The Concordia Publishing House Podcast

Faith and Social Media with Rev. A. Trevor Sutton

August 19, 2020 Season 1 Episode 15
The Concordia Publishing House Podcast
Faith and Social Media with Rev. A. Trevor Sutton
Show Notes Transcript


If you are one of the 90% of Americans who use social media, let me ask you a question. How does it make you feel? Connected? Isolated? Happy? Insecure? Powerful? Hopeful? Depressed? Angry? 

Today we’ll be talking about how we can use social media well with our guest, A. Trevor Sutton.

Trevor is associate pastor at St. Luke Lutheran church in Haslett, MI. He is also the author of several books, including Clearly Christian: Following Jesus in this Age of Confusion.

Elizabeth Pittman (11s):
If you are one of the 90% of Americans who use social media, let me ask you a question. How does it make you feel? Connected? Isolated? Happy? Insecure? Powerful? Hopeful? Depressed? Angry? Today we're going to be talking about how we can use social media well , with our guest, the Rev. A. Trevor Sutton.

Trevor is associate pastor at Saint Luke's Lutheran Church in Haslett, Michigan. He's also the author of several books, including Clearly Christian Following Jesus in This Age of Confusion. Welcome, Trevor.

Thanks for having me. I'm glad you could be here.

How are things up in Michigan?

A. Trevor Sutton (60s):
Yeah, they are weird, but I don't think that's only up in Michigan. That's just kinda everywhere. I think that's 2020. Yeah. Yeah. So maybe, maybe if everyone's weird, it's not weird at all. It's just what's going on, but no, it's certainly, it's been a peculiar time of ministry, a peculiar time of life and things like that, but I'll tell you, it's, it's been kind of joyful to there's. There's been so many disruptions, so many weird things, but at the same time I found some, some great joys from the Lord with family time with savoring things that you might have taken for granted.

A. Trevor Sutton (1m 36s):
So it's been weird, but not all bad.

Elizabeth Pittman (1m 40s):
I have to agree with you on that. I think the found time that we've had in these recent months has been so nice to have not only quality of time, but quantity time with the family and to just slow down and be present with.

A. Trevor Sutton (1m 52s):
Absolutely. Yeah, especially we've, we've always tried to keep the dinner table sacred as much as possible. And I think we did a good job of that before, but you know, it might've been four days a week was kind of average where we would have, you know, five days a week, but now, you know, it's six days a week. It's kind of the exception when, when dad's not home for dinner. And so it's, it's been joyful in that regard.

Elizabeth Pittman (2m 15s):
It has been a nice thing and it's been nice to step back and really think about what matters and the things that are beneficial to us in our families. And as we start talking about the topic of social media, I think it tends to elicit a lot of immediate reactions. And they're probably not people probably don't lead with the good things about social media. I think it's pretty easy to, you know, rattle off a list of all the things that we don't like about social media and all the bad ways it makes us feel.

Elizabeth Pittman (2m 50s):
And it's, it's pretty obvious that you know, good, bad or ugly it's affecting our behavior. How is this technology shaping us? How

A. Trevor Sutton (3m 0s):
Long do you got? Yeah, that's a huge question. A huge question. And I gotta say that. So I've been studying this, researching this writing about it, talking about it for, I would guess six years now. I, I was a graduate student at Michigan state when I first came to my congregation and the program was digital rhetoric. It was a graduate program at the university and that's where I really started thinking about, wow, you can study social media as a, a phenomenon as a thing in society as, as how it impacts us.

A. Trevor Sutton (3m 37s):
And I've been doing that for six years. And I'm far from figuring it out somewhere. I'd heard someone say, you can think of it like blowing air into a balloon and every breath of air you put in that balloon, the surface area expands exponentially. And that's kinda how it seems to me that every year I study social media, the questions just grow and grow and grow. So I I'm speaking about it as one who doesn't have it figured out as one, who's trying to figure it out for myself and my own interaction with it.

