Verity Jones: Thinking theologically about using social media
The New Media Project wants to help faith leaders become more theologically savvy about social media, which is rapidly changing the landscape of Christian life.
January 17, 2012 | Near Washington, D.C., the Rev. Tony Lee sees on Facebook that a church member’s brother has committed suicide -- news he would not otherwise have known -- and is able to reach out to the young man and attend the funeral.
To Lee, it’s a vivid example of how social media gives pastors “longer arms,” providing new ways to stay connected to church members and “touch people who need hope.”
In Seattle, social media is an essential part of the ministry at Quest Church. The congregation’s 25 small groups use Facebook to link members, encourage one another and share information.
“New media helps us more deeply engage in community,” said the Rev. Eugene Cho. “It’s certainly a way for us to build intimacy, … sharing prayer requests and concerns.”
Across the land, in that virtual “place” called the World Wide Web, The Young Clergy Women Project, an online social network of more than 500 clergywomen under 40, is providing young women pastors the support they need to stay in ministry.
Often lacking any nearby female peers, the pastors have found comfort in the online community, which gives them a place to relax and share with others who understand what they are going through.
These three stories are from case studies conducted by the New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary. They are just some of the many places we’re looking to find out how the church is responding in this age of constantly changing technologies.
Established a year ago with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc., the New Media Project seeks to help faith leaders become more theologically savvy about technology.
Although we don’t have all the answers yet -- or even all the questions -- one thing is clear: the widespread use of technology and social media in American culture today is rapidly changing the landscape in which Christian life occurs.
- Heidi Campbell, associate professor of communication at Texas A&M University and author of “When Religion Meets New Media”
- Elizabeth Drescher, author of “Tweet If You ♥ Jesus”
- Keith Anderson, Lutheran pastor and co-author with Drescher of “Click2Save: The Digital Ministry Bible”
- Kwok Pui Lan, professor of Christian theology and spirituality at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass.
Our task at the New Media Project is not to justify or be an apologist for technology or for social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter. Rather, we seek to understand this dramatic shift in communication patterns and tools theologically.
If, as Anselm said, theology is “faith seeking understanding,” then our challenge -- our hope -- is to understand what is at stake for the body of Christ during this time.
We hope to recognize new ways of thinking about ourselves, church and God that might be emerging. We want to know: How do our theological assumptions, doctrines, practices, or ways of being and acting in the world as people of faith hold up in this new context?
We began the New Media Project by asking pastors, congregations and leaders in other church-related institutions such as higher education how and why they use social media. Currently, we are surveying younger clergy about their use of social media, because they tend to think differently about technology than their elders.
We have conducted six case studies as a foundation for further theological reflection and maintain an active blog, where our six research fellows and guest specialists contribute regularly. In an effort to live into a social media world marked by creativity and collaboration, we share our research and our thinking as we go, hoping to contribute to the community of conversation now, not just later when conclusions have been reached.
What are we learning?
For one thing, as our survey found, an overwhelming number of younger clergy use social media in their ministries and in their personal lives, and they are generally quite thoughtful about it. They use social media for everything from community building and pastoral care to sermon preparation and event planning. They see social media as the new public square. Since growing numbers of people spend time there, so should they.
Consensus on best ministry practices, however, remains elusive.
Many clergy say it’s important to use social media in ways that emerge “organically” from the culture of a particular community.
As Lee, the pastor of Community of Hope AME Church near Washington, explained, his use of new media must “fit my flow and the flow of the church.” Similarly, the Rev. Eric Elnes, pastor of Countryside Community Church UCC in Omaha, Neb., avoids early adoption of new technology. He wants to ensure that whatever technology he uses makes sense with regular life -- a challenge that becomes easier almost every day.
“The fact of the matter is that as technology matures, it tends to look more and more like our everyday lives,” Elnes wrote on our blog.
Not surprisingly, people differ on what tools are organic to church life, or what the “flow” of a particular pastor might be. For example, the question of how public a pastor should be on Facebook is hotly debated.
On the one hand, Lee and the pastoral staff at Community of Hope use Facebook and Twitter to demystify the life of a pastor, posting news both joyful and mundane.
When Lee met President Obama last year, he used his smartphone to tweet and post photos on Facebook, sharing his excitement with his 2,200-member church. More often, such posts are about routine events -- eating dinner with Mom or going to a concert -- that let members know clergy are not “celebrities,” as one pastor said.
On the other hand, some young clergywomen we interviewed closely guard their private lives online. Developing their pastoral vocation is challenging enough without the openness of Facebook -- and the often-critical public eye that comes with it.