What a Pastor with No Social Media Taught me about Digital Ministry
Christians long wrestled with the sacred and secular. Intentionally or unintentionally, a higher degree got placed on what revolved around the church rather than seeing faith move us to the neighborhood and marketplace. What happens on Monday-Saturday in our lives moves fluidly with Sunday to integrate the Kingdom of God in us.
Part of me wonders if our ongoing tension with the digital and in-person ministry has become a reemergence of this same argument. It takes less work to dismiss an environment that you do not fully grasp. On the contrary, trying to enter a brave new world full of challenges and opportunities requires steadfast faithfulness and thoughtfulness.
The digital space increasingly has become more challenging to keep up, especially for churches and ministries. The numerous options of creating content such as podcasts, live videos, and age-old blog posts can seem overwhelming. A social media presence and livestreaming a service seems like a given in a world that shutdown during a pandemic.
My pastoral response and investment in digital ministry were influenced by someone who never even had a social media account.
Pastor Ron Piedmonte grew up in Holley, NY, not too far from where I live now. After a few seasons serving churches in New Jersey and Massachusetts, he and his family landed at First Assembly of God in Binghamton, NY, serving as senior pastor for twenty-two years.
My fondest memories of him would include our times accompanying him in hospital visits. The people who knew him called him “Pastor.” His heart, presence, preaching, and teaching exuded a love for the church.
Around the 1980s and 1990s, Pastor Peidmonte started doing things that seemed innovative for the time. First, he began placing ads in the local newspaper for special events of the church. Local pastors derided him by saying in his words, “What are you trying to do Piedmonte, show us up?” It appeared the community knew where to go on Christmas and Easter from these communications.
Then at 6:55 am Monday-Friday on the local NBC affiliate, he started a short TV show. It’s a Wonderful Life, by that point, the copyright had expired on the movie, aired into homes in Broome County strategically before the Today Show. Pastor Piedmonte took five minutes to share a devotional thought with the audience.
In high school and college, I spent a lot of time with Pastor Piedmonte. As we would go places in the community, people would stop him and call him pastor. He would listen and most often knew their names. People in the community in and outside the church felt connected to him.
Many of these individuals had not darkened the door to a church in years. Fascinatedly, an individual would face a crisis or life change. Their first stop would then include First Assembly in Binghamton. His consistent presence over the airways created trust with people.
Pastor Piedmonte never had a Facebook account, Twitter, or Instagram. He made more phone calls and visits than I have ever seen. Here’s what he taught me about digital ministry. To be a pastor is to be present. Just like Jesus, we have a call to go where people spend time. Decades ago, people went to their TVs, and now they go to their smartphones.
Imagine this scene for a moment. A pastor or church leader sitting in their office while 40–50 people congregate in the lobby next to them. Having boundaries and faithfulness to the tasks of the day matter, but we would all question why a pastor or church leader would not even spend 10–15 minutes saying hello to people. If they never came out of their office, most people would see that as a miss.
Silence on digital platforms from church leaders misses an opportunity for connection. You have left 40–50 people in the digital lobby without entering their world. Ministry leaders have a call to live incarnationally in digital environments.
Just this year, I began to connect the dots why digital ministry matters to me. Pastor Piedmonte never enter the digital world but modeled a path for me. He realized his connection throughout the week impacted people inside and outside the church.
I find myself in eerily similar conversations. People walked up to him and discussed a devotion from the TV show. I find myself connecting with people because of a Why God Why Podcast episode, a post, or even digitally pastoring a livestream service.
Christians struggled to make sense of a sacred and secular divide. I believe we discovered a tension far more fluid than communicated and debated.
I don’t think the argument is digital or physical. The better question is digital or nothing. I see people reading their Bible consistently on YouVersion. You can make the argument that they need to read a physical copy. For many of those individuals, digital helped them make Bible reading a habit in a way that a physical Bible could not.
People have legitimate concerns about livestreaming a Sunday morning service. What I have found interesting about that concern is that I have met more people in the last year and a half who show up to the church because they started online. A compelling digital presence invites people to in-person physical ministry. Not just people attending, but people joining small groups and finding a place to serve.
My friend Dan Desrosiers from Connection Church in Pottstown, PA, made this point about digital ministry, “It would be great to reach people across the country and world, but we’re more concerned with the individuals and families who live within a fifteen-mile radius of the church.”
I can tell you for a fact that Pastor Piedmonte did not desire his TV show to go national. He hoped to be visible to the community on a consistent basis. He reached people. Interestingly, the church championed his work and invited more people to know Jesus.
Investing in digital ministry does not mean you want to grow your platform for popularity. Remember, you can also have unhealthy ambitions preaching sermons or teaching classes. Digital ministry connects you to people. It allows you to testify to the story of how God is at work in the community around you. It brings people to realize your humanness.
It becomes increasingly tricky to decentralize the church because you move from visible ministry to somewhat invisible ministry. For example, when a church focuses on small groups that meet in homes, it requires more work to realize spiritual growth. The same principle becomes true with digital ministry. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
I want to take a moment to thank Pastor Piedmonte for modeling to me how to innovate in ministry. Our call as church leaders is to live out the gospel where people are so they can experience the good news of Jesus. So, digital and physical or even in-person are probably more fluid than we even realize right now.