A. Trevor Sutton (4m 13s):
But also what does it mean sociologically? What does it mean for our faith? What does it mean for families, for politics, for society? All of that? I think you're exactly right though. It's easy to find the negatives in it, but, but sometimes we can't just gloss over the positives and certainly, there are many, many, many positives, but I think they get eclipsed kinda like you said, in the negatives.

Elizabeth Pittman (4m 40s):
I think that when you think about the positives, it tends to, you know, it connects us and I have a, my family has a closed group just for our family where we can interact. There are neat ways where you can keep up with friends from different parts of your life that you may not be in touch with a lot. So those are definitely positives. I think in the last six, seven months, we've seen the church doing a lot of good when we haven't been able to be together in community. You know, there's been a lot of attention on social media to get the message out and to share, share the word, but if we're not careful, I think social media can tap into like our inner center.

Elizabeth Pittman (5m 26s):
Right. And if you're predisposed to certain behaviors that aren't healthy, social media makes it very tempting to really go down that rabbit hole and indulge in those behaviors.

A. Trevor Sutton (5m 39s):
Oh yeah. So, so whatever it is, I don't think it's a neutral thing and that, like you said, it, it inclines us to certain directions behaviors. So even like you said, the positives and I agree with you that connecting is really a positive thing that social media allows. But, but sometimes I question, okay, so we have this connection, we have this information, we know about one another and we call it a connection.

A. Trevor Sutton (6m 10s):
Cause that's what Facebook has facilitated or Instagram, Twitter, whatever. But then I sometimes push back at myself and say, I just know a bunch of information about people. I had this interaction with somebody who I'd never met him before. He was the husband of a lady that was at my congregation where I grew up. Her dad was the youth director. And so she was a family friend of ours, odd stuff. This is her husband. I'd never met him, but I met him at the national.

A. Trevor Sutton (6m 41s):
I saw him at the national youth gathering. I could recognize who he was just by Facebook and social media. And then I, I creepily rattled off like eight things about him. Like, Oh, you guys just took a call somewhere and this has happened and this is going on and you had a baby. And, and then I'm like, we've never even met. And so it was weird that I don't know, just that, that I was able to say I was connected to him, which I was, but, but really it wasn't a connection. So I don't know.

A. Trevor Sutton (7m 12s):
And so the way that its technology, it's sort of sets the boundaries and the framework for how we interact, whether it's positive or negative, what we count as a connection, what we don't count as a connection if that makes sense. So, in face to face life, what counts as a connection might be undivided attention or a hug or a handshake or something like that. But, but the platforms that we use, what counts as a connection than would be, I saw your post, or I gave you a thumbs up or I favorited, I liked what you had, that sort of thing.

A. Trevor Sutton (7m 49s):
I threw your retweet. You know, that, that's what counts as a connection. And so even just, it kinda changes the rules of engagement, I guess, would be the point. So face to face, this is how we connect. This is the rules of engagement, social media, those are different rules of engagement.

3 (8m 8s):

A. Trevor Sutton (8m 8s):
And, and sort of the way it inclines us, then I've always thought we have to be aware of the technologies we're using and how they dispose us to behave differently. So for instance, in a traffic jam, it is appropriate to like lay on your horn and tailgate somebody and just do all these different things, right? Because you're surrounded by this technology, this car, and that makes it, I don't wanna say appropriate, but, but more acceptable or whatever, but like, imagine if you're walking in a busy hallway and someone's, you know, slow, would you like honk at them with your, you know, yell at them and push them with your hand?

A. Trevor Sutton (8m 48s):
You know, it'd be totally inappropriate. And so it is just interesting to think about how we interact because of this medium. And I would venture to say that people interact in a kind of more abrasive caustic way. There they're kind of keyboard warriors, but face to face. I'm not sure people would be quite that brazen.

