In the beginning was the Word, and the Word has moved to Facebook.
True of congregations in other parts of the country, many in the Columbus area are experimenting with social media. Want to set up a fan page for your pastor? Get out prayer requests to thousands at the push of a button? Announce a funeral? You can alert the masses, instantly.
Some have only recently discovered Facebook and other social media. Others have utilized them a long time, and have discovered their limitations.
The Rev. Dick Game, curate of Trinity Episcopal Church, just recently signed on to Facebook, a medium that allows you to post updates on your life, make commentary, post photos and link to articles.
“I love it. I’d been missing out on a lot of things. But I admit — I’m a neophyte,” Game said.
In a recent church newsletter in which he reflected on the craze, Game wrote: “Where is God in all of this? It seems to me that these Internet social networks mirror our baptismal connectedness with each other. Through baptism, we are all received ‘into the household of God’ and united with Christ in his body, the church. And that means that we are connected with all other believers, even those we have not met and will not meet face-to-face in this life.
“And so, one virtue of the Internet, from a theological perspective, is that it reveals how it is possible that we can be connected with each other, through each other, even without seeing each other.”
To him, there’s also a downside. “Virtual connections are no substitute for face-to-face ones. God became human in Jesus so that we might get to know God – in the flesh. We remain in relationship with God by being connected in person with others in whom Christ lives, in his body,” Game wrote.
Time to ‘tweet’
True of evangelical Christians generally, the Rev. Ricky Smith, minister to students at Calvary Baptist Church, is a longtime user of social media and social networking. Not only for himself but to connect with students and their parents. He has about 80 active young people in his youth group.
On a recent mission trip to Costa Rica, Smith, 33, kept up a blog that was automatically updated through a Twitter account. But parents back home didn’t necessarily need to be on the blog to receive the updates. If they followed Smith on Twitter, they got between 10-15 “tweets” a day, including prayer requests.
“Parents loved it because they could stay connected by the hour. Thirty days ahead of time, we developed a prayer strategy and we could Tweet out that prayer reminder while we were there,” he said.
A Twitter message, or “tweet,” is limited to 140 characters and simply lets people know what you’re up to. In a religious context, it might be a word of encouragement or scripture verse.
In youth ministry for more than a dozen years, Smith first employed MySpace to connect with students. Then it was Facebook. While Facebook is still popular among teens, he sees the needle moving more toward text-messaging and Twitter. (What’s knocked Facebook down in trendiness in recent years is adult encroachment, many say. Once restricted to college students, Facebook is now open to people of all ages.)
“I’m seeing grandparents use it,” said Smith, “which probably means Facebook is on the way out.”
In the larger church, he foresees a day when someone in the congregation can send a message to the speaker or preacher — during worship — and have the person address the question in a forum during the same service.
Because Smith has used the various media for many years, he’s long been aware of pitfalls when it comes to language, especially with young people.
“There is personal monitoring I have to do; I have to be wise on there from an online safety perspective,” said Smith. For instance, he’s aware that Southern colloquialisms such as “honey” and “sweetie” can be taken out of context when read online.
“You have to be smart,” he said.
Meanwhile, the new pastor appointed to South Columbus United Methodist Church is slowly acclimating her congregation to Twitter. The Rev. Denise Walton just got a Twitter account.
She’ll also start talking it up on a radio program of her weekly sermon at 9:30 a.m. Sundays on 101.3 FM.
“We are just starting to introduce it,” said Walton, who got the idea from her 23-year-old son. “I’m putting it in our weekly newsletters and asking people to get on board. … I think it is helping the congregation and will help the people in the community, from the radio. These are new ways to communicate and new opportunities to share the gospel.”
Critics of social media and social networking say the technology isolates people from each other — while the contrasting purpose of religious communities is to pull them together in face-to-face encounters. Smith of Calvary Baptist has already seen it affect kids in actual human contact; they’re increasingly not good at it.
Some groups, like American evangelicals, gravitated to social media early on, while more-traditional groups like the Catholic Church have been slower.
Yet Walton’s church specifically and the African-American community generally are not in danger of withering away because everyone’s off on a laptop or posting from a cell phone, Walton believes.
“The twittering would add but not take away,” she said. “We have a strong emphasis on community and gathering.”
Another African-American church, Fourth Street Missionary Baptist, recently added a Facebook page and a “fan” page for its pastor, the Rev. J.H. Flakes. The 1,224-member church set up both in a renewed effort to keep its members more informed, and also as a means of encouragement. Fourth Street has had a Web site for two years.
“More and more members are participating. It’s an instant way for all of us to be in communication,” said Mechell Clark, head of the church’s publicity committee. Earlier this year, she and the director of the media ministry, Karl Douglass, brainstormed about spreading the word about church events — specifically, one involving their pastor and also a church ministry called PICCM (Partners in Christ Caring Ministry).
“That was implemented in the past couple of years, to make sure members stay connected through sickness and illness,” Clark said.
An old-fashioned way to let people know of prayer needs is a phone tree, in which requests are spread among members. The new way at Fourth Street is Facebook.
“One young lady recently asked for prayer for her mom. It was an instant way for all of us to be connected. By the weekend, her mom was better, thank goodness,” Clark said.