The surveillance society and the life of a pastor

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The surveillance society and the life of a pastor

October 18, 2022 - Jim Denison, PhD

A woman takes a photo with her cell phone. © aerogondo/stock.adobe.com

A woman takes a photo with her cell phone.

A woman takes a photo with her cell phone. © aerogondo/stock.adobe.com

A woman in Arkansas was waiting in a Starbucks drive-through line when she watched a Starbucks employee pray from her pick-up window with a customer in a car ahead of them. She took a photo of the exchange and later told a reporter that she and her fourteen-year-old son “were having a discussion about how much we loved that she stopped what she is doing and was bold in her faith and cared enough to pray with someone.”

The story illustrates this truth: in a cellphone era, every moment can be captured digitally for the entire world to see.

This fact came home to me last weekend when my wife and I returned to a previous pastorate to speak at a conference they hosted. For three days we lived in the church’s mission house and spent time on the church campus. It was a wonderful experience to be back with such gracious friends. The current pastor has become a dear and trusted friend, and joining him in this experience was a great privilege.

Nonetheless, the experience reminded me of what you experience every day: you’re always “on.” There is never a moment when someone you pastor or someone who knows someone you pastor could not see you and critique whatever you’re doing or wearing or saying.

Being a local church pastor has always meant living in a glass house, but with today’s omnipresent technology, this is truer than ever before.

Consider three cultural and biblical responses.

One: A materialistic culture judges us in materialistic ways.

Secularism defines us in secular terms: how we look, what we drive, where we live, what we’re doing. It has no context or category for an inner life or a larger spiritual dimension to reality.

A counselor once explained to me the way many people determine their self-image: “I am not what I think I am. I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am.”

The Bible says just the opposite, of course: we are what God says we are. And he says we are his children, loved absolutely and unconditionally by the God of the universe. Nothing our culture says about us can change this reality. There is nothing our world can do to make God love us any more or any less than he already does.

This fact is good to remember when we are being judged and critiqued by others. It is an important counterbalance to the employer-employee mentality that many church boards have with their pastors and other vocational staff.

No matter how last Sunday went or next Sunday goes, you are not what you do. Your ultimate worth is based on what Jesus has already done.

Two: We are always on view before an omniscient God.

In a real sense, nothing about the cellphone era changes the fact that we are already on view always, without exception, before an audience of One. Even more than what a mobile phone captures, he knows us intimately (Psalm 139:2). He knows every future sin and mistake we do not yet know we will commit.

As a result, we should live constantly in light of his holy omniscience.

  • This fact involves our thoughts: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).
  • It involves our attitudes and emotions: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23).
  • It involves our private words: “On the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36).
  • It involves our professional words: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1).
  • It involves our actions: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).

Here’s a good test: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Three: We cannot live holy lives without the power of the Holy Spirit.

Just typing these verses discourages me. I know how far I fall short of these biblical standards and know that God knows even more of our failures than I am willing to admit to myself.

The good news is that God’s Spirit will give us the power we need to live by God’s word for God’s glory. Beginning every day alone with my Father (Mark 1:35) by surrendering my day and life to his Spirit (Ephesians 5:18) is not optional but mandatory.

D.A. Carson was right: “People do not drift toward holiness. Apart from grace-driven effort, people do not gravitate toward godliness, prayer, obedience to Scripture, faith, and delight in the Lord. We drift toward compromise and call it tolerance; we drift toward disobedience and call it freedom; we drift toward superstition and call it faith. We cherish the indiscipline of lost self-control and call it relaxation; we slouch toward prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism; we slide toward godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated.”

If we are to be the change we wish to see, we must experience what only the Spirit can do in and through our lives.

During the previous pastorate we revisited last weekend, I learned the difference between a flush-pump well and an artesian well. The former is drilled into a passive underground water supply, then the apparatus is primed with water and must be pumped until it draws water to the surface. The latter is drilled into an underground water supply under pressure, then the water naturally flows to the surface.

Which are you today?

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the ESV®️ Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®️), copyright ©️ 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The ESV text may not be quoted in any publication made available to the public by a Creative Commons license. The ESV may not be translated in whole or in part into any other language.

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