Elizabeth Pittman (9m 11s):
Well, I think there's a difference between connected and being in relationship with other people. And I think, you know, it's easy to throw a, like at a page. I mean, on Instagram, it's just a double tap. You can do it without thinking about it. It really becomes meaningless. But think about, if you walk down the hallway and you just gave a thumbs up with everybody, you walked by, they think you're nuts

A. Trevor Sutton (9m 33s):
As a relationship. You wouldn't that as connection. I don't think

Elizabeth Pittman (9m 38s):
Now it would just be, what are they thinking? And I think you're right. I mean, the keyboard courage that happens, I think we've been, and I think, I hope that this is not something that translates over to real life, but we have lost our, the ability to be patients. And we've also lost the ability to think deeply. And so we see, and I'm using, we just generally, but a post gets put up that we disagree with and the keyboard courage comes out and boom, how dare you?

Elizabeth Pittman (10m 10s):
It, and it's awfully often, it's very angry. And I would hope that we don't talk to each other like that in real life. But I, it amazes me that we think that we can behave that way behind the safety of our kids.

A. Trevor Sutton (10m 24s):
Yeah. And, and I'm, I'm a big believer in as a pastor, I interact with people and you have to think about how you interact with people. And a lot of times, you know, the, the advices to respond in kind. So if someone emails, you email them back, if they call you, call them back, if you know that kind of thing. But, but sometimes I like to think about how, when is it appropriate to kind of not do that? And I'm a big believer when it comes to social media. I'm not sure we have to respond in kind.

A. Trevor Sutton (10m 55s):
So if you see somebody posting something positively or negative, or they have a birthday, or they're, they're kind of spouting off some stuff that you're just not clear about and not crazy about, I'm not sure why I think it, I do know why because the technology inclines us to respond that way. But, but we certainly don't have to do that. We can hack the technology. And I do this all the time where like, Facebook will tell me when it's somebody's birthday and I'll text them or I'll call them my, my wife and I do this a lot actually, where we'll see something interesting on social media.

A. Trevor Sutton (11m 30s):
I won't respond to it. I won't whatever. But then she, and I will have a long conversation about it and say, Hey, what do you think about this? And this was interesting. And you know, that, that was kind of going on. And so I really, I think that's a generative thing to, to not just to try to see what's going on there and then ask ways, how can I, how can I hack this in a positive? So if, if this is happening here, instead of just throwing someone a thumbs up, you know, or, or spouting off and all the other comments, that kind of thing,

Elizabeth Pittman (12m 4s):
It requires us to not be lazy users of social media. We have to really think intentionally about what we're doing. It's so easy to just click, click, click, and you're onto the next thing. And who knows what feelings you left in that person's comments, you know, you might've said something sarcastic or what you meant to be funny, and maybe it was taken the wrong way and you could lose somebody feeling really down. And I was that permanently recorded.

Elizabeth Pittman (12m 36s):
Yes. Yes. And you shouldn't ever type anything out there that you don't want to be shared with the whole world, because even if you delete it, it's still there somewhere. But I think it's so easy for people who are inclined to feel insecure or depressed or anxious for social media, just to feed that. And it's just not a healthy thing at times.

A. Trevor Sutton (13m 2s):
It's, it's the, I've called it like the highlight reel of everybody's achievements. And, and actually, so some German researchers have done research as one of my kind of favorite studies on it, I guess you'd say. But basically what they found was that people go online, they go on social media and they see everyone else's accomplishments and they say, boy, your life looks pretty awesome because that's what people put on there. And so they get this feeling of envy from that feeling of envy. Then they will kind of inflate themselves to say, well, look, my life is looking pretty good too.

A. Trevor Sutton (13m 38s):
So I go online, I feel envious. I boast about myself. What does that do? It makes other people look at my life and feel envious. And then it just becomes this spiral of envy.

Elizabeth Pittman (13m 51s):
Well, and how can we, when we let our pride and our insecurities and even some arrogance get in the way when we're thinking about how we're behaving, how can we keep that at Bay?

