Why I have come off twitter (at least, for now)

After much time thinking about it, I have decided to come away from twitter. I will still keep the account live. As long as WordPress continues to auto-publish, links will continue to go up on twitter. But I won’t be there to engage with them.

I first went onto twitter, or at least began to use it meaningfully, as a blogger. It was a particularly helpful way to share my posts and engage with those who were interested enough to read them. It gave me a helpful way to share ideas, thoughts and opinions with decent real-time feedback and engagement with others.

In the early days, it also gave me a good opportunity to build up a profile for our ministry. I am not at all interested in curating a brand for myself. But when I first became pastor at Oldham Bethel Church we were a very small, struggling church. We were (and still are) working in one of the most deprived areas of the country. But nobody had heard of us, we couldn’t get people to countenance coming to help and we had a £1500 per month deficit between our income and outgoing such that, if we didn’t plug it pretty quickly, the church would fold within a couple of years. Twitter was a helpful means of raising the profile of our church, highlighting the needs and seeking support.

I pressed into twitter because it also provided lots of opportunities to build up friendships and support. Through having arguments online with people (more on which later) I have actually built up some really good friendships with the people I was arguing with. We have met up offline and built up solid relationships. I’ve even gone on to work together with some of them in shared organisations. Others have started to support our church financially. We have, in turn, decided to start financially supporting other churches because of those things too. Those discussions and engagements online were not fruitless, and we knew they weren’t fruitless. There was genuine value in being on twitter and it caused us to press in.

Over time, however, I found many of those who made it an interesting place to be were driven off by one thing or another. The thing about being interesting is that the interesting people actually have something to say. But twitter being what it is, many of those with something to say were driven away because they dared to say anything. The most uncharitable reading of everything is applied, pile-ons do happen and, in the end, many decide the whole thing is not becoming to the cause of Christ or their ministry. So, they up and leave.

Sadly, this means you tend to be left with those who have nothing very interesting to say – so can happily remain – and those who are ready to wage uncharitable war against anyone and anything they don’t like. All of which is to say, I found twitter became much more boring over time with fewer and fewer people saying anything interesting, challenging or provocative (in the good sense). There were also fewer and fewer willing to engage in any sort of interesting argument or discussion, which makes it considerably less appealing if you are a blogger looking for engagement.

Unlike some, I don’t find arguments at all difficult or unsettling. I quite like that sort of engagement. Not nastiness or pejorative, but nevertheless, people openly and clearly disagreeing and saying why. I find that sort of thing helpful and valuable. It doesn’t make me lose any sleep at night. But increasingly, I saw less and less of that. So, it became less valuable to stay on.

Unfortunately, these sorts of things do keep my wife up at night. Whilst I couldn’t care less if people I don’t really know are raging at something I said, she finds it incredibly difficult. I think if God can sit in the Heavens and laugh, there’s no reason I can’t sit in my lounge and do the same. But my wife is built differently to me. Of course, some of the “arguments” were not really arguments at all. I knew the people I was arguing with offline and I could have a chat with them about whatever the latest thing is on the phone or by some other medium. I had an ongoing friendship with them that meant it was never really a proper argument. The opinions of those I don’t know and who know little about me simply did not worry me. But all of that was a toll on my wife, who eventually had enough of days off and holidays derailed by these sorts of things.

The thing I find much harder to cope with is people insisting I must speak about what they have decided I must speak about. I object to being compelled to do what someone else has decided I must. As twitter increasingly became a place of campaigning for one thing or another, I was often asked to speak into things about which I know nothing. I did not know the situations nor the people involved. If I said such, I was met with disbelief. Either I was lying or was complicit in some way. If I didn’t publicly drag the name of someone I either don’t know very well (if at all) or I didn’t distance myself from someone publicly who I do know a bit but have no knowledge about whatever the thing is, I was implicated myself. I was increasingly put in the position of saying something about a matter I knew nothing about or saying nothing about it and having my own character dragged because I (in the eyes of some) had a platform and was not using it to support them in their quest for justice in a matter I had no credible knowledge of. I have always hated this and find those who seek to do it objectionable.

Recently, Al Gooderham came off twitter. He noted another related thing that I have increasingly found too. It also played a major part in why I have decided to leave. He says:

I see too many unhealthy, ungodly, clashes between brothers and sisters who I love and whose ministries I respect, carried out in an ungodly manner in a public forum because someone wrote or tweeted something that was a trigger or landmine for someone else.

And quite simply it makes me sad to see those I love publicly attack or malign others in a public forum while the world in need of Christ watches on with glee as Christ’s name is trampled.  And I find it frustrating to see so many competing agendas and issues clash without the godly application of grace and generosity to them that I assume we would apply to in person discussions.  All while the world in need of Christ, and countless souls, facing a lost eternity are turned away from the gospel by our 280 character missives that fail to glorify Christ, love our neighbours, portray gospel hope, and model the gracious reconciliation of a people united under Christ.

I can think of several examples of exactly this off the top of my head. Examples where some were begging me to comment. Examples where I am reading one thing more charitably than others – even if I don’t think it entirely without its problems – and yet, on the other hand, see people baying for blood whilst dismissing others on exactly the same terms they are objecting to in the thing with which they originally took issue. The justifications for such things have a remarkably ungodly whiff of the world about them too. Whether they are apparent cries for justice or they are defensive attempts to mitigate perceived damage, the justifications for doing this on all sides always sound very much like worldly arguments to me dressed up with a thin veneer of Christianese to sanctify them. But I fear twitter is setup so that is all we are ever likely to get if it is the forum of choice for us to do these things.

