The ekklesia of social media

Reflections coverI contributed an article for the Fall 2011 issue of Reflections, the journal of Yale Divinity School. It’s a whole issue on new media, and I was humbled to join some pretty great company among the contributing authors. Here’s my article, and you can see the table of contents for the whole issue here. At some point, I believe, the entire issue will be posted as a PDF. Meanwhile, you can request a printed copy for free or even get a free subscription.

Not long ago, I begin a new ministry leading Forward Movement, a publishing ministry of the Episcopal Church that dates back to 1935. Like all publishers, we face the challenge of moving into digital publishing and adapting to new reading preferences. You can layer all these challenges onto the church, which is facing its own struggles to discover how we should be the church for the twenty-first century.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about social media. It is too early to say for sure, but it looks like social media might be a disruptive technology that changes how we do church at a fundamental level. Other technologies have made only slight changes in our common life. The electric light, for example, was a major technological disruptor in society at large, but it didn’t fundamentally alter how we engage in our mission as a church.

But several questions confront us as we look at social media and consider the many complex issues about our religious identity and place in the world. Exploring these questions could help us think about how to embrace (notice I did not say whether to embrace) social media – and help us see whether Facebook will resemble movable type as a revolutionary force in shaping church history.

Are social media a mission field, or merely an extension of our “meatspace” (brick and mortar) mission field?

Before I try to suggest an answer to this question, we need to keep in mind the extraordinary power – the charism – of social media. Social media do not function the same way as static websites, even though you look at ordinary websites and social media on your computer screen. Static websites function more like other marketing materials: they communicate information to the reader. Postcards or billboards do pretty much the same thing. But social media are different.

Facebook might communicate information, but what it does best is build connections. That’s the “social” in social media. When I share a link to a website, the real value of Facebook is not that I’ve shared a link, it’s that my friends and I can discuss the link together. If someone is confused about your announcement of a new program on Facebook, you’re likely to hear about it. Two-way communication is intrinsic to this revolution.

There are more than 750 million active Facebook users as I write this. Facebook says an average user creates ninely pieces of content each month. On social media, users are constantly interacting with one another in all sorts of ways, discussing not only trivial things but matters of the greatest importance. Like “meatspace,” cyberspace affords many opportunities to share the gospel. And when the gospel is shared, it might be with hundreds of friends at once. These friends may not be on the same continent, let alone the same town.

It seems to me that we would do well to think of social spaces as mission fields. The point is not to gather people into one’s existing congregation but to change lives. The gospel knows no national or parish boundaries. On social media sites, I can engage in conversation with people I’ll never met. My friends can share information with their friends. The web of connections is massive. It’s not as effective as an in-person conversation, but the power to change hearts is every bit as real.

Has the time come for us, as a church, to think harder about how to reach out to this space – instead of using social media to promote our current, physical congregations?

Sure, a congregation might have a Facebook page to share information among its members. But the same level of effort can create a presence that shares the gospel across the globe. People might not be drawn to your local congregation, but through social media connections they may find their way to another. It is possible, in other words, that a congregation in one country will be building up the membership of a congregation in another, perhaps even on the other side of the globe.

If a congregation is only sharing information one-way or is always just asking for something of its members online, people will tune out. But the congregation that learns to create online community will find that the sharing goes far beyond current members. To do this requires a shift in thinking. The theological point at stake here is that we are sharing the good news (which does not need to be tied to any one congregation) not just strengthening a local institution.

We don’t need to make an either-or choice between strengthening local congregations and reaching out to a global community. It is important do both.

How will social media affect our worship?

Twitter pulpitTelevision has had a documented impact on public school education. In his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman wrote about Sesame Street’s impact on the classroom. Suddenly teachers had to adapt to shortened attention spans and break lesson plans into small pieces, just like a TV program. New studies suggest that Twitter and other social media are affecting our cognitive functions. Will Twitter lead to us breaking up our liturgy into bite-sized chunks?

It’s too early to tell what impact social media will have on worship. Postman also wrote about the temptation to make our corporate worship more like TV entertainment, and it’s not hard to find supporting examples. But it’s also pretty easy to find examples of community worship that seem little changed from the sixteenth or fourteenth centuries or even earlier. Perhaps there’s room for both?

These questions go way beyond an etiquette question of whether one should encourage or discourage Tweeting during worship. I think if someone sitting in a pew Tweets a sound bite from my sermon, the Word has been proclaimed not just inside the four walls but to the four corners of the earth. That’s good in my book.

The bigger issues will take years to understand. Perhaps we’ll see in time that we’ve altered liturgical texts to have shorter sentences – closer to the 140 characters of a standard Tweet. Perhaps we’ll see that we’ve built in more opportunities for sharing among members during worship, much like Facebook. For now, we do well to pay attention to the specific changes that we are deciding to make or that people are seeking. Not every cultural or technological shift has had a direct, obvious impact on our worship.