A. Trevor Sutton (14m 2s):
Yeah. The words of John the Baptist have ruined me, I must decrease than he must increase. And the other pastor I work with one of the other pastors I work with, he has always kind of kept that as a theme verse, you might say, or a, a motto to live by. And so it's kind of affected me deeply. And then thinking about it in social media, I've just kind of been ruined to it in the sense of am I posting this thing so that I increase or that somehow the glory of God increases.

A. Trevor Sutton (14m 37s):
And as it's not to say, you can't post a cute picture of your kids or celebrate a joy that some good thing happened, you know, that kind of thing, or putting a thoughtful comment out there. I love to put pieces of literature that I find interesting quotes and throw it out there for the good of society, stuff like that. But, but at the same time, just ask that question for a split second. What's my motivation. Am I trying to prove to myself or somebody else that, that I'm likable

Elizabeth Pittman (15m 10s):
It's, it's a good question to have and it's it really, we need to step back and think before we post. And this is, I know in talking with my son and you know, he, thankfully really isn't interested in social media at the moment. He's the rare teenager who doesn't have the social media accounts and he gets it. But I also know he's not normal, but it's like, you have to think before you write anything down because you know, your words have consequences.

Elizabeth Pittman (15m 41s):
And I think we're seeing this more and more. I mean, just when you think things can't change, they change faster and faster. And now we're in an era where if I don't like what you say, I don't agree with you. All I have to do is call it fake news, or I can join the hive mind to cancel somebody or something, but that's how in that kind of environments, can we help share the word that all of this might be, you know, based on our own perceptions, but the good news of Jesus is unchanging no matter what you might see on social media.

A. Trevor Sutton (16m 25s):
Yeah. And so, like I said, kind of, I use the expression hacking social media. And what I mean by that is kind of a, a tech term, but sort of taking this created thing and using it in a different way, in a better way, I guess you might say. And I think it's incumbent upon followers of Jesus to ask the question, how do we hack social media? And again, it's not hacking people's accounts and telling them about Jesus, nothing like that. But, but I suppose there's a couple of things that can be helpful there.

A. Trevor Sutton (16m 59s):
We, we can, we can learn, we can learn a few things. I think part of it is learning what's going on in people's lives. And that's a valuable thing, sociologically anthropologically from social media. So for instance, you can see when somebody's struggling and what you do with that then is the important thing. So this person's struggling. How do you reach out to them with the good news of Jesus in a personal, meaningful way?

A. Trevor Sutton (17m 31s):
And again, that's the hacky net where that may not be the comment section that may not be like there's been studies on it that have shown a, what are called like one click affordances. So the buttons, those have the least impact on people. So you like something I say like, I might be like, Oh cool, Elizabeth like that, that's awesome. Thanks. But it's not going to change my day in any meaningful way. The, the, the more personalized you get, the more meaningful that will be for people.

A. Trevor Sutton (18m 2s):
So if you were to comment on something and a public comment, then it might be a value to me. If you just send me a direct message, that's going to have a greater value and impact according to the research. And then, you know, if you called me on the phone and said, Hey, let's have coffee. That's going to probably really change your day. And so I think there's something valuable in social media when it comes to proclaiming Jesus, that we have connection to all these people, but then what we do with that connection.

A. Trevor Sutton (18m 33s):
That's, that's the question. And so it's the easiest thing is just to put a post on there, adding a Bible verse and that's valuable and meaningful. And I think the world needs God's word out there as many ways as possible, but, but then going beyond that, what we do with it, it takes work.

Elizabeth Pittman (18m 55s):
I like how you made that very personal. And I think it, at the end of the day, it would be more effective and connecting with the person that you're talking to. I think there's a meme that goes around every now and then. And especially as we're heading into the campaign season and politics is front and center, you may have seen this one. It says something to the effect of, Oh, your Facebook post on this political issue totally changed. My mind said no one ever. And I think that we run the risk of that.