I am tired of the unerring, unending drive for ‘something to be done’ when it is apparent nothing will be. I fully understand the reasons why people take to twitter for these things. I have much sympathy in some of the cases. But everyone’s life is made miserable through it when, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news but the brutal reality is, sometimes life is unfair and justice will not be done in this life. Sometimes, for the sake of the gospel, our own mental health and the sanity of most people who have nothing to do with the matter and can do nothing about it either, we just have to accept that people tret us badly and we might perhaps have to think carefully about how we engage with them in the future. But everything is a campaign now. Few seem to have 1 Corinthian 6:7-8 in mind at all. Frankly, I am tired of being expected to speak about things I have no knowledge of, can do nothing about and am compelled by some to say something when I know full well whatever I say is baseless and will inevitably receive opprobrium from somewhere. I see no reason to invite such misery upon myself.

Everyone, it seems, wants everyone else to say what they think is the case and you are complicit if you don’t. Silence is violence. If you don’t hate who I hate, if you do but you don’t say so, you are just as bad. The problem is, I don’t think any of that is true. I think, more often than not, silence is just people who don’t have the wherewithal to tell one side from the other, who don’t have the evidence or the skills to determine the matter, choosing not to insist one person is right and another is wrong because – and this is the key point – they simply do not know. Sometimes, they don’t want to know because, frankly, they aren’t miserable yet and don’t see a reason to become so. Sometimes people don’t want to say anything because they know that the system is setup to pummel them if they get it wrong and they don’t have any great confidence they will, or are even in a position to, get it right. Who, other than God himself, has the capacity to know everything to that degree? Few will have the ability to withstand the onslaught if they get it wrong, and being fallible we inevitably will at some point. Frankly, I am tired of all that.

Whilst much has been said of the arguments and apparent fights on twitter, I am still convinced – as I outlined here and we discussed here – there is an even bigger problem of Christian sanctimony. Indeed, I suspect much of the twitter storms we see are actually dressed up sanctimony. Thank God I am not like this person who said that thing. I have never had much time for that sort of thing. Christians have a bad enough rep for walking round with our noses in the air already, but many of us take to twitter to make sure an even greater number of people know that we hold them and their lifestyle in contempt. If not those things, their opinions. In the end, I just don’t see how any of that stuff serves the gospel.

In the past, when others were speaking about the dangers of twitter, I was keen to highlight some of the benefits of staying on (see here and here for example). There have been a lot of genuinely good things that have happened in our church thanks to social media. We have been seen and known by people who would never have heard or known of us. That has helped us build networks, find funding, work with like-minded churches and whole host of other excellent things that would never have happened if it were not for twitter. I am genuinely grateful that it existed for that.

But over time, there has been much less of that. Engagement on twitter shrunk. The people we were speaking with became a much smaller pool. Many of the interesting voices were driven off twitter, limiting valuable discussion and the ability to build networks. It has been a good few years since we have seen new relationships built or support coming through the likes of twitter.

But that has come alongside an increase in unhelpful things. Twitter has become a less and less helpful place to be. I remember one pastor once saying, ‘sometimes you have to choose joy’. Sometimes, we have to actively choose not to engage with what is likely to make us more miserable. And in all honesty, I am happy to put up with a bit of misery if I think there is genuine fruit worth having from it. Indeed, I am wired to put up with a lot if I can see some real benefit from it or purpose in it. Increasingly, I am seeing only misery and not a right lot of fruit to be gained anymore.

Nor am I convinced all the trouble is ‘out there’. I speak frankly and openly about what I think. I appreciate not everyone gets on well with that. I try not to be pejorative and unpleasant, but I appreciate tone is particularly badly conveyed on twitter, and even more so when someone is offering forthright opinions. That isn’t always helpful. I often make jokes because I find them funny, whether they’re edifying or not is something I tend to worry about much later. I see things on twitter I don’t need to see. I hear things on twitter I don’t need to hear. My mind is often full of things on twitter that are of no value to me and even less value to my church. I wish I could have signed off every tweet to the glory of God. I think we all know I can’t. But then, I suspect very few of us – looking back over our twitter feeds – could sign off every tweet to the glory of God either. Which makes its own case for coming off, doesn’t it?

So, I am deciding to take a break from twitter. I am hoping it may become a permanent break, but let’s see. I am not leaving because of my mental health, which is currently fine. I am not leaving because someone upset me; nobody has done anything in particular. I am leaving, ultimately, because where there used to be fruit – despite the negatives – there seems to be much less to be found these days. I am leaving because the positives seem less prevalent and the negatives more evident. This is a tipping of the balance thing.

In the end, the final straw was WordPress and Twitter not talking to one another. This was a key reason for using twitter; to allow engagement for my blog. Whilst they have now fixed that issue, it prompted me to think again about whether I actually want to be here. My blog will continue to ping there for as long as WordPress and Twitter keep talking to one another. But I won’t be checking it and I won’t be there to engage with what anybody may say about it. I’d suggest you come here and find it directly or sign up for email reminders and don’t rely on social media prompts (that is, if you want to read it at all). If you are remaining on twitter, I wish you well. But as for me and my house, we will do something else for the sake of God’s glory and because sometimes you just have to choose joy.