Why Should the Church Bother with Social Media?

Technological advances have always driven change, revolution and reform in church and society.  To give but one example, the printing press made the Reformation possible, or at least allowed the Reformation to spread quickly. With the invention of the printing press came a rise in the literacy rate, which meant that no longer would the people be dependent on a small cadre of religious leaders for their information. Now, the Bible could be put into their own hands, and they had control.

In the last century, first Radio, then Television, and finally the internet made it possible for people to connect in ways that opened up horizons never seen or heard before.  The world, in a sense, became smaller, even as one's grasp of the complexity of the world grew much larger.  No longer were we limited to the printed word, but now the oral and the visual could be shared broadly revolutionizing the way we see the world.  I remember growing up with the Vietnam War broadcast every evening on the national news.  By the time of the First Gulf War, I could watch the events occur live and in color from afar. 

Now at the dawn of the 21st century, we are seeing the impact of new forms of technology. They build upon what was, but they expand the influence and impact much more widely. Could the recent and current revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa have happened so quickly without the ability of organizers to quickly mobilize large sectors of the population? They could do this because of Facebook and Twitter, two tools of technology that are less than a decade old. We are living in a new age where communication is instant and global.

We’ve seen what Facebook and Twitter have meant to these Revolutions, but what about the church? What influence will they have on the way we live and work and serve together? Will we receive them, even as we received the printing press, or will we shun them? It would seem that the groups and communities that most effectively utilize these tools will have a better opportunity to communicate a message and shape the conversation.

I’m of the belief that we must understand and make use of these tools, which in and of themselves are benign. Like any tool they can be used for good or ill, and so we must understand their use and value and decide how we are to use them. So, with that in mind, our congregation decided to work with Doug Pagitt to host a day long seminar on Social media (this past Thursday). This seminar is called a Social Phonics Boot Camp – for good reason. We rapidly moved through a “basic training” in the philosophy and use of social media – from Facebook to YouTube, from blogs to internet radio.

Although much of the day was hands-on, we began where we should – with the development of a Social Media philosophy. Why do this? Why use social media? Why not stick with the tried and true – like the mail and the printed word? What does this media add to our mission? Every church and every church leader must ask these kinds of questions, and the answers will prove enlightening and perhaps even revolutionary.

I want to close my comments with a word about my involvement with blogging. Doug asked me to help him with that portion of the seminar because I’m a pastor who blogs regularly. I didn’t provide the technical expertise, I helped with the philosophy. I started blogging five years ago (February 2006) because I like to write and I needed an outlet. As a blogger, I’m my own editor (unfortunately that includes being my own copy editor!) I started out just writing whatever came to mind, mostly about religion or politics, but I don’t know that I had really thought about why I was doing it. Then I read a piece that suggested that if you want to develop an audience you have to post regularly, and daily is best. So, I started to post daily, and continue to do so.

Still the question is why do this? And over time I’ve discovered that I have something to say, that there are people who find what I say helpful or useful, and that I can have a far larger audience through the blog than I can through my preaching or my teaching ministry. Now, I don’t know the extent of my influence. That’s not something easily gauged. I can check to see how many visitors or readers I get, but that doesn’t tell me a whole lot. Sometimes I get emails from readers and there are the comments that come. But here’s the basic philosophy. I believe that there are many different messages out there. Some of these messages, whether political or religious, can be harmful and destructive. My hope is that the words shared here are different. I pray that they lift up those who are struggling with life and with faith. I pray that these words might be healing, and I pray that they contribute to the common good. My voice is only one voice, but when we join our voices, then good things happen.

My word to my colleagues in ministry and leadership in the church, especially among progressive and moderate communities of faith – consider carefully this new technological revolution. We are entering what Doug calls the Inventive Age, an age that demands that we  recognize that change is happening quickly, and that creativity is key to engaging this new reality.  It is my belief, that if we don’t learn to engage the current technologies and unleash our creativity, then the message we wish to share will get drowned out by competing messages. If you don’t believe me, just think about who controls the religious dimensions of TV, the last great media revolution!


Anonymous said…
Hello Bob: My latent interest in blogging was given a boost by the conference "Theology After Google" at the School of Theology in Claremont about this time last year. In late March 2010 I launched my blog with the intention of writing in two areas of interest: religious history and aggressive cycling. With only three or four misses, I have posted a column on religion early in the week and on cycling late in the week ever since. There still is much to learn about this mode of communication. It takes time, much of which I would otherwise be using on a more sustained research project that I hope will become a book on the history and import of the Consultation on Church Union.

This is the professional challenge: Is blogging valuable enough to reduce my scholarly endeavor? I suspect that pastors have to ask a similar question. Blogging can become a way of avoiding some of the most important aspects of leading a congregation.

Do you and your readers have any thoughts on this?
Robert Cornwall said…

These are really good questions. As I shared with the group at the seminar, I see the blog as a way of extending the reach of my ministry. How effective an extension it's hard to know.

It does take time away from other things. I've sort of figured out how to do this -- in part by incorporating other things I'm doing into the blogging process (as you have done with the COCU posts).

My sense is that it takes time to build an audience. But each one of us has to decide if this is worth the sacrifices it involves!

My sense, is that I benefit from your posts, and while I may have opportunity to enjoy your writings anyway, I suspect there are others who wouldn't have that opportunity and thus benefit in this way.

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