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Keith Anderson: Digital ministry and bearing witness to the holy

Social media gives pastors a new ability to point out the presence of God in the day-to-day of people’s lives, says the co-author of a new book on digital ministry.

September 11, 2012

Bearing witness to people’s lives, in all the routine chaos of day-to-day living, is a holy thing, the Rev. Keith Anderson said.

And social media gives pastors and others a powerful way to point out the sacred in everyday life as never before, he said.

“One of the things I love about my job -- and the way that this plays out in digital spaces -- is that I get to name these things as holy,” Anderson said. “I get to point to how God is present in people’s lives.”

Ultimately, digital ministry isn’t different from face-to-face ministry, he said: “It calls forth the best in us and our training and the best of being in ministry.”

Anderson is pastor of Upper Dublin Lutheran Church near Philadelphia and co-author, with Elizabeth Drescher, of “Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible,” a follow-up to Drescher’s 2011 book, “Tweet If You ♥ Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation.”

Anderson blogs on religion, new media and popular culture at pastorkeithanderson.net and writes and speaks regularly on digital ministry and the impact of digital culture on face-to-face ministry.

Prior to arriving at Upper Dublin in August, he pastored the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Woburn, Mass., for nine years.

He spoke with Faith & Leadership recently about “Click 2 Save” and digital ministry. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: How does this book differ from “Tweet If You Jesus”?

“Tweet” is a conceptual look at the role of social media in mainline denominations, and “Click 2 Save” is more a hands-on guide. It’s for people in ministry who want to know how to apply those concepts. When the first book came out, people said, “This is great, but how do I do it?” So that’s how “Click 2 Save” came about, and Elizabeth invited me to write it with her.

We feature more than 40 ministry leaders using different types of social media in their ministries. One chapter explains the various platforms -- Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Foursquare, blogging -- and explains how to get up and running, with examples of people who are actually doing it. We also explore the arts of ministry and how those translate into digital spaces.

The book is intended for any kind of ministry leader -- clergy or lay, whether in a congregation or specialized ministry or just trying to follow Jesus in their daily lives and wanting to know how digital media plays a role in that. Our intended audience is, in the largest sense, the priesthood of all believers. Often it’s people who are not in traditional ministry who are showing us the way on these things.

Q: The book uses the term “digital ministry.” What is that?

Most social media advice tends to be around marketing. It’s repackaged business advice, and that was not what Elizabeth had in mind with “Tweet” or what my experience was in the parish. Digital ministry is more of a ministry-oriented, relationship-building approach to social media.

It’s not about broadcasting or marketing. It’s about building relationships. Some of those, hopefully, will evolve into people joining your church, but it’s mostly a matter of offering grace in this digital world of Facebook and Twitter. Digital ministry is networked, relational and incarnational, so it’s developing relationships over time and pointing to how God is at work in our daily lives. And in the midst of that, we’re developing relationships online and then hopefully extending offline and then back online again.

Q: You and Elizabeth say that digital ministry is about establishing “real presence.” What does that look like in the digital world?

It looks like authentic and human presence. Often, churches and ministry leaders see these new technologies and think it’s another broadcast medium where I can tell you all about me and my church. But what people really want is to develop a relationship.

You can’t just share information about your church all the time. You want to share things about your own interests and your own life so people have ways to connect with you beyond just whether they go to your church. That gives people a window into what the life of faith actually looks like, not just in my role as a pastor, but as a father, a husband, somebody who lives in a particular community and has particular gifts and interests.

Digital ministry is about taking ministry -- the ministry that we’ve been trained to do in seminaries or divinity schools -- and extending it into digital spaces.

As Elizabeth argued in “Tweet,” social media really lends itself to the church, because these are the things we do. We share the gospel. We share grace. We build relationships. We build community. We express care and concern for people when they’re hurting.

Digital ministry isn’t different from face-to-face ministry. It calls forth the best in us and our training and the best of being in ministry.

Q: So how does it change ministry? What does it bring that’s different?

It allows us to have contact with people throughout the week. Often, you only see people on Sunday, or a couple times during the week.

But to bear witness to people’s lives as they live them is a holy thing. It often drives me to prayer.

One of the things I love about my job -- and the way that this plays out in digital spaces -- is that I get to name these things as holy. I get to point to how God is present in people’s lives.

Often, they’re so busy living their lives they don’t have time to reflect on that, so I get to do that, not just in my sermon or a pastoral care situation, but in the flow of daily life.

With social media, you can respond in real time to events that you may or may not otherwise have ever known about.

But the question I get asked most often by pastors is, “Where do I begin?”

The most important thing is to get started somewhere that makes sense for you and your ministry, and learn as you go. The important thing is just to get started.

