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Elizabeth Drescher: Digital ministry, made for the mainline

Networked, relational and incarnational, digital ministry is a good fit for the mainline, a chance to make the privatized practice of faith public and visible in the world again, says the author and scholar.

January 31, 2012

Mainline churches were never a good fit for broadcast media, but they are ideally suited to take advantage of the new world of social media, said Elizabeth Drescher, the author of “Tweet If You ♥ Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation.”

To Drescher, social media offers a chance for the mainline to recover long-lost practices in which faith was embedded in every aspect of people’s lives, visible for all to see.

“There’s an incredible opportunity to participate in making more public and visible what for the last 500 years has been a largely invisible, privatized practice of faith,” she said.

DrescherSocial media is similar to how people connected and related to one another in the medieval church, ways with which mainline Protestants are still comfortable, she said.

“Digital ministry allows us to do a similar thing,” she said. “The power of new digital ministry practices is that they are networked, relational and incarnational.”

Drescher studies and writes about the spiritual practices of believers, past and present. She has a Ph.D. in Christian spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and is on the faculty at Santa Clara University. Her next book, “Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible,” co-authored with the Rev. Keith Anderson, will be published in May.

She spoke with Faith & Leadership about “Tweet If You ♥ Jesus” and the implications of social media for the church. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: “Tweet If You ♥ Jesus” seems as much a how-to book about church as it is about social media.

Absolutely. The book is kind of a digital ecclesiology. Social media is different from broadcast media and even from the way people previously used the Internet. The book is about the implications of that, particularly for mainline churches.

People ask, “Why do I need to be on Facebook or Twitter? Why does my church need to be there? Why does it matter?”

Well, this is where people are engaging and connecting their lives in important and meaningful ways. It turns out that social media is a lot like the ways we connected, though on a smaller scale, in the medieval and pre-modern church.

Q: Give us a brief history of communications and the church. Why does the mainline often lag behind evangelical and nondenominational churches in the use of communication technologies?

Mainline churches come directly or indirectly from the medieval church, and medieval or pre-modern communication was highly relational. In its own low-tech way, the medieval church was networked. People created and shared knowledge and shaped their practical theology or their spirituality by sharing stories.

Before the printing press, reading was social. Somebody in the neighborhood had a book -- which by the late medieval period had become less expensive but still not widely available -- so that person would be the reader for the community. That meant sitting around with a group reading a tale or theology or Scripture and people having conversation.

The modern period changed that. The printing press distributed knowledge and allowed the Reformations to happen, but it also privatized reading. As everybody became able to afford books and literacy increased, they went off privately to read. Reading was not done in community anymore, and that changed the relational nature of communication.

Later, the way knowledge is distributed also changed. In the broadcast media age, people who had access to the means of distributing information controlled the message. Books and TV allowed more people into the conversation, but only in a narrow way.

Social media changed that. It democratized communication, giving everybody access to all kinds of information. It also gave people access to the means of creating, sharing and collaborating on information.

That collaboration is much like it was in the pre-modern time, but on steroids. With social media, communication is amped up and widely distributed.

But that’s a comfortable place for mainline Christians, who were never comfortable in broadcast media, unlike evangelicals and nondenominational people. Their churches, polity and history developed out of that very modern, very American mode of one-to-many broadcasting.

Q: So broadcast media was a perfect fit for evangelicals.

Exactly. The evangelical traditions came up at a time when newspapers, radio and television were developing in America. They were born out of that environment, and so their polity and their spirituality is focused on a charismatic leader with a compelling message that is sent out to the faithful.

The focus is on how to make the message engaging, how to make it shinier so people will get it.

Pre-modern and now postmodern digital communication, however, isn’t about the message per se. It’s about the message in the context of relationship. It’s about messages of developing community, which is what Paul’s letters were about.

We read Paul as though we’re listening directly to him. But those letters come out of vast conversations across communities, and we’re only seeing one version of a final product.

I call Paul the proto-blogger. This was a guy who’s going around the new Christian community listening, attentive to their questions and problems, applying his keen mind, and giving people whatever he can to engage them with one another, using the latest media.

