Thou shalt tweet in church

I’ve written a few posts about Twitter and the church. In addition to suggesting that Jesus would be tweeting (and why), one of my posts on tweeting during General Convention stirred some controversy (proving my axiom that any proposed changes to General Convention will always provoke stiff resistance). In comments responding to that post, one commenter wondered how I’d feel about people using Twitter during a church service. Another commenter admitted this practice (me too, though not while presiding or preaching!).

Over at Church Marketing Sucks, there’s a post urging people to tweet during church. There’s a top five list of reasons. Here’s a snippet:

4. You will have a stored database of your compelling thoughts and notes from your favorite sermons. Use a hashtag to keep up with the information that you share. We could even implement a universal Twitter In Church hashtag. Any suggestions?
5. Many times people suffer from (SADD) Sermon Attention Deficit Disorder. So instead of just wandering off into space, simply wander off into the space of the World Wide Web. It’s better use of your time tweeting great thoughts instead of drawing on the back of offering envelops.

I find the argument compelling, though with some caveats. One’s principal focus during worship should be worship. For different people, this will be expressed differently. Some people can (or even should) knit or fiddle with a rosary during worship. Others will want to take notes. Still others may gaze at an object somewhere in the room. People will continue to find the best way to engage in worship, just as they have for centuries. There are people who might tweet a little and still pay attention to the worship service (this is akin to people who might take notes during a sermon).

One should not distract others. Again, this will be situational. In some parishes, the mere sight of a mobile phone during a service might provoke controversy. In others, it’s not going to be a big deal. One’s ability to tweet successfully will vary according to one’s function in the service. A presiding priest must be fully engaged (100%) in the task at hand. Moreover, many people would (understandably) find it intolerable to see the presider thumbing away on a keyboard during the creed. Someone in a pew has a different role, and so might be able to tweet without disturbing others.

Some will doubtless object that this whole enterprise should be resisted. Perhaps they are right, but I think the church generally needs to find ways to engage our present culture quickly or risk extinction. As long as core principals are not compromised, there’s not much harm in some experimentation. We have to be willing, as with all experiments, to notice what works and to admit what does not work. But in any case, our responses should be based on experience, not fear.

A few months ago, I was asked to do some blogging for Trinity, Wall Street during a conference on ethics and the economy. To do my work, I had access to a live video feed of the conference and its worship. While my main task was blogging, I decided to “live tweet” the worship and the conference talks. I was surprised at how many people engaged with my tweets, especially of the worship. I was not present during the service, but I could just as easily have sat in a back corner in a pew and unobtrusively tweeted the service.

While there are some risks (missing the point of worship), there are also massive potential upsides to changing our attitudes about Twitter and church. For a some people, attention to the worship service (especially the wordy bits such as the sermon) will be enhanced by sending 140 character snippets. The obvious upside is engagement with people outside our buildings. That, my friends, is the Great Commission. Our techniques have changed and expanded greatly over the last two millenia. Maybe it’s time to add another way to share the Good News.

If you are on Twitter, please follow me. I’ve also set up a Twitter account for this blog, though it’s just getting started. You’re welcome to follow 7wd too.

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6 Responses

  1. Fr. Craig says:

    At 59, I am perhaps an old curmudgeon… as a late life priest (9 years now), I’ve pondered the ‘where are the young folks’ question endlessly. I have come very slowly down on the ‘don’t patronize them and don’t change the Church to entice them in’ side. I reflect on my own life – never missed a Sunday, acolyte, youth group, etc. I left for college and didn’t attend church (other then funerals, etc) for 20 years. When I came back (because of the kids, of course), what I loved was the familiarity and the recognized hymns and the mystery of the liturgy. I may be wrong, but I can’t see dumbing down sermons to 140 character snippets – we are called to teach the faith to the young – that takes an effort/desire on their part. My conviction is that we ‘plant the seed’ with our little ones and then pray it will take root. Nearly every person goes through a ‘what does it all mean’ phase in the life journey and if we have planted the seed, they may well come back to us to try and find out. And I am convinced that sacramental/liturgical worship is what the HS has led us to over 2000 years – it touches us deeply – and so I also resist ‘modernization’. I think the way we will get the attention of young seekers is through ministry. When they actually see a church that looks like Jesus, they will want to know more.

