate on getting to the bottom, but he cannot rule out being on top of things. It is a difficult calling and no one man gets this balance right all the time.
On second thought
Knuth’s web page raises another question. Why does he have a dedicated public statement about email? Of course, he must be swamped with correspondence and that’s a way to weed some out. But, why a statement about emails and not telegrams, for instance? Don’t be ridiculous. Who sends telegrams? Ah, my point precisely.
Email is ubiquitous and I’m sure it’s just assumed among the circle he must move in. Email is a near-instantaneous way to contact someone. Email is quick and the process provides little friction for slowing down to think. The process of writing and mailing a letter or fax is slower, requires more effort, and encourages more thought. If your purpose is to hastily excoriate, you’re more likely to use the quickest method and refrain from putting too much work into it. The near-instantaneous nature of digital communication also causes interruption and the sender expects quick reply.
I conclude Knuth is only adapting to the world around him and ordering things in a way most beneficial to his purposes. That brings us to think about how preachers should adapt to the world around them. Young preachers today are coming up in a different environment than a mere twenty years ago. We have always on, instant access, digital connections through cell phones and social media online. The sermons that you preach will most likely be online somewhere. Everything you write will be online as well. When you preach somewhere, it will likely be mentioned online. People will tag you in pictures they have taken, mention your name in posts, and likely share something from you with their friends. They are probably going to publicly disagree with you and criticize you at times.
This is just reality today. The generation ahead of me thinks it a breech of social etiquette to post a picture of someone online without that person’s consent. The generation behind me doesn’t even think about it, but posts pictures without hesitation. I’ve had conversations about whether a person should post a pic of someone else without their permission. It doesn’t really matter what you or I think about that practice, it’s how things are done and the generation behind me doesn’t even consider it. Go find someone older than you and ask them what would happen if a frog had wings . . . You can wish things to be different than they are but reality is what it is and that’s what we have to work with.
My point is that the world is different for young preachers today and you need to be aware of that. I don’t have strong feelings one way or the other about whether you should be on social media. For young preachers especially, you’re going to be on there one way or another. In light of that, I want to mention a few things to think about in regard to adapting to this digital world of ours. These are things I have wrestled with myself and I hope they can be a help to young preachers to think about it.
- Your profile. Social sites give you the ability to craft and filter the image of yourself the world sees. Many profiles are a fiction, a character that has been created, and not a reflection of reality. It can happen accidentally or deliberately. As a preacher, you need to keep in mind that you are a preacher of the Gospel and representative of Jesus Christ and his church. Let everything you do online reflect that properly. I’m not suggesting that you be inauthentic, but you should be thoughtful about your opinions and preferences and how the expression of those may alienate many of the very people you ought to be reaching. Do your likes and dislikes really matter, and especially if their constant expression hinders the Gospel?
- Your posts. The things you post, comment on, like, and share are opportunities to do good or harm. You can do harm by displaying a bitter spirit, obscuring Gospel truth, or causing unnecessary offenses. You can do good by always posting with grace (Colossians 4:6), love (Ephesians 4:15), gentleness (2 Timothy 2:24), patience and meekness (2 Timothy 2:25). Be thoughtful to avoid strife and foolish questions, which abound on social sites (2 Timothy 2:23).
Some dangers online
This point quickly became more than a bullet point so it will be the last section. I can’t address all dangers of being online, but pursuant to my purpose, I want to think about some dangers in our public interactions on social media.
We can now publicly post about something that has happened within seconds of it happening. We can immediately respond to something going on in the world or being posted online. History has never known this capability. This possibility has also given an opportunity for folly to be broadcast in grand proportions. Fools love to pour out their foolishness like water from a five-gallon bucket (Proverbs 15:2). They post quickly and often (Proverbs 29:20). They post quickly without thought and without knowing the matter (Proverbs 18:13, 17). They respond to everything, or the latest thing, quickly because they are not as concerned for truth and facts as they are for venting their feelings and opinions (Proverbs 18:2; 13:16). The quickness of their emoting or bloviating shows that they never stop to consider whether they are someone who should say something about whatever is going on (Proverbs 26:17, 21, 27).
Wisdom knows that our words can do lasting damage or give life (Proverbs 12:18). Wisdom teaches us our words should be fewer (Proverbs 10:19) and more thoughtful (Proverbs 15:28). Our words can be used to stir up strife or to calm things down (Proverbs 15:1). Wisdom also teaches that we don’t have to respond to everything, or address everything. There is wisdom in knowing when to simply walk away (Proverbs 29:9; 26:4). Let you words be wise ones, even the digital ones and then frogs don’t need wings.