Q: Why is it important that churches be active in social media?

Social media is the place where people are meeting, connecting, learning and getting news, and keeping track of their interests. As somebody in ministry who wants to share the gospel, I need to be in that digital space just as much as I need to be in the church office or in my community. Also, it’s a place where young adults are gathering, a group that the church finds difficult to reach.

I pastored for a while in New England, and there, in the early days, a new town had to have a Congregational church and a minister before it could be organized as a town. They had to have a church literally on the public square for the town to exist officially. That’s where people were gathering.

It’s the same thing why church needs to be in social media -- that’s where people are gathering today. Church already plays a lesser role in many people’s lives, and being absent from social media marginalizes the church even further.

Many people don’t grow up experiencing church anymore, so they don’t know what church is about. Being present and active in social media gives people a look into what the life of faith is like for a community and for individuals. Absolutely the church has to be present, or we risk failing to connect with the millions of people who are there.

Q: You started two weeks ago as pastor at a church near Philadelphia. How have you been using social media? Has it helped in the transition?

It has. Even before I got here, I started connecting with people in the community on Twitter. I searched on Twitter for people from the area and started following them to get a sense of the people here and what’s happening.

I’ve been using Foursquare, the geolocation service, to check in at all the places I’ve been going. I go to restaurants, cafes, parks to get a feel for the area and try to meet some people to start building relationships. While I’m there I share that by checking in on Foursquare and putting that out on Twitter and Facebook.

I’m taking this physical presence that I’m trying to develop in the community and extending that into a digital presence as well.

Q: So you started relationship building weeks before you ever got there?

Yes, months before. I could see what people were talking about and where they were and what was going on, and that’s been a real help. For example, they have these First Friday events here that I learned about by following people on Twitter.

I showed up and ran into one of our church members whom I had met before. He and his son and I walked around, and he told me more about the town and introduced me to some friends. That’s one of those small incarnational moments where I learned about it on Twitter, then showed up in person. I met a church member, and he introduced me to more people.

Q: You weren’t using social media to send out messages but to listen to your new community and learn about it.

Yes. The first rule of social media is “Listen.” We often blow right by the listening and get to sharing and broadcasting. So what I did and what I continue to do is listen to what’s going on and what people are interested in. Now that I’m here, we’re trying to respond to people.

I’m “liking” the Facebook pages of several organizations to keep up with what’s going on. It connects you to a much wider circle. Before, it would have taken me months to reach that circle of people, but I’m doing it in weeks.

Pastors tend to be the people who are talking, whether it’s preaching or teaching or giving remarks at a dinner. It’s counterintuitive for them just to be quiet and listen.

But when you listen, you pick up patterns -- patterns in people’s lives, what they share and how they share. Then you know when somebody’s just making a comment or sharing something out of the ordinary.

It’s like learning your congregation and getting to know your parishioners. Once you develop that relationship, you have a sense of what’s normal and what’s out of the ordinary, and what needs follow-up and response. We can do that on social media, too.

A good example of that kind of listening -- what I call “reverent acknowledgment” -- is my spiritual director, Margaret Benefiel, a professor at Andover Newton Theological School in Boston.

Often, she will “like” a blog post or something else I’ve shared, and it means a lot to me that my spiritual director is bearing witness to what’s happening in my life.

In that same way, pastors can provide that reverent acknowledgment to people in their parishes and communities, to like and acknowledge what’s happening just in the sometimes mundane goings-on of life.

Q: In 2008, you did a sabbatical on contemplative spirituality with an emphasis on the spirituality of daily life. Is there a connection between your interest in the spirituality of daily life and your interest in social media?

Absolutely. At the time, my wife was pregnant with twins, and now we have four kids. The sabbatical was focused on spiritual reflection and finding God in the midst of the chaos of family life, in washing the dishes and changing the diapers.

There’s a lot of great theological underpinnings for that in the Lutheran understanding of vocation. Luther said our daily life is our holy calling. So I was in the midst of the chaos of my life, while waking up early and journaling and reflecting and trying to be aware of God moment by moment.

There’s absolutely a connection to social media. When I see people sharing and interacting on Facebook or Twitter, I think, “Well, God is not only present in the church; God is present when I’m changing diapers, or God is present when I’m washing dishes.” I can be aware of that, and really feel grateful even in those moments and know that’s part of my ministry in daily life.

Often, social media gets knocked because, well, it’s so mundane. It’s about what people had for breakfast or what they’re doing. Who wants to know about that?

Well, I want to know about that, because God is there, and I get to bear witness to that. I can help people to see that, which is one of my favorite roles as a ministry leader.