Different means, same story

This commentary appears in the current (and last ever) issue of Episcopal News Monthly, the monthly newspaper of the Episcopal Church. I thought it might get posted over at ENS, but it hasn’t appeared there. Since a few people have asked, here’s my column about church communication for our time.

tweeting churchMy conversion to the idea that the church might embrace Facebook, Twitter, and texting came in a surprising way. I was standing in the back of a vast room in Columbus, Ohio, at General Convention 2006. Like lots of Episcopalians, I like to be in the back of the room when I go to church, and so I was lurking in the back of one of the daily services. When it was time for the passing of the peace, my cell phone beeped. Oops! Forgot to silence it. As I looked down, I saw the text message from a friend. “Peace!” Perfect. A good friend was somewhere else in the room, and he knew I’d be there too. We just couldn’t see each other. Still, we exchanged the peace via text message.

No doubt the church fathers (and mothers) would be a bit horrified. But then, we live in a different world now. My unseen friend used technology to do something that would have been impossible if we relied on the usual handshake or hug.

Not long after that, I posted something on my blog about a magazine article featuring our then-new Presiding Bishop. One of my former co-workers happened to read it. “I don’t go to church,” he said, “but if I were going to try a church, I think yours sounds pretty cool.” A few weeks after that, some things changed in his life. Soon he was attending his local Episcopal Church.

As I reflected on these starting encounters between ancient liturgy, the practice of evangelism, and modern technology, I began to wonder in what other ways we might be called to rethink our ideas about technology, church, and relationships.

In the parish I serve, we were going through some old documents recently, getting ready to send some things to our diocesan archives. I learned that Christ Church used to publish a weekly printed newsletter. That’s much different than how we do things these days.

In addition to our much-less frequently printed newsletter, we put news, sermons, and other things on our parish blog. We have a Facebook page. Most weeks, we send out an email newsletter. For the people who don’t have Internet access at home, we post printouts on our bulletin boards.

Despite very different methods of communicating, we are still trying to do the same thing: keep people informed of what is happening in the parish, forming disciples, and inspiring folks with thought-provoking commentary (or sometimes music videos).

And this brings me to something I’m passionate about. We have to remember why we are doing something before we can decide what to do. Whether we use hand-calligraphied scrolls or Twitter, the church is trying to share the good news of what God has done in Jesus Christ and what God is doing in our own lives today. The question cannot be, “Should we have a Facebook page” or “How long will newsprint survive?” Instead the question is, “How is God calling us to tell the story of how our lives have been changed?” “How is God inviting us to share the good news with a world that desperately needs to hear an encouraging, hope-filled Word?”

Facebook has over 500 million users. Even more than the opportunity to reach a half billion people, Facebook and other social media give us the opportunity to change how we communicate. I believe that more and more communication will be relational as we go forward. The publishing model will give way to the storytelling model. There’s still room for authoritative sources (the New York Times or Episcopal News Service), but people can read this content in plenty of ways. Newsprint is not the only way to get our news.

This brings me to my second idea about the future of communication, especially within the Episcopal Church. We will see many activities pushed down to the most local level. For the people who still rely on print media, their local congregation can provide Sunday leaflets or printed newsletters. Thanks to the magic of “cut and paste,” our parish newsletters can contain stories of national or global reach.

I don’t especially like it when I notice one of our acolytes texting during the service. But if someone sitting in a pew pulls out their phone to Tweet something they just heard in a sermon, I consider that we’ve just shared the good news beyond our walls. There is a whole new world of ways to make sure that the Episcopal Church is not confined inside stained glass windows.

Pardon me, I’ve got to go post a Youtube video on our parish Facebook page.

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9 Responses

  1. Russ Johnson says:

    Scott: Read your article in Episcopal News Monthly and then your blog, and I’ve been wondering “When do you have time for all of this?”

    This brings me to the fact that as I prepare for our annual meeting, I want to tell my congregation that we/I need to learn more about this. If you were to start from the beginning, what would you recommend? Facebook? We do have a web site as you can see, but I rarely look at it. It looks like I’ve got some real work ahead of me. Thanks for reading this and any comment you can give would be appreciated!

    Happy Epiphany – it’s a long season this year!


  2. Scott Gunn says:

    Hi Russ,

    Thanks for your comment. I do most of my blogging on my days off (Monday & Tuesday) and then schedule posts for later in the week. As you’ll see if you look back, there are droughts online when I do not, in fact, make time for blogging. The fact is that this part of my life feeds everything else and — I firmly believe — enlivens and strengthens my parish ministry.