Elizabeth Pittman (19m 26s):
Where if you throw out a glib post or you try to start a start a debate and argument, you're not going to win anybody over, but I like how you shift it to something more personal and, you know, out of the public eye where you can really have a connection and work on the relationship with that.

A. Trevor Sutton (19m 46s):
Well, and just think about, think about the cost, I guess is a way, way, way to think about it. It costs you no time or anything. It's the easiest thing imaginable to favorite. Somebody's tweet, whatever. And that's probably why nobody's really persuaded or, or moved positively negatively. You don't give a second thought to that sort of stuff. But the things that really do move you are when people invest time and blood, sweat, and tears into you to get to know you by name and all that.

A. Trevor Sutton (20m 18s):
And then kind of, I mean, thinking about how, how has God, what does it cost him to send a savior? I mean, God didn't tweet us the plan of salvation. It wasn't even that God, God just delivered a message of salvation through the profits, but put God came incarnate in Christ Jesus. And that cost Him blood, sweat, tears, His life on the cross. And so why does the Gospel change everything?

A. Trevor Sutton (20m 49s):
Because God's invested so much into it and kind of thinking about that. Why do we think social media is going to change anybody if we just do the simplest things imaginable? So like all things in life, it's going to take some degree of effort.

Elizabeth Pittman (21m 6s):
How can we avoid falling into the trap of having only a Twitter level of faith? You know, our attention spans are almost nil anymore and it's really easy to, Oh yeah. I scanned that Bible verse. It was in my feed. How can we remember the price that Christ paid for us when we're thinking about our faith?

A. Trevor Sutton (21m 32s):
So Marshall McLuhan was a scholar of technology and an influential guy, but he talks about how, when you interact with technologies, you kind of become like them. And so, yeah, we were, we're so guarded with screen time with our daughters, especially as they were younger and we still are today. And at the time my daughter was, I don't know, two years old, three years old. And I think she would get like, I don't know, three minutes of iPad time a week or something like that.

A. Trevor Sutton (22m 6s):
It was pretty pretty limited. And we walked into a restaurant once and there was a digital screen. And the first thing she does is she does what she walks in and starts trying to scroll on the screen. Like it's a big iPad and my wife and I looked at her like that is bizarre, that, that, but it just showed us that such a little amount of time. She just assumed this is, this is how the world works because of that technology. And so I think we have to be mindful of the way this stuff is influencing our attention, spans the way it's influencing, how we think things work, how we think we should interact with each other, things like that.

A. Trevor Sutton (22m 47s):
And so I guess part of it really has to do with just fasting from this on occasion, because if, if your whole day is consumed by tweetable thoughts, then, then you're gonna have a tweetable intellect and a tweetable view of the world and it will be extremely shallow. So I think the encouragement I have and something that I've kind of had to wrestle with myself is just what is my time that I'm spending on these different platforms and with these different mediums and, and, and changing it up, I think can be really powerful to, to, to deepen that faith and deepen.

A. Trevor Sutton (23m 35s):
So for instance, I, I tend to do this where I will listen to my Bible on audio for a period of time. And then I will read my Bible in print a period of time. And then I will read my Bible on my phone for a period of time. But, but I try not to do the same thing for six months because I find that that, that, that becomes a steady dose of one mess. One medium has consequences.

Elizabeth Pittman (24m 3s):
And I think that helps keep your brain active and keep you thinking and focus. I like listening to the Bible on audio too, and it's, it's just a different way of hearing the word, but I do like the going back and forth part. Are there any other ways that we can use social media well for a positive impact rather than anything destructive?