Paul’s got his issues, but his point is never entirely, “Hey, I’m Paul. Listen to me, because I have the best message.”

Instead, he’s putting people into relationship. The letters always start with, “Hey, I heard Phoebe saying this, and you need to think about that, and take this to your friends.” That is non-digital, networked, social communications.

Paul wants these communities to be the body of Christ, to incarnate the faith in the world. Digital ministry allows us to do a similar thing. The power of new digital ministry practices is that they are networked, relational and incarnational.

There’s research that says, for example, people who use social media regularly are more likely to volunteer. They use social media to connect with other people and to things that they’re doing in the world. Social media mediates their relationship when they’re not physically present to each other. But it doesn’t replace face-to-face engagement, which is the anxiety that people have.

What’s interesting is that broadcast media does tend to replace face-to-face media. We see repeatedly this phenomenon of “believing without belonging,” with people who “go to church” sitting in their living room but never connect their faith in a face-to-face community.

Social media tends not to do that. Evangelicals tend to use social media as though it is a broadcast media. But others are starting to understand what it means for being networked, relational and incarnational.

They are moving digital ministry from “I’m going to pray with you online” to “We’re going to pray together, and then take that connection into a face-to-face engagement,” in church or a prayer group or another way of being together. That’s happening across the social media world.

Q: You say we’re at the start of a digital reformation, and you’re not using that word hyperbolically. You think this is a significant juncture.

Yes, I do. I really do see that the digital culture is contributing to a new distributed ecclesiology.

Reformations correct excesses of a previous movement and help evolve the church in a direction truer to Christian roots. I’m a Protestant, so for me, the 16th-century Reformations made all kinds of improvements. But they also tended to participate in the modern movement toward separating and segregating people from each other, communities from each other and the church from the world.

The medieval cathedral was engaged in the world around it. After the Reformation, it became a component of a largely secularized society. The church was the box down the street where you did religion.

What social media has done is go back to that pre-modern ecclesiology of church and faith being embedded in everything we do. But it’s not driven from the top down. It’s driven from the bottom up. It’s not coincidental that the emergent church movement developed just as social media developed.

These aren’t accidents. We’re moving to a widely distributed ecclesiology where ordinary believers are sharing their faith and claiming religious authority in new ways, and that’s impacting the institutional church profoundly.

We’re realizing the priesthood of all believers in a powerful way that says, “Yes, there are people who do sacramental ministry, and that’s important. But there are other believers whose priesthood takes other forms, and they’re equally important.”

Q: Tell us more about how social media differs from broadcast media.

Social media gives people the opportunity to be in relationship with people they would never have had access to in the past. I have 27 bishops from throughout the Anglican Communion in my Facebook network.

I’m nobody. I’m not clergy. I don’t have any reason technically to be in regular contact with 27 bishops, but I’m in conversation with each of these people.

That’s very different from me trying to find a connection so I can talk to that person, or from that person creating a message that will go out to some imaginary, invisible, anonymous me.

That gives ordinary believers a sense of spiritual and ecclesial authority that’s different from even two years ago. It has completely flipped the hierarchy.

It’s also connecting people laterally. I’m six degrees of separation from everybody, and that puts me in touch with all kinds of people.

I met Keith Anderson, my co-author of “Click 2 Save,” when he emailed me about an article I had written. We became friends on Facebook, and I realized that he was a smart, engaging pastor who was using social media in amazing ways.

We wrote the book together over the last year but met face to face just two months ago, two years after we’d met online.

This is happening across the globe.

Q: We tend to think that more is better -- more Twitter followers, more Facebook friends. But you contend that social media is about intimacy, that it allows people to “maximize smallness.” How so?

The average Facebook user has 130 friends on their page. In broadcast terms, that isn’t very big. Worse, they’re regularly engaged with only about 20 of them, and of those, they know about 18 from face-to-face relationships. They use social media to sustain and nurture those relationships, and that’s good.

But what does that do to share the gospel, extend the faith and broaden our ecclesiology? Well, those 20 people have the same relationship with their 130 friends, 20 of whom they interact with regularly.

Every time one person posts anything, it’s now multiplied exponentially -- 20 x 20 x 20 x 20. Someone posts a prayer request and, in seconds, it goes to all these people.

