(The article below appeared in the December 2009/January 2010 issue of the Presbyterian Herald. It follows on from Tech Camp, and some posts and interviews I gave about technology and churches during the summer. Your comments and conversation welcomed!)
I heard about a minister who recently decided to set up a group on the Facebook website so that his congregation could continue discussing Sunday services and could find out about events that were being organised during the week. He announced this new innovation to the congregation. After the service, someone spoke to him at the door and told him that there already was an active Facebook group for the congregation. He shut his down and joined the existing one.
If you’re on your Church Committee and you don’t remember anyone asking permission, that’s because most social media tools are informal. They reach underneath and around bureaucratic structures. Anyone can start a group. And if you don’t, someone else will.
While forms of communication come and go, people’s desire to communicate and build relationships seems to remain constant. Postal services report a big reduction in personal letters being written and delivered through letterboxes. Emails are now more commonplace between family members and friends. Poolside postcards have been replaced with text messages.
Where face to face meetings used to be the venue for all important business decisions, increasingly I spend my time on phone calls connecting contributors scattered across the country, even the world. It used to be a treat for far away grandchildren to speak to Grandma and Grandpa on the telephone. Now some young faces grin, gurgle and wave at their remote family through the wonder of Skype and the webcams that are often built into modern computers.
Formality is on the decline, but sharing and communication is not. Instantaneous, low-cost, informal methods are on the increase.
Just over one million people across Ireland are registered on websites like Facebook to share updates about their lives with their friends. A smaller number of us regularly use the Twitter micro-blogging service to allow their followers to read short text message sized updates and questions (maximum of 140 characters long). Some write about events and issues that interest or disturb them on blogs (public online journals that allow readers to leave comments and engage with the author). And no doubt by the time this article is published and read, other tools will have popped up and joined the social networking arsenal!
Lenora Rand speculated in an article in Christian Century that the popularity of social media sites seems to testify to the fact that many people miss what the church used to provide.
“A place to know others and be known, a place to weep with those who weep and laugh with those who laugh, a place to bear one another’s burdens and share one another’s joys - not just once a week or at Easter and Christmas, but daily.”
Friends, followers, readers: does it have any relevance to the church? Any relevance to Christians? What are the opportunities and the challenges?
This year, some Presbyterians will find out what the Moderator is thinking about and where he has visited by reading his online blog long before they hear him speak at their church or read about him in an article in the Herald.
Self-published and free from a monthly print cycle, blogging has been a way for Stafford Carson to raise and discuss contemporaneous issues, even managing to post updates online while away in Ethiopia during August. He remarks:
“I have been surprised at how much I have wanted to blog about, and it has actually helped me to reflect on a number of issues that I might have ignored or dismissed quickly.
The short-length and semi-informal style of a blog means that it isn't excessively burdensome to post some thoughts, and it has many of the benefits that others have discovered through keeping a journal or diary.”
Of course, the Moderator’s blog is not a replacement for other more established forms of communication. Not everyone can access the internet: there are barriers of cost, proficiency and even personal choice. Yet for an increasing number of us, it is becoming an accepted and commonplace means of promulgating news.
While a blog may feel like an informal way of communicating, whatever the Moderator writes online will be read by journalists and will be treated as his public opinion on the issues he addresses. Anyone leaving a comment under one of his posts is similarly on the record - a bit like writing into the Herald and finding your words appearing on the letters page.
Blogs have been incorporated into some congregational websites and can be used as another way to spread the word about events and news - though many lack the sustained effort needed to keep them up to date after an initial flurry of posting. Individual Christians find them a way of discussing their observations and interests with a wide range of interested parties.
Away from the verbosity of blogs, the short-form Twitter service is being used by some ministers to broadcast daily devotional messages to those who follow their updates (known as “tweets”). Often regurgitating brief quotations from well-known US pastors, these can sometimes come across to me as cheesy.
Archbishop of York John Sentamu (@johnsentamu) is an expert communicator. He uses Twitter to raise the profile of specific issues and pass remark on news and deeds that have touched him.
