The New York Times has a good article this morning dealing with religion on Twitter. The article focuses on the use of twitter among “evangelicals” and the megachurch set. The primary message from the article, I think, is that existing networks can leverage themselves through the use of social media to reach out to new audience. And there is a subversive element with social media as well, like a mild form of the Arab Spring. For women, Twitter can be useful in developing influence and networks outside the traditional male hierarchy of the church. And it seems that Twitter can also be an effective way for new churches (and, as an aside, is it becoming a thing for young women/couples forming house churches in the evangelical world?) to reach out to new audiences. Sure, in many ways, this can be primarily a tool to reach audiences that are already like yourselves (i.e. they have to use twitter, be able to afford the devices to use twitter, and care about social media) but twitter, and social media in general, can be effective at developing and maintaing relationship networks.
I love that twitter is sending out an executive to reach out to religious leaders (though, of course, us mainliners are left in the dust). I dig that they used analytics to see how often religious tweets are re-tweeted. I dislike, immensely, the implication that KJV verses are, on average, less than a tweet in length but, well, taking bible verses out of context is a thing that we’ve been doing for thousands of years and my campaign against that won’t stop it from happening. But I’m drawn to the theory that inspirational messages have a draw on the internets. Now, I know this is true and I’m sure you do too. In fact, if you’re a child of the internet who came of age in the late 90s, you have been in many grueling battles against the “inspirational” emails that your extended relatives sent to you and 3000 other people. Animated gifts, giant letters in pink and italics – we have seen it all. In fact, we have seen so much, we are no longer feel anything when we see them. We just quietly notice that they have spread to facebook and, with little fanfare, we hide those posts from our newsfeed. The war continues even though the battlefields have changed.
Now, as a proponent of social media, what am I to do with these inspirational messages? Do I join the bagwagon? Do I reshare every bible verse that the ELCA facebook page puts out? I’m not really sure yet. From my experience, bible verses, photos of people, and interactive type posts get the most responses. But there’s a danger lurking in this use of social media, I think. The danger is, of course, in promoting the gospel at the expense of the law. There’s a danger is being Joel Osteen rather than Melanchthon. There’s a danger in devolving Christ into 140 character soundbytes that make us feel good rather then letting the gospel exegete who we are and where we are. Even the proverb quoted in the article by Bishop Jakes “Your words will tell others what you think. Your actions will tell them what you believe” is problematic mostly because I don’t see the challenge in those words. I think it is meant to be a challenge to people but I don’t see it. Now, this could just be my fault – I might be too jaded, bitter, or too much of a hipster/gen-xer to truly believe that such 140 character tweets can challenge anyone. It’s a statement sent to a self-selecting group of people who push a button to receive those kinds of messages from Bishop Jakes. It is a statement to people who already, to some degree, buy into it. It, to me, lacks teeth. But should social media have teeth? Should tweets be mini-sermons where the truth about the world is told and the gospel spoken? Or should it be used in different ways? The executive in the article mentions that she tries to get preachers to be personal on twitter. If true, then there might be a different thing going on here. What people are looking for is a kind of connection to spiritual leaders that feels personal and more real; a single serving feeling of connection to the people who can be seen as representing God on earth. And if that’s true, then I think churches should embrace its use, not because it replaces pastoral care but because it furthers connections in a different kind of environment (and possibly a world that is more alienating than the past). And as much as we try to restrict religion to the private sphere, religion is social. Connections and community matter. And anything that can further that (hey, where two or three are gathered…), then we should do it.