This is part one of a 2-part excerpt from a doctoral essay. I apologize my footnotes didn’t transfer.
“A world without letters would surely be a world without oxygen.”
I have spent the past several months studying classical letter correspondences from the ancient world—the Roman philosophers Cicero and Seneca, the Roman magistrate Pliny, the letters of Paul to his churches, and the letters of the great church fathers such as Augustine, Jerome and Basil.
I have seen how with some prayerful strokes of the pen or heartfelt clicks on a keyboard, a pastor can encourage the timid, rouse spiritual slumberers, share one’s spiritual joy, and refresh weary souls. Instead of flinging a relatively impersonal sermon out over a nameless crowd each Sunday, a personal letter to the right person at the right time can fling a shepherd’s arms around a wounded or wandering sheep, refreshing the soul.
So, how can the archaic practice of “Letter Writing” be revived for pastoral ministry in our rapidly changing Digital Age? What can Basil, a fourth century monastic bishop writing from his remote mountain villa in Turkey, possibly teach a twenty-first century pastor leading a church of young professionals in Simi Valley or New York City? Should pastors ditch their Twitter accounts, shut down their blogs, boycott Facebook and start licking stamps instead of sending emails? Moreover, if the primary aim of this study is to foster more relational approaches to ministry, hasn’t the Digital Age provided us with more ways to connect with people than ever before in history?
David Bourgeois is one of many who thinks social media and increased digital connectivity provides church leaders with “unprecedented opportunities to connect with people yearning for community with others and God.” His book gives pastors a step-by-step guide for how to “make the most of every opportunity to extend your ministry’s electronic reach and impact.” Other churches now staff full time Social Media Pastors whose job it is to leverage every possible online platform to expand their ministry reach.
While few would argue against the importance of engaging with and utilizing technology and social media in ways that advance the gospel and enhance human relationships, others are more focused on what is being lost in this Digital Age and mindful of the many new challenges brought on by technology. Studies are just beginning to pour in on the effects of social media on the first generation to grow up “online.”
Most Connected, Yet Most Isolated Generation
For the purposes of this study, my basic claim is that while digital media has allowed us to be connected with more people more often, the quality and depth of our interactions is steadily diminishing. The most connected people in the history of the human race are also proving to be some of the most lonely and isolated. Our days are filled with a continuous stream of emoji-laden text messages and hurried ‘Just-give-me-the-facts’ emails that can sound so tinny compared with the time-consuming, heart-throbbing correspondences. Do we realize what we are losing with the diminishment of personal letters? Simon Garfield does:
“The world once used to run upon their transmission—the lubricant of human interaction and the freefall of ideas, the silent conduit of the worthy and the incidental, the time we were coming for dinner, the account of our marvelous day, the weightiest joys and sorrows of love. It must have seemed impossible that their worth would ever be taken for granted or swept aside. A world without letters would surely be a world without oxygen….The recent decline in letter writing marks a cultural shift so vast that in the future historians may divide time not between BC and AD but between the eras when people wrote letters and when they did not.”
Garfield’s book attempts to recover the lost art of letter writing today in order to “create a form of expression, emotion, and tactile delight we may clasp to our heart.” I suggest pastors should do the same by supplementing their preaching, blogging, tweeting, and the daily routine of short, hurried email exchanges with the practice of thoughtful pastoral letter writing. Whether it be handwritten letters or a more thoughtful emails, this is one relatively simple way for shepherds to bless their people with a tangible “expression, emotion and tactile delight”—something they can “clasp to [their] heart” and carry with them longer than the fading memory of the latest sermon.
Pastors are equally at risk of letting more efficient forms of connectivity diminish the personal nature and relational quality of our ministry. Many Pastors today broadcast their thoughts all week long through a sermon podcast, blog, and Twitter, but are they finding ways to engage their flock in more personal ways? Consider the pastoral implications of podcasting “disembodied” sermons to a nameless, faceless mass of people “out there” somewhere who lack any relationship with a pastor. A megachurch pastor might have 50,000+ people downloading their sermons each week, but they have personally met only a handful of them ever. Many of these ear-bud Christians, to echo Jesus, are confused and helpless, like podcast subscribers without a pastor (cf. Matt 9:36). They are being “fed” weekly but are they truly known by a caring Shepherd?
In one of his last interviews, Eugene Peterson offered sage advice to young pastors: “I don’t think you can help anyone live a congruent life without knowing their name. How can you be personally involved in someone’s life and not know who their children are, who their spouses are, or the trials they go through every day? It just doesn’t work.”
Before we protest that this kind of intimacy is only possible in a small town-and-country congregation, Peterson says, “If you’re content to stay with one congregation for a while, you could have a congregation of four, five, six hundred, and still know everyone. I had a congregation of 600, and I knew everybody’s name.” Whether pastoring a church of 50 or 5,000, one way to begin engaging some of your people by name is through an intentional rhythm of pastoral letter writing.
Next time I will offer some practical benefits of pastoral letter writing for ministry today.