  2. Ethan Gafford says:

    At 31, I am perhaps a young curmudgeon. I agree that the many exciting flavors of social web tools can bring real joy and profound (and useful) interconnection, no question. Still, there’s also something real to be gained by engaging, very directly, with one’s immediate physical surroundings. Something centering, engaging.

    Mindfulness is not a frequently named Christian virtue, but I think it is one regardless: to be in the world but not of the world, first you need to be in the world on occasion. You preach all the time on how church should draw us more fully into the world, not serve as an escape, and also, how the Church invites us to leave behind the multitasking and the busy and take moments to reflect on God’s purpose for our lives.

    (This is the part where I could go into a huge internal monologue about transcendence and phenomenology, and socially constructed norms of presence founded in our spatial nature, and all kinds of fun stuff, and advance about twenty different arguments and counterattack lots of them and end up very confused. Good thing I’m too tired!)

    I’m not about to claim that there exists no person who might pray more fully while tweeting, or that there is no person who might be intrigued by a tweet sent during an active worship service. Still, for the average worshipper (tech-savvy or no, young or old), I do suspect there are more powerful arguments to be made for stilling the self once in a while.

    In general, to your general trend of “get with Interwebs, teh Church, srsly” posts, I do agree to a point. Still, while using the internet will definitely help the church speak efficiently, we’re still only going to remain morally relevant through continued and painful sacrificial love, enacted by willing Christians, that stands in direct and beautiful contrast to the world’s logic. Now granted, if tweeting in church helps someone get there, I’ll be more than happy to pass the peace with them, but on average, I join the old crankybritches folks in doubting it’ll help much.

  3. Scott Gunn says:

    I’m not saying that everyone should tweet in church, merely that we should not reject the practice outright. For some it will work, for many it will not. Generally, we need to hold ourselves lightly and be willing to try some things. And then we have to be willing to admit that we failed.

    The question is, “Does tweeting during worship compromise our Christian identity?” What I’m really saying is that we can’t know the answer to that question, but we shouldn’t be afraid to experiment a bit to find out.

    Perhaps tweeting is like, say, the 18th century’s experiment with extreme rationalism. In an attempt to incorporate the culture and to respond to it, the Anglican church weakened itself.

    Or perhaps it’s the shift to the vernacular, which was opposed on grounds that it would change the core of our faith. And yet the church grew stronger.

    Ethan, I won’t put you on our live-blogging rota.


  4. I had a parishioner Tweet some of our Holy Week services. It was a great ministry — based on a number of comments she got. She also got a few dirty looks from people not knowing what or why she was fiddling with her cell phone. So I’d say if someone is able to do this with passion and conviction, let people know that this is a ministry of the church. She decided not to Tweet the Vigil after doing Maundy Thursday and Good Friday because a) it was too dark and her phone would compete with the New Fire and b) she felt she wouldn’t have been able to be fully present. This probably takes time — in the same way it takes clergy awhile to be able to both lead worship and pray at the same time.

  5. Lee Crawford says:

    If someone’s mind wanders off in the course of the sermon, it’s OK because I post the sermon later on in the week and they can go back to see what they missed. I figure that the Spirit through the sermon led them to where they needed to go (heartwork) and I am OK with that.

  6. Bob Chapman says:

    If you are present and not watching a satellite feed, I would expect that most tweets happen during the sermon. That is the place I see an active engagement in this way by the person tweeting to make the most beneficial. It would be like taking notes.

    If you get into the stats about how effective learning is when someone passively sits during a lecture versus active engagement, you may decide worse things could happen than have someone tweeting comments about the sermon.

    My guess is that someone lost in active wonder, love, and praise won’t find the time to tweet.

    How would tweeting during the sermon be any different than reading the Psalter or the Articles of Religion during less-than-engaging sermons? I guess you could argue that I have some reasonable knowledge of the contents of both because of reading them during some (not all) sermons.

    Does it really make any difference if you’ve tuned out what you do?