By Leonard Sweet
I have been on twitter for less than a year, but it has already changed my life.
Twitter is less than two years old, with fewer than fifty employees and, as far as anyone can tell, no business plan. It has grown so fast that the site is rickety and unreliable, with the “fail whale” icon showing up all too frequently (a sign that the volume of tweets has overwhelmed the site’s ability to keep up). When you’re using twitter you get same feeling our ancestors must have when they turned the crank of the model-T.
But I can’t imagine life without twitter. A case can be made for twitter on the basis of twitter’s role in the communications revolution (this would lead me to defend tweets during worship), or in political revolutions taking place around the world (Iran, for example). But I want to make a more personal case: Twitter makes me a better Jesus disciple, partly because twitter is my laboratory for future ministry. Here’s why.
Twitter only knows two categories: who are you following, and who are your followers. Twitter’s categorical imperative is one of followership, not leadership.
Jesus’ category is “leader.” My fundamental category is “follower.” Even when Jesus calls me up to the front of the line, I still lead “from behind.” For the last fifty years the church has made a fetish of a word that is hard to find even once in the New Testament (“leader”) and has ignored a word that is found hundreds of times (“mathetes” or “follower,” “disciple”). Twitter is a daily reminder that everything doesn’t rise and fall on leadership but on followership—-who am I following, and who is following me. The name “Christian” (“little Christ”) was given to believers in Antioch (Acts 11:26) because people saw in them the Christ they followed.
Paul said “follow me as I follow Christ.” In twitter’s ethic of followership, I am constantly reframing reality in ways that are more Jesus—more grace-full, more forgiving, more loving, more humorous—-and helping my “followers” to better follow Christ. I am constantly on the prowl for things that could encourage, enrich, inspire. I want my tweeps either to smile after reading one of my tweets, or to shake their head and sing, “What a Tweep We Have in Jesus.” In my ongoing battle with self-transcendence over self-absorption, twitter has helped me become more others-focused.
For the One who taught us to be “in” the world but not “of” the world (or “out of it” either), the question is not “Would Jesus Tweet?” but “What Would Jesus Tweet?” The twitter question of “What are you doing?” has been replaced in my mind with “What is God doing?” and “Where do I see Jesus?” and “What am I paying attention to?”
With a new list of followers every day, and an unlimited number of potential followers, I am also reminded daily that the most important people in my life I haven’t met yet.
2) Sound Bytes that Bite
If you can’t say it in everyday words, you probably don’t understand it yourself. And if you can’t say it in less than 140 characters, you can’t say it in a way that can connect with a Google world. The first task of a missionary is to learn the language. In a Google world there is no logos without logo.
In spite of all the warnings about trading in caricature and cliche, most of history’s greatest books and thinkers have distilled their thoughts into a 140 character tweet. In fact, the single killer sentence is what has changed the world.
No one was better at tweets than Jesus. Jesus was a master at sound bytes that bite with terseness and immediacy. In fact, he was always twittering the gospel in pithy, memorable phrases, and even expressed his gospel in The Great Tweet: “Love one another as I have loved you.” I suspect his followers would be well advised to RT (ReTweet) everything he said.
To say that someone is bubbling in or around the surface of a subject is not to say something nice. This is the greatest critique of twitter: its numbing, crushing banality. Do I really need to know when you finished brushing your teeth this morning? Or what toothpaste you used? Do I really need to see a picture of your kid in the hospital with a fork through his nose with the tweet “What happens when you run holding a fork straight up?”
But life is not just about the depths. Life is also about the surfaces. I spend large parts of my life with academics who spend their careers exploring the depths. Many seldom come up. You come up for the air of communication and relationship, and when you spend all your time in the depths you find yourself talking only to yourself. People with highly sensitive seismographs for souls, like writers and artists, often rail against the shallowness of living and refuse to compromise and play in the spray. That’s my theory for the high incidence of suicidal behavior if not suicide among artists and poets.
We need a theology of the surface in tandem with our theology of the depths. As Alice in Wonderland reminds us: “All this digging deep I dislike because if you dig deep all you dig is a pit into which you may fall yourself, or a well at the bottom of which there is nothing but treacle.”1 So far from the surface replacing the depths, in looking for something to tweet about, I find myself paying attention to life in heightened ways. With twitter every day is an awakening to things that never would have registered before. Twitter gives me openings in which to dive into newly discovered depths.
Life is a bunch of little things. These little things add up, and twitter reminds me to be grateful for the little things and to celebrate the little and the simple. In my list of “50 Reasons Why I Love Twitter,” Reason #33 is “A place where serious people can think serious thoughts about trivial things.” Terry Tempest Williams, in her book Finding Beauty in a Broken World (2008) says: “I used to believe that truth was found only below the surface of things. . . But something changed. . . I am interested now in what my eyes can see, what my fingers can touch.”2
A good beer is a subtle symmetry between froth and substance. A good life is a dance of depth and surface.
One of the highest compliments you can pay me? “Sweet, you do shallow well.”
4) Global Commons
This was the reason that initially convinced me to enter the twitterverse. Social media guru Aaron Linne challenged me to think of twitter like a medieval village green. If we were living a millennium ago, our lives would revolve around a village commons. In the course of a day, we would physically pass each other many times and exchange greetings: “How was your lunch?” “Who you working for now?” “What is in your hands?” Wireless technology enables those multiplicity of personal exchanges to take place today, except now it’s with people from around the world. Twitter is the new global commons.
Like soothsayers reading entrails, I conduct twea-leaf readings. Twitter both connects me to others and to what’s hot, what’s current, what’s the reigning gossip and styles of this new global village. There is nothing sadder than Young Turks turned into Old Geezers. And it can happen overnight. In fact, I like to think of myself as the “pastor” of this twitter parish. In the course of a day’s passings (“postings”) on the village commons, I try to find ways to encourage my “parishioners” (Barnabas blasts, I call them), and be a positive, healing energy in their lives.
The question social media poses is one easily answered: are the residents of your global commons reflective of our global community? Or are they only mirrors of yourself? How many people of different races, classes, continents, and religions are part of your social universe?
5) Social Solitude
I’m a hermit at heart. Twitter is made for hermits. It enables me to shut myself off without shutting anything or anybody out. It enables me to simultaneously give myself away and never stop hiding. You might call the twitterscape one of social solitude.
My life is like a barbell: lots of weight on the social end, and lots of weight on solitude end with not much in between other than the handle (read long lines at airports) that connects the socialness with the solitude. Twitter now let’s me do my solitude in society; it let’s me be anonymous in groups.
These 5 reasons may explain why of all the social media (MySpace, Facebook, etc.), twitterers are the most religious.3 But for me, these are the 5 Ways Twitter Has Changed My Life and made me into a better follower of Jesus.
© 2009 by Leonard Sweet
1. Alice in Wonderland
2. As cited by Tom Wylie in The Bloomsbury Review, January/February 2009
3. Beth Snyder Bulik, “What Your Favorite Social Net Says about You,” Advertising Age, 13 July 2009, 6.
|Dr. Leonard Sweet is the E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism at Drew University, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at George Fox University. Voted one of the “50 Most Influential Christians in America,” Dr. Sweet is the author of more than one hundred articles, over six hundred published sermons, and a wide array of books including The Gospel According to Starbucks (WaterBrook) and So Beautiful: Divine Design for Life and the Church (David C. Cook).|