In broadcast media, you think, “How can I create a message that’s so engaging that 100,000 people will see it?” In social media, you don’t think about that. The networking capabilities take care of the numbers.

If you’re in relationship, sharing from an authentic sense of your faith and connecting with people who matter to you, you’re always witnessing. You’re always evangelizing. It’s about having a ministry of presence. It’s not a ministry of message. It’s a ministry of presence.

Q: In that same way, you say that priests were once not just in a building over there but a presence in the community who made their rounds and thereby kept people connected.

Bruce Robison, an Episcopal priest in Pittsburgh, uses this wonderful metaphor of the parish priest who would ride his bicycle around the community to connect people.

Bruce exemplifies the ability to use social media to be present to people, to write a birthday prayer on their page, to offer prayers when someone’s ill, to make small gestures that say, “I’m here, I’m present, and your life matters to me.”

Bruce is particularly insightful about young adults between 18 and about 30. They fall off the radar after they leave youth group and come back after they have kids. But Bruce makes a point of friending kids as they go to college and checking in occasionally to say hello, he’s thinking about them, and inviting them back to church on breaks.

His message is not, “Hey, here’s what I think about Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Dig this, kids.” His message is, “You matter to me. I see you have a test this week. I’m praying that goes well for you.”

That’s a shift back to a kinder ministry that’s relational and involved in the day-to-day.

Q: In contrast, you suggest that pastors refrain from thinking of social media as a place to post sermons.

Preaching is built for face-to-face engagement, so sermons generally are not appropriate for social media. A sermon assumes a relationship in community. If you’re a good preacher, you’re speaking to a particular church at a particular time, so sermons shouldn’t be easily translatable across communities.

Really, people are interested in relationship. They want to see how you connect with one another. They want to see your events, your stewardship campaign.

Are you showing pictures and videos of your gatherings? Are you engaging one another? Do you pray for one another? Do you offer people encouragement? Do you share stories?

When people see a church where people interact in meaningful ways, it gives them a sense that, “This is a place where I can be in relationship with others around my faith.”

Q: What does all of this mean for leadership?

Joi Ito, an early digital thinker, talked about leadership being a place, and that what good leaders do doesn’t depend on charisma or authority per se. Good leaders create spaces that invite people to come in and be themselves, connect to others, collaborate, be creative.

Leaders are creators of sacred space, whether it’s a Facebook page and a Twitter feed that invites people into community or it’s visiting somebody else’s page in a way that marks that space as holy.

Leadership is not about how sharp your message is or how dazzling your personality or who you are in the church. It’s about your ability to create spaces where people feel comfortable being authentically present and engaging other people. That’s not any different in digital spaces than in physical spaces.

The most successful mainline churches, not necessarily numerically but in terms of sustaining community, are successful because they have leaders -- maybe clergy, maybe not -- who create space where others can be authentic and creative and engage others in conversations about meaning and value and practices that encourage those conversations. It’s a different model of leadership.

Q: Clearly, on balance, you think social media is a positive development.

I do. There are risks. We’ve seen bullying and other demeaning and even dangerous behavior. But that’s why it’s important for leaders in ministry to participate in social media. We need people trained in spiritual care, ethics and the nurturing of relationships to be in digital spaces. There are risks, but they’re risks we should be addressing.

But beyond those risks, there’s an incredible opportunity to participate in making more public and visible what for the last 500 years has been a largely invisible, privatized practice of faith. We’re removing the veil on a practice of religion that was lost from public life. Mainline churches, in particular, have this tremendous opportunity.

Q: And if they miss it?

We’re done. We’ll need to just turn off the light and wait for the new church to emerge.

And it will. We have a tradition that says things die and then they’re born again. I don’t have any doubt that the church will constantly be renewed. I have every faith that it will.

But if we’re not participating in the culture as it’s shaped now -- and it’s shaped in relationship to digital social media -- we’re not going to be part of that renewal.

I don’t know how it will play out, but I think that presence is way more important and way more possible than any panicked drive to hang on to our buildings and grow in numbers and all those things that have animated mainline churches for the last generation.