Other ministers and youth workers use it to promote local events, give an insight into the shape of their day, and to react quickly in response to incidents that they want to comment on. During the General Assembly, the @pciassembly Twitter feed provided insight into the running order and a flavour of some of the debating points and results of votes. Alongside the online video streaming, it was a great way to follow the highly anticipated debate on the Presbyterian Mutual Society.
Much like blogging, Twitter is a public pursuit. Members of the press are amongst the most enthusiastic tweeters. Many deliberately follow a variety of people and organisations in their local area in order to pick up stories that they can subsequently cover in their newspapers, television or radio shows. So I should not have been surprised when the Belfast Telegraph cited a selection of related tweets made by interested parties on the afternoon of the PMS debate.
While the use and uptake of Facebook in Ireland has been doubling annually for the last two years, a show of hands at next Sunday morning’s service might show significant pockets of the congregation who’ve never heard of it and have no wish to join its bandwagon.
A Presbyterian Church in Ireland group has been active since late 2007, allowing several hundred Facebook users so far to choose to associate themselves with the denomination alongside their favourite causes, bands and TV shows. Some congregations have registered their own Facebook groups and use them to advertise details about services and local events. They could be going further and adding photos, video, sermon audio and encouraging discussions.
Aside from the structure of groups, Facebook can also host conversations - public and private - between individuals registered on the website. Publish an intriguing status update like “Tracy is off to wash cars for the afternoon” in reference to a charity car wash and you can be sure that some of your Facebook friends will soon ask what you’re doing and offer to bring their cars around too!
One question that has been vexing some Facebooking Presbyterians across the Atlantic in PCUSA has been whether ministers should break electronic links (“un-friend”) with members of their old congregations whenever they are called away to a new church. Some think that it offers an easy way for people to remain in touch, keep up-to-date with progress and allow gentle encouragement from afar. Others see that it can interfere with the process of building relationships with the new congregation and lead to unhelpful remote pastoral care.
Of course, this assumes that anyone working in a church would agree to be linked as friends on Facebook with the people they serve in the first place.
Opinion differs. One minister I’ve spoken to feels that distance is required. For him, boundaries are important and Facebook is for personal use only. Concerns about child protection and professional reputation mean that he would be uncomfortable having online communications with his congregations - particularly younger members - that could ultimately be misconstrued and used against him.
Others take a different view and see online communications as no more vulnerable than face-to-face conversations, phone calls and letters. There are no right answers. Different people are comfortable with setting their communication boundaries at different distances.
Modern day joiners carry around an amazing array of different implements in their toolboxes. Not everything can be fixed with a hammer. A good joiner has the ability to select the most appropriate tool for the job and the skill to confidently use it to accomplish what needs done.
For me, the important rule with all these types of emerging social media is to approach them with our eyes open, thinking through the consequences before it’s too late.
As Moderator of PCUSA, Bruce Reyes-Chow has been a strong advocate for his denomination taking advantage of social media. With a huge landmass to cover, he uses Facebook, Twitter and his blog to organise, inform and enthuse members of his denomination and beyond.
“As the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and bona fide participant in the social media world, I have come to strongly believe that, when used well, social media technologies will not only help the church become more connected, but in our doing so our impact on the world will be that much more real.
Too often churches will reject that which we have not been part of leading or discovering. With this in mind, churches should be able to embrace social media, because it simply enhances what we already do best, build and live in community.”
People matter to God. Technology is at best ancillary, and at worst an enslaving distraction. It is definitely possible to get carried away with these new approaches. They are neither universally accessible nor universally understood. Communicating through niche media should be in addition to and not instead of other approaches. But equally social media may be a beneficial way of reaching out to friends, followers and readers who fall into the age range most missing from our church communities; putting in place a foundation of understanding that can be built on in real life.
What individuals and congregations say online is part of their Christian witness. Whenever it is used to show love, demonstrate grace and model Christ-like thinking and actions then it can help build God’s kingdom.