Another essay on social media and the church
Still, I sense a reluctance to join the conversation (even to make it deeper and better) for fear of letting go of traditional notions about church and religion and communication, even though we can see, if we look, that those notions are getting very frayed around the edges. There is a feeling that the church ought to close itself off from that sort of thing, or rise above it.
And then there is the refrain I've frequently heard that social media is just another thing that somebody has to learn, to monitor, another thing on the priest's to do list, another drain on his or her time. That Facebook is just a time waster that you do late at night, after work, perhaps as a guilty pleasure. In discussions about social media with church leaders and communicators, many seem to be more concerned with potential pitfalls and with gatekeeping than with the opportunity to harness the incredible reach and power that social media offers. They don't see the value of it. They imagine social media being more like print media where mistakes live forever when in fact social media is ever changing.
And they don't "get" the interactive component. Who has time for that, they ask? What if people we don't know try to join our group? (What if people we don't know try to join our church, I ask?) The pitfalls, while there, are tails that are wagging the dog here. To focus on "not broadcasting all over Facebook that Fred and Sally are getting a divorce" is to miss the boat entirely.
So, social media offers an incredible opportunity to create and deepen connections, to foster dialog and relationship, to make room for and provide a platform for sharing real life/real world faith stuff with and among people who are already out there using social media in their daily lives, and it's all pretty much free.
Further, consider the pastoral opportunity social media presents. It used to be that the parson was expected to stay in touch with all the members - perhaps visiting all of them in their homes and of course keeping up with their goings-on so as to be the pastoral presence in their lives. To know who's pregnant, who's ill, who's getting married, who's going off to college, who got a new puppy, who lost a job or a parent, who is grieving, who is going on vacation, who got a new job. Personal visits are still expected in some places, but more and more people either catch the minister at church on Sunday or call in or sometimes make an appointment for a face to face visit. And all that is good and no one who doesn't want to should be forced to use email or Facebook. But surely priests don't answer the question about connecting with and visiting parishioners or going out to public events in the community as the face of the church "who has time for that?!"
Ministers should be using social media as tools for pastoral care, rather than seeing it as a game to play late at night. There are millions of people out there who are using social media to connect and stay connected and ministers can do that, too. Ministers can and should make time for that, just as they make time for home visits, or phone calls, or personal conversations in the office. Those highly desirable "young people" are using social media, and so are their grandparents, so that they can share pictures and messages. Priests and other pastoral care types have an excellent opportunity via social media to connect with and stay connected to their parishioners and with people on the edges of the community - to "visit" by going to the big public square that is Facebook and Twitter. To offer video chat "office hours." To stay connected with the kids when they go off to college and see the pictures of the grandbabies and check out the vacation photos, and share some of their own stuff, too.
My final point is this: If you think of Facebook or Twitter or blogs as places to go, places where your people are, then it's not that different from the local vicar heading down to the pub or the coffee shop or the park to interact with the community there. Your people are out there! Go visit them!
P.S. Lots of people are writing about social media and the church today, and if you'd like to hear some other and intelligent voices out there, I'd like to call your attention to three essays that I think are worth your reading time:
First, my C of E friend Fr. David Cloake writes on his blog "Vernacular Curate" about social media and the church. One quote among many good ones: "Blogging and micro-blogging and all other social-media tell the stories of ordinary Christians in ordinary time outside of the church building." Read it all here.
Second, Keith Anderson writes in "The Living Lutheran" that culture isn't killing the church - grief is. Read this poignant and generous essay here.
The third link is to an excerpt at the Daily Episcopalian from Elizabeth Drescher's excellent book on social media and the church Tweet if you <3 [heart] Jesus (Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation). I have read Dr. Drescher's book and recommend it highly - she carefully and clearly delineates the potential power of social media and makes the case for how much better mainline Christianity is equipped to take advantage of it than we were in the broadcast media age. The excerpt, which shows us how the digital reformation facilitates today's priest in making connection, deepening relationship and generally pastorally caring for his or her flock (or, how George Herbert would have used Facebook) is here.