A. Trevor Sutton (24m 27s):
Yeah, I suppose the biggest thing that I keep on going back to is just sort of like we talked about, but, but giving it a moment of thoughts in all interactions. So a moment of thought when you go on whatever your preferred platform is, why am I on this for the 15th or 20th time today? Give it a moment of thought there and ask that question that might ruin you. If you see somebody doing something on there saying something you'd like or dislike or whatever, and you have that inclination to respond by keyboard, punching them or whatever, to give it a moment of thought there and say, what, what else might I do?

A. Trevor Sutton (25m 14s):
And then also, I guess, to give it a moment of thought in the sense of, of who's, who's invested in me being invested in this sort of who, who wants me to be addicted to this and, and, and giving that a moment of thought as well. And my, my thought is that when we do that, if we just have that, that moment of consciousness of why, as opposed to being like Pavlov's dog, where just the bell rings and we salivate to, to, to ponder for a bit what's going on here.

A. Trevor Sutton (25m 47s):
And I think that alone is a powerful way to generate positive things from social media, whatever it is, I'm of the opinion. We can't just get off it and cancel all of our accounts and everything like that. That that's not the best answer, but, but I think to be mindful and thoughtful, and then in, in whatever small ways we can to, to push back against it and to, I dunno, sometimes I use the expression subversive compliance and to kind of put it on his head sort of thing.

A. Trevor Sutton (26m 23s):
And so how can you be on Facebook, but generate good from it and be positive influenced on your own life and the life of others. How do you proclaim Jesus in meaningful ways while being engaged in this thing? You know, whatever it is, it's not inherently evil or, or wholly bad, but it has its problems.

Elizabeth Pittman (26m 48s):
Well, and as with every gift that we've been given, Satan is able to twist it. And so I think the advice you have of slowing down and thinking before we act is good advice for online and offline, but we need to make sure that as Christians, we are proclaiming what we are called to proclaim, and that is the light of Christ, the good news and the good stuff that there is to share online and not the negative.

A. Trevor Sutton (27m 21s):
Absolutely. And just because there's a comment box, doesn't mean that's where you have to proclaim Jesus and you certainly, you can, and you should, but I'm a big believer in, I interact with this person and now I take it into a different context, a different level. And so I really think that's a powerful way that just because we've, we've started this conversation on social media, we don't have to finish it on social media, I guess would be my big point. And I think it's far easier because here's the deal when it comes to proclaiming Jesus.

A. Trevor Sutton (27m 56s):
A lot of it has to do with listening to that person where, where, where are you coming from? And, and where are you hurting and where can the gospel be shared in a way that's meaningful and powerful to, to you and your hurt and pain and brokenness and, and things like that. And I'm just not sure Facebook, where everyone gets to watch and play along, is the best place to do that.

Elizabeth Pittman (28m 21s):
No, I, I, it, I don't think it is, but I think the way you describe it, it allows us to take a relationship to a deeper place, which will have benefits for both of us. You know, the person I'm reaching out to, as well as myself, I may learn something through the conversation and it's going to deepen the relationship and the trust that I have with the person I'm talking to. And I think that's, that's really helpful. Yeah, absolutely. So, well, Trevor, thank you so much for chatting with us today. And I think, I think your, your advice to think and slow down and be intentional about why we're behaving and doing what we're doing on social is, is really great advice.

Elizabeth Pittman (29m 5s):
Where can our listeners find you if they want to dig in more to your writing and your work?

A. Trevor Sutton (29m 11s):
Sure. So the CPH website, I guess, would be a good place to have a couple of books with CPH that folks would, would benefit. I think from checking those out, my website,, I have some articles that I've written there, things like that. You can find a way to send me an email and have a better conversation than on social media, I suppose.

Elizabeth Pittman (29m 37s):
That's great. Thanks so much for being here today, Trevor, we appreciate, and to our listeners, we'll see you next time. Thank you for joining us on this episode of the Concordia publishing house podcast. I pray that this time was valuable to your walk with Christ. We'd love to connect with listeners on Instagram,  and Twitter @concordiapub, visit for more resources to grow deeper in the gospel.