    Yes, I recommend that your church start with Facebook. Just make sure that there’s plenty of fresh content there and also that someone keeps an eye on it to make sure questions get answered, etc. By the way, you want to create a “fan page” and not a group or a faux person.

    Happy Epiphany season right back at you.


  3. Steve Pankey says:

    Great column Scott , thank you for posting it for those of us who long ago stopped receiving print copies of ENS publications.

    Your post reminded me of a section in Tony Jones’ book “The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier.” In a section entitled “The Church is Dead” he uses pay phones as an analogy.

    You can read the section on google books here – http://books.google.com/books?id=X4h2khjXwnEC&lpg=PA4&ots=XZA68k6L7g&dq=tony jones pay phone communication&pg=PA4#v=onepage&q&f=false – but the take home bit is this:

    “Of course, the death of the pay phone doesn’t mean that we don’t make phone calls anymore. In fact, we make far more phone calls than ever before, but we make them differently… To extend the analogy a bit, no one is saying that the pay phone was a bad idea. Most people would agree that it was a good idea at the time – it was an excellent way to communicate. But communication was the goal, and pay phones were merely a means to an end.”

  4. Dan Webster says:

    Scott…I do not disagree with a single point you make. We need to be doing both web as well as print media. Our average age of Episcopal Church members is 65. If we do not remind them God loves them in a medium they prefer we will cut off those who have been the most faithful and who we asked to enable us to new things like social media.

    Episcopal News Monthly and its predecessor Episcopal Life were never given a chance. There as never a subscription drive, never a fundraising drive, never an effort to beef up advertising.

    We were faced with a both/and situation and chose either/or.

    This is a decision I am afraid will damage the future of our church.

  5. Dear Scott,
    Great minds & hearts semi-rant alike? Over at The Virtual Abbey, I just posted my version of St. Teresa’s prayer, “Christ Has No Body.” Here’s my contemporary take on it:

    Christ Has No Online Presence but Yours

    Christ has no online presence but yours,
    No blog, no Facebook page but yours,
    Yours are the tweets through which love touches this world,
    Yours are the posts through which the Gospel is shared,
    Yours are the updates through which hope is revealed.
    Christ has no online presence but yours,
    No blog, no Facebook page but yours.

  6. Geof Smith says:

    Dear Scott,

    I know you’re not asking this, but is there a reason why the Facebook page has to be maintained by the priest? What if we encouraged the members of our congregation already versed in Facebook or another outlet to start something and simply provided coaching? “They” would have more cred to most readers.


  7. Scott Gunn says:

    Hi Geof,

    I think Facebook pages should be managed by a team, consisting of both clergy and laity. In the parish I serve, there are 4-5 people who regularly post things and keep an eye on it.

    The same goes for our blog, by the way. I’m not sure about “cred” but I do think it’s important to involve several people for successful engagement with social media.


  8. The Rev. William Stanton Noe, Ph.d says:

    Your article in “The Episcopal News Monthly” was very interesting – also disquieting. One of the great tragedies of the 20th and 21st centuries is the loss of ability to be totally where we are. Many people have commented on the fact that when they were in the presence of the Dalai Lama, for example, he was totally with them. One of the problems with driving while texting or phoning is that the person is not totally there in either place. What we hope will bind us together in a deeper sense, in fact, divides us and prevents us from being totally in either place. It is impossible to be talking seriously with one person at a cocktail party while looking constantly around the room for the next most advantageous contact. We need to BE where we are. Your cell phone beeped and your friend texted “Peace”. In that moment, you were not there for those immediately next to you, nor totally there for your friend. You were divided, not whole or wholly there. You say, “If someone sitting in a pew pulls out a phone to Tweet something he or she just heard in a sermon, I consider that we’ve just shared the good news beyond our walls.” First of all, that person would miss the next thing you had to say. They would no longer BE THERE. They could continue to profit from the sermon and communicate the great remarks after the service. How would you feel if in the midst of a conversation between you and some individual they pulled out a phone and tweeted someone. First of all, the pursuit of manners is a worthy pursuit, secondly, that person is no longer totally there. Our twelve year old grandson comes with his parents to visit us, for example, and 90% of his time here is spent on the i-phone. He will never have the life enriching experience that I had in BEING THERE when my grandparents were alive. You say,”There is a whole new world of ways to make sure that the Episcopal Church is not confined inside stained glass windows.” Good. Get out of the office and and away from the computer and BE the Church TOTALLY among them.

  1. January 18, 2011

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