Finding faith in Social Media
Several weeks ago a Roman Catholic Archbishop said one of the most regrettable, misguided and short sighted things I’ve heard from a church leader in a very long time. Did it concern the role of women, or gay marriage, or perhaps even abortion? No, none of these. It concerned the internet, social media and new communication technologies. (Warning, this post may contain unwarranted levels of bitterness).
We all know, whether inside or out, that the church is about the slowest creature around when it comes to getting with the times. A new kind of music comes along, and before we’re allowed to make references in sermons, we have to wait 3 years to learn whether the general consensus is that its either Kosher, in which case we must mimic it to the point of destruction, or entirely damned, in which case anyone who attempts the former will be shoved from our ranks, and we shall be heard to complain about “those youths” that listen to this music which is now undermining society.
To state so vociferously that Facebook is the new big evil is to do several things all at once. First, given the media use these tools so much, and its producers are often the earliest adopters of new technology like Facebook and Twitter, it is to play the media at their own game, doomed to loose to the body of people who hold the gate keys to so much of the public psyche. What the media says, often goes, and right now, the media laughs at the church, and everyone naturally laughs along, including most of the Church.
Second, the statement itself showed a vast failure to understand Facebook, and intended or otherwise, over simplified the whole phenomenon. But more than that, it showed the church still isn’t prepared to meet people where they’re at. Borrowing a trite phrase, if we want to win this nation for Christ, condemning the means of discourse used by half the population every day is a sure fire way to fail. It is also a failure to understand what is happening, for Facebook isn’t the mechanism of social interaction, but rather the medium. Like any medium, it has massive failings, but it is a massive set of opportunities for the church to engage with, if only it gets it right from the outset.
First, anyone announcing how great God is on facebook is likely to get ignored. I actually know people who’ve gone for the “thinks God is Great!” status, and I must say, no matter how well meant, the pronouncement on its own sounds naff. Either say why, or find something better to say. We all live miserable and stressed lives these days, and what we generally want to see is someone sharing our experiences, not someone we feel is saying life is perfect for no apparent reason.
As MJ Axelson, daughter of my boss, has said, we have to learn to gossip the gospel, and as we all know, Facebook is an amazing place to gossip! But Facebook is also a place of intimate revelations, as is MSN/Google messenger. In the last few days, I’ve had 3 different friends coming to me with what might be classed as “pastoral issues” for want of a simpler thing. A boss being a complete jerk seemed roughly the easiest to figure a response to.
It should probably not come as a surprise that Facebook arrived just as social mobility has hit fever pitch. And I’m entirely grateful for this, as I can maintain some semblance of friendship when I’m out of city or country, and I often know who needs a hug when I get back (though I don’t necessarily know everyone who needs one).
In an “always on” world, the church must endeavour to learn a new what ministering looks like. At Greenbelt, Rob Bell pronounced that mobiles should go off when we take a day off; a wise but difficult practice. But you know, I’d rather have a friend come message me at 1am than come knock on my door. There’s no ideal place or medium by which to minister to someone in deep distress, but sometimes its better to take your laptop to the kitchen to brew your next cuppa than it would be to say “hang on, I’m falling asleep, can I just go put the kettle on”. OK, I don’t do that very often, but it happens.
I believe churches need to get Facebook strategies written down, and develop their usage of Twitter, MSN, Skype, Blogs etc. both centrally (i.e. by the church leadership) and as a community. Its not about creating new churches, new congregations or whatever, but about being the same church within a new medium, a new public square; available, accountable, prepared to listen and minister, but also to share, to be exposed and vulnerable in new ways and ultimately, to be community in new ways.
I’m not sure I know how the church should be using these kinds of technologies, nor that a grand scheme could be implemented; most of the best things that happen on facebook happen virally, organically, etc. so forcing stuff is mildly pointless. But being present is so vitally important. Otherwise, we’re not in the world at all. After all, the world has moved onto facebook, why hasn’t the church?