PASTORAL
WATCH-CARE IN A
SURVEILLANCE SOCIETY
 
by Garrett Soucy

Occasionally I get an email from my website host giving me the analytics report for the month. How many people received the ministry’s email? How many people opened it? How many people clicked on the links I included? How many people newly subscribed? How many people unsubscribed?

In some ways, having this information can be really helpful. A normal response to reading an analytics report will include surprises, disappointments, and will often inspire new direction. At first, it might go something like this: “Hmm. Apparently, very few people are interested in following embedded links. That’s helpful. I won’t bother including them as much.”

But before we just follow the numbers and overhaul the ministry, let’s consider a few of the ways that our tools remake us in their own image. Why should I assume that if the numbers are low on how many people click the embedded links in an email that it necessitates me not including them anymore in the future? Perhaps they truly are unnecessary. But minimal interest does not necessarily equate to these things being negligible. Imagine if a church ran a similar program over their Lord’s Day service and found that 74% of the congregants felt that the Lord’s Supper was an unnecessary component of the service. Should you drop communion? Some people would think so. Some churches do.

Our tools remake us in their image, and the cardinal doctrine of all tools is efficiency. It will be helpful to remember that, when we are told in Isaiah that the Messiah does not break off the bruised reed nor snuff out the smoldering flax, we are having His inefficient prodigality described to us. God is willing to give in the face of unmatched reciprocity. When efficiency becomes the primary doctrine of the church, it quickly becomes an elitist club. The few, the proud, the ones that can keep up become the primary players. That is not to disparage efficiency, only to say that we have to know what our tools will have a tendency to incite.

It is not only an emphasis on efficiency that ministries have to guard against when utilizing analytics-corralling programs. The societal saturation of surveillance and its normalization has to be guarded against as well, especially since the job of elders is summed up as the task of overseeing. Listen to the admonition to elders in the book of Acts.

Acts 20:28 Keep watch over yourselves and the entire flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which He purchased with His own blood.

The warning here was first given to the elders from the church at Ephesus. They were to be on their guard because elders are to be shepherds. The sad truth is that some of them would, in their future, become wolves. Wolves don’t protect sheep; they consume them. In our day, consumerism floods the landscape, and forums such as social networks have rendered individuals the products. This should not be a surprise in light of the fact that Facebook, in its infancy, was Facemash, a program that allowed its users to objectify Harvard students by rating their sexual desirability based on headshots. Objectification is consumption.

If elders are not careful of the reasons that drive them to “friend” their congregants, it could lead to them objectifying them. The two primary ways that social networks go off the rails would be in the inciting of voyeurism and exhibitionism.  We want to watch people, and we want people to watch us. Both of these things could call verses to the stand in their defense. Doesn’t Paul say to watch him and follow him as he follows Christ? Aren’t elders to practice watch-care over their congregants? Exhibitionism, however, is not Christ-like modeling any more than surveillance is Biblical watch-care.

1 Peter 5:2 Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.

When we hear about shepherds watching the flock only for the purpose of getting something from them, we immediately think of money. We even use the term “fleecing the flock.” This is one of the ways in which shepherds become wolves. Insert the prosperity gospel. But in an era of social networking, watching others is often done in order to establish an inward sense of moral superiority. This is consumerism as well. If I place judgment on someone because of something they post but fail to interact with them personally and in a loving posture, I am in danger of consuming them. The social network is a market of images that allow us to utilize the products in any way we desire. We devour one another by watching. It’s no wonder that the constantly changing stream is called a “feed.”

Let’s go back for a moment to the weekly analytics report from the ministry’s website host. One of the traps that exist for the ministry leader with access to this kind of knowledge is the temptation toward narratives rooted in this kind of surveillance rather than truly Biblical watch-care. What do I mean?

In the reports I receive, I can see a list of everyone who opens the emails I send out. Guess what that additionally means? I also see a list of email subscribers who didn’t open their emails, a list of those who didn’t check out any of the embedded links, and a list of people who unsubscribed. This was strange information to be receiving, the first time I read it. Why didn’t Ambrose open his email? Does he not care about this ministry? Did he put it in the trash as soon as he saw that it was from me? From that point on, I began to work off a hermeneutic of suspicion. This is what a network driven by images and graphics does; it has to. Images are contextless.

There could be any number of reasons why Ambrose didn’t open his email. It might have been caught by his spam filter, and he doesn’t know it. He might have put it in a folder of things yet to do and hasn’t gotten around to it. Maybe he didn’t have time. Perhaps . . . and this is also a legitimate reason . . . perhaps his life is busy, and he appreciates the work of the ministry but isn’t interested enough to read the emails. This is not a sin. Ambrose shouldn’t be judged by ministry leaders like myself for this; however, the overseer who has access to fragmented and de-contextualized information like this is susceptible to a new breed of gossip which is spawned by the internet. There is a knowing that is accompanied by little speaking. Perhaps we simply acknowledge to someone else that we saw what Ambrose posted on his wall. Perhaps we decide not to like it. Perhaps we look, but we do not say. Perhaps I assume that I know why he didn’t open his email. This is a kind of conspiracy and a kind of maligning of true communication. Scripture teaches us that when we are willing to pick at one another but not love one another, we are in danger of devouring one another. Consumers gone wild.

Galatians 5:15 But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.

The word for gossip, in the Greek, is ψιθυρισμός. Here is what Strong’s says about it:

            5587 psithyrismós (from psithos, “whisper”) – properly, a whispering to “quietly” spread malicious gossip; “whispering” that launches “secret attacks on a person’s character” (Souter).

It is literally a word that onomatopoeically makes the sound of a snake. That is gossip. It is satanic communication. It is a kind of witchcraft. It is dabbling in the secret arts. That is what makes the anonymity of the internet so dangerous. We can watch without thinking of ourselves as being watched. We can show images of ourselves that may or may not honestly represent us. Things are shown but often not told.

We could go on. From the kinds of photos we display to the kinds of comments we re-post, from the reasons we have for looking up someone’s name to the reasons we have for checking out their wall, ministry leaders need to be on their guard as to the ways we use our tools and the reasons we are using them.

There is much to be said for efficiency. There are ways in which its order and economy display the glory of God. Digital technology has opened up worlds of opportunity to us. We should not fear being godly practitioners of dominion. What we must be on guard against is the synthetic place-holders that threaten to keep us from obtaining the substance of real things. Friendships are ordinarily to be built over time, in person, within shared proximities. They are not to be collected like power points in a video game. A marked increase of efficiency does not mean that a church is “doing better.” And watching people through mediated forums is not the same thing as watch-care over their souls.

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