Peeling Back the Layers

Maybe I should share it and maybe I shouldn’t, but Jennifer asked me recently if I’d ever thought about using a content subscription service like Patreon. I know why she asked. Because as it may also be for you, the need to make ends meet is never far from us. Thinking creatively, she knows that I put out thousands of words a week across various platforms, and I do all of it pretty much because I can, without personal benefit. I’ve said before, I often consider my writing proclivity to be more of an affliction. I’m stricken with the need to observe and then scribble into words what I’ve observed. Most folks with the same disease use it to make a living. I can’t even imagine writing for a living, other than to consider the basics of what I’m already doing as a pastor in service to the Gospel.

Either way, Jen’s questioning prompted at least two thoughts worth considering this morning.

The conversation continued with me saying, essentially, no, I haven’t thought of using Patreon. Although, my response was more, “I’ll look into it when things slow down a bit.” That’s my default reply. It’s not a lie. I’m always hoping for things to slow down. But she and I know they never do. She went on to ask if I sometimes feel like I’ll look back on my life with regret, concerned that I’ll have spent too much time running myself ragged. I didn’t tiptoe around that question. Yes, that thought has crossed my mind. I’ll bet it has crossed yours, too. I do my best to be honest when it does, admitting I’m sometimes to blame for my own busyness. Not always. But sometimes. And I say that with a caveat.

For one, the simple truth is that pastors are often treated like genies in bottles. (By the way, I wrote about this in my book Ten Ways to Kill a Pastor.) No matter the relevance of the need, people rub the pastoral lamp through an email, text, phone call, private message, or whatever (at any given moment at any particular hour of the day) with the expectation the pastor will immediately pop out with a willingness to do whatever is needed. Like other pastors, I struggle with this. But before you take offense at this, let me explain.

For me, the struggle comes because I have a tendency to look at everything as an opportunity for ministry, and as a result, I have a hard time saying no. A real-world instance of how this gets me into trouble could be, for example, those moments when a non-member who just so happens to know me—or is referred by someone—reaches out to ask me to come and pray with a dying friend or a sick relative. As it relates to my official duties, this is not necessarily my responsibility. As it relates to my calling as a Christian, it is. I know this, and so, I wrestle with what to do. More often than not, I find myself willing to commit to just one more thing (on top of an already overwhelming stack of things in a bustling congregation and school requiring a lot of attention) because I’m hoping there’s a chance the Gospel will be heard and take root. I do this fully aware that if I say yes, it’ll be an overtax on my family, my actual duties, and my health. If I say no, it’s likely I’ll be interpreted as cold, ultimately representing the congregation as uncaring, and possibly seeing an extended relationship come undone.

Believe it or not, these types of situations happen more than you might think. I get requests like this regularly. If you don’t believe me, just ask our office administrator, Georgine.

Still, even when I say no, admittedly, I’m more than capable of making bad choices with the limited free time I do have. I almost always fill it with something I hope will be productive. Perhaps it’s inherent to pastors to be as Longfellow described, which is “up and doing, with a heart for any fate; still achieving, still pursuing….” There’s always something that needs doing in any congregation. Personally, I’d argue that if the pastor isn’t relatively tempted by countless opportunities for service, it’s likely he’s not all that attuned to his role and its surroundings.

Carrying this back around to Jennifer’s question about Patreon, a second thought comes to mind.

I suppose when it comes to using something like Patreon, I also mentioned to Jennifer that I’m not so sure people would subscribe. I say this because the kind of writing I do is far different than what’s popular.

Just look at what’s in front of you right now. My content is rarely brief.

I know, I know. Countless people would say less is more. Mindful of this, I try to be as crisp as I can. It’s just that when I start thinking about something I want to say, I often get lost in the layers, feeling the need to share with the reader what I’ve discovered—or at least pondered—and then fill any potential holes. As a result, a paragraph turns into two, followed by a free-thinking examination of those first two paragraphs that becomes two more, and so on.

I can’t just give a little. I want to be thorough. Remember, everything is an opportunity for ministry. This includes everything I write.

Digging deeper, I’m not sure people would pay a couple of bucks a month to read that deeply. As a society, we no longer exist in an age designed for that kind of content. We’re living in a time of memes, mic-drop soundbites, and pithy Tik-Tok videos created and uploaded while driving. Unfortunately, people aren’t just being entertained by these things. They’re being trained by them, too. They’re learning that life’s important things can be received and understood in 15-second intervals.

In short, the exchange of humanity’s thoughts seems to have become little more than an ever-streaming attempt at witty succinctness that really has no handles, nothing to grab onto. People think what they’re hearing is a truth bomb. But it really isn’t. It’s a superficial statement filled with gigantic holes. Its hook is more emotional than substantial. I suppose folks working at genius levels can accomplish hole-less truth bombs that do both. Admittedly, Jordan Peterson seems capable of such things. Ben Shapiro, too. But that’s two people. Last I heard, there were almost five billion people using social media on any given day. The best any of the rest of us non-geniuses can do is to be as lucid as possible—to take a chance at presenting an intelligible case made from the best words in the best order and sent along with the best of intentions. That takes work on both sides of the digital screen. Most people don’t want to work in this way. They want to be spoon fed the sweeter things. In our internet age, anyone willing to work—whether it be a person wishing to write substantially for public consumption or someone eager to be taught and then employ what they’ve learned in the surrounding world—nowadays, these people risk vicious cancellation. And why? Because sinful human beings prefer what pads the throne upon which they’re already sitting. Soundbite communications are designed to be that padding—to be emotionally comfortable, and ultimately, subjectively moldable to almost anyone’s closely-held ideology.

I don’t recall who said it, but someone once observed that few people would bother speaking at all if they actually knew how much of what they were saying was being misunderstood. To overcome this—to actually understand other people and their ideas in a way that benefits society—we must be working from points of origin that are far more than witty posts from our favorite influencers. It takes deeper levels of interaction, concentration, and contemplation—far more than what Tik-Tok videos and Facebook stories can provide.

Saint Paul wrote in Colossians 4:6 that Christians should be capable of giving an answer to anyone who asks. Saint Peter said something similar in 1 Peter 3:15. He noted the need for “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you….” Giving an answer and making a thorough defense means being equipped for conversation with content. It means study. Study takes work. It understands that being able to answer one question is possible with a little work. But it’ll take more to answer a second and third, or a fourth and fifth. Normal human conversations are rarely one or two sentences in length. They’re dialogues. They require content.

Mindful of people’s New Year’s resolutions, maybe a worthy exercise would be to start thinking through and then challenging (if necessary) your friends’ one-sentence social media posts before clicking “like.” After a little more thought, you might realize the foolishness in the meme I stumbled upon this morning which reads, “You don’t need a lot of friends to be happy, just a few real ones who appreciate you for who you are.”

Neat picture. Very moving. Two women toasting with a bottle of wine between them. However, these emotional hooks don’t change how stupid the meme is. It sounds nice, but it’s foolishly shallow. And it’s inviting moral disaster. I won’t tell you how. Take a minute to think about it. Just know there are a gazillion of these narcissistic messages feeding the egos of billions. I think folks will need to dig deeper to avoid becoming one of the billions.