What are the implications for church work? Do we still need the same kind of committees and organizations? Do social media allow us – impel us – to work differently?

Social media do change parish ministry. As a parish priest, I often learned about pastoral needs through Facebook before I heard about them by phone or in person. I was able to offer pastoral care – especially the lighter varieties – that I couldn’t have offered otherwise. A “congratulations!” on news of a job. “I’m sorry to hear that” to news of a disappointment. This might be no different than things I might have said at coffee hour, but coffee hour is limited to a few minutes with a few people.

Pastoral care isn’t the only arena to change through social media. With social media, a member can post a message, “Who wants to come over and help plant flowers?” and the whole project is planned and volunteers are lined up without staff involvement. The medium governs the method: peer-based context encourages peer-based thinking in our common work. A healthy church can create an entrepreneurial culture in which ministries are carried out on a scale that’s not possible by other means. And because it’s all public, the newest member has the same access as a long-time regular.

Of course, there is plenty of potential for things to spin out of control. It’s no different than coffee hour or phone-calling campaigns. Sometimes people will need encouragement and others will need to be reigned in. But good leadership and clarity of purpose within a congregation will solve most of these problems, in much the same way that rogue phone campaigns are banished by healthy congregational life. Perfect love casts out fear, and good leadership casts out bad behavior.

When I was beginning a parish group for 20s-30s, I asked them what they were looking for. “Whatever you do, don’t make us go to meetings,” they said unanimously. They want to be active in ministry, not in talking about possibilities of ministry. So if I want to harness that group, I wouldn’t form a committee. Rather, I would invite them to be in our Facebook group, and then we’d announce a trip to a local feeding ministry. People could indicate their interest and perhaps plan to share rides or divvy up the cooking. This process, this online clarifying and delegating, turns out to be more efficient than the traditional meeting. A good leadership team will create the conditions to facilitate this kind of ministry, and they probably won’t involve loads of committees and commissions.

But in this scenario, you need people who can look out for one another online. You need to foster a trust among members that they can share their online hopes and concerns. You need to allow Spirit-led ministries to flourish naturally. That, my friends, is ekklesia. The ekklesia of Facebook.

At the church-wide level, the same trends are shaping ministry. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some of the most innovative and effective programs and ministries now being created are coming not from denominational program staff but from clergy and lay leaders working together via social media. Why is this? When people who are passionate about a ministry (e.g. young adult programming) are able to work collaboratively, they can create something greater than any one person might have managed. The very passion that pushes people to sign up for the (usually unpaid) effort is the result of a commitment level and expertise where excellence can flourish.

Denominational or judicatory leaders could stop trying to create programs and ministries. Instead, they could be amplifying excellent work that already exists throughout the church. We don’t need to rely on centralized programs any more. We need networks of passionate people who can enliven us all. A church-wide office might promote particular programs that are seen as effective and that cohere with denominational standards or theology. The work of the denominational or judicatory staff becomes lifting up rather than pushing down.

And this gets me back to my work at Forward Movement. We’ll need to start thinking of ourselves not just as publishers of content for the church, but rather as connectors and amplifiers. We are connecting people – experts to other experts as well as content creators to content consumers. We are amplifying the best work and ministries we can find.

How do we find out where great work is happening? Social media, of course.

Denominational structures will look very different in a very few years, and not just because of resource constraints. In fact, the resource constraints may turn out to be a blessing that shakes us out of our complacency. The needs of the church are different today than they were thirty or even ten years ago. And they’ll be different in five years or even next year.

I hope we can continue the conversation on Facebook [or here on this blog!].

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2 Responses

  1. Jonathan says:

    Honestly, it seems like making a big deal over something that really isn’t a big deal. I’m not even convinced that what’s going on is fundamentally new. Oh, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs are all relatively new, but people have been connecting, even at a distance, for ages. What’s new is the speed of communication and the ease with which folks can get involved in the conversation. That said, it certainly changes how ministers go about ministering to people if only because people are developing different assumptions about how they will communicate with others. The same sort of change happened with the advent of the postal service and again with email, and neither required any fundamental changes in the church. Even blogging, which has gone mostly unmentioned so far, has its old time analogs.

    The one major change that social media facilitates is the elimination of meetings in favor of other decision-making methods. However, while it’s good to get away from having endless meetings, doing so can also make for a significantly more autocratic or oligarchic process. Consider the examples you gave. How was it decided that the church should have new or more flowers planted around it? How are competing visions for the church’s landscaping dealt with without resorting either to meetings or to giving one person control? For the young adult group, how was it decided that the event should be going to a soup kitchen instead of going hiking or to see a movie?

    Finally, turning to the denominational authorities, I wasn’t aware that any successful event has ever been sent down from on high. I was under the impression that successful programs have always started with interested laity and clergy putting things together, possibly in the context of one of the many societies, fellowships, caucuses, or consortia that have been formed in this church.

  1. October 25, 2011

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