It’s 11 am Sunday morning, and the pastor is preaching. Around the congregation, people are following along in the Biblical text, several with beautiful, leather-bound books, but many are reading the Scripture through their devices – phones mostly, with a few tablets scattered about.
Five years ago, that would only be the scene in the most affluent of congregations. Now, it’s starting to become normal. And what is changing is not simply a shift from one tool to another, but rather, this shift is emblematic of a more profound shift in the ways that people create, sustain, and participate in church community – away from the analog, toward the digital.
The advantages of digital, internet-connected engagement, especially to a millennial generation of digital natives, are as obvious as they are ubiquitous. Millions of pages of Biblical texts, commentaries, and study materials, all in the palm of your hand! A steady pipeline of informational access to people, either one-on-one or en masse, 24/7/365. Endless throngs of cute babies and dancing cats. What’s not to love?
As it turns out, plenty.
As a prelude to writing this piece, I launched a series of questions into my Facebook feed:
• What are the ways in which your church experience is like social media?
• What are the ways in which your church community is different from social media?
• How should they be similar? How should they differ?
My respondents, all of whom identified as Christian who regularly went to church, gave a variety of responses that landed all over the map. Some people were like, “Yeah, church needs more LOLz like Facebook!” Other people were like, “Please GOD no, I go to church to get AWAY from you FB people.” (I’m exaggerating… but not by much.)
The lack of consensus is, in my book, actually a good sign. It means that, overall, we as Christians (and especially church leaders) are grappling with these questions, instead of passively allowing the societal shifts to shape the ways we do—and are—church community. The million-dollar question (which is also the million soul question) is how can we can we use online tools like social media to increase the quality of church communities without falling into the pitfalls of online communities?
Because the pitfalls are numerous.
ANONYMITY, DISTRACTION & SUPERFICIALITY
First off, there’s the problem of anonymity.
The vast majority of the common platforms for social engagement on the Internet do not require you to use your real name. Even on Facebook, where using one’s real name is part of the terms-of-service agreement, there are people who regularly flout the rules by going by pseudonyms. This is problematic, because it reduces (or in some cases, eliminates) the filter of propriety that many of us tend to use when we operate in the public square. When you’re confident that no one can link your comment back to your real-world identity, then it’s easy to blast away and say the meanest, crudest, nastiest things with little fear of reprisal. Loose cannons with no filter will explode community-building efforts quickly.
Secondly, there’s the problem of distraction.
Anyone who’s ever tried to set aside time to work on an internet-connected computer has felt the internal tug of habitual compulsion to check their email, blog, or social media feed. The tradeoff of having up-to-the-minute access to a steady stream of information curated by your friends, is that it becomes that much harder to concentrate on… OMG, IS THAT A RAPPING KOALA?!?!
We tend to be drawn toward whatever is most immediate, amusing, or spectacular. That means that the mission-critical, important-but-not-urgent tasks and topics tend to be drowned out of our attention pool. While this might be bad interpersonally, it’s even more of a problem in a community. When the critical issues never rise to the surface, it’s hard to build a sense of community, because people feel like they’re not receiving much return on their investment of time and energy.
Thirdly, and most importantly, there’s the problem of superficiality.
Online interactions tend to be superficial in several really important ways. Firstly, they are inherently ephemeral – that is, they are fleeting and short-lived, lacking any sense of permanence. Status updates and cover photos can change every few days, hours, or minutes. “Friends” can be added or subtracted with a click or a swipe.
Transitory, surface-level interactions are necessary in a civilized society; otherwise, we’d feel like we’d have to become best friends with anyone who rings up a purchase for us. However, the transitory nature of these kinds of social interactions tends to amplify the anxieties we already feel over normal life transitions—changes in where we live, what we do for work, who we’re seeing, what organizations we belong to, etc.—because it’s hard to open up to someone if you don’t feel like they’re really going to be around for the long haul.
But even worse, online interactions are superficial because of the ways in which we tend to present ourselves. Most of us, whether for personal or professional reasons, tend to intentionally curate the best parts of our lives for public consumption on social networks. Which means that people tend to only see the “best” parts of ourselves, like our most self-promotional name-drops and humblebrags.
But these are not our real selves. Nobody updates their status by saying, “I was rude again to my spouse today, and probably won’t apologize unless they make the first move” or, “I spent money I didn’t have to avoid feeling pain from a hurt that I’m still not willing to deal with,” or “I’m feeling reckless and stupid tonight, so who wants to be the next conquest I’ll probably regret?” Superficiality is a community-killer, because it prevents people from being honest enough to talk about the things that really matter. And if you can’t do that in your church community, where can you do it?
On the other hand, online communities and social networks have several inherent advantages that church leaders would be wise to leverage and integrate into what they do.
INTERACTIVITY, ACCESSIBILITY, & DIVERSITY
First, online communities are inherently interactive. Every news story has a section for comments or a basic poll where people can make their voices heard. Especially in the fields of art, music and filmmaking, the technological advancements of internet-accessible tools have lowered the barriers of entry to such an extent that the lines between professionals and amateurs have become comically blurry. Fans are encouraged and incentivized, not only to imitate, but also to review, remix, recut and reappropriate their favorite creative works, often as a way to advance their own nascent careers. Today’s fanfic forum moderators become tomorrow’s successful novelists and screenwriters.
Interactivity is an active ingredient that’s often missing in the church. The rise of megachurch celebrity pastors has created a sense of complacency among churchgoers, where people attend church only to be “pumped up” (a euphemism for “entertained and emotionally manipulated”) and expect the real work of the ministry to be handled by professionals with advanced degrees.
But truly operating as one body, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 12, requires everyone to participate, because no one part of the body is more important than another. Churchgoers should be encouraged and equipped to actively engage in what’s being taught. Pastors of churches with a high level of interactivity know to keep their preaching rooted in Biblical concepts, because their believers, like the Bereans in Acts 17, will check what they heard against the Scriptures. Also, they probably don’t have to twist arms to get volunteers for service projects and outreach events, because people who desire a higher level of interactivity in their church experiences, if they buy into the vision of the church, are more likely to live it out in their everyday lives.
Accessibility is another huge plus for social media. Firms like Google, Facebook, and Twitter work hard to ensure that their platforms can be accessed on all kinds of different kinds of systems and devices, from people in virtually every walk of life, at any time of the day, and in any location with Internet access.
And while we can’t expect our churches to duplicate that kind of always-on, always-available ubiquity, church leaders can do a lot more to make things accessible. We can use Bible translations that use normal, everyday language. We can provide social events (concerts, movie nights, comedians or other forms of live entertainment) that can get people in the door and help them to feel comfortable before they’re inundated with rituals and practices that they don’t understand. And we can provide anonymous channels for people to ask questions or provide feedback about how things are going. Yes, anonymity often means people can be rude, but it also means people can ask hard questions or bring up thorny issues that need to be addressed in the community.
Finally, diversity in my estimation is the number one way that churches can benefit by embracing a 21st-century ethic of Internet engagement. My Facebook feed is full of people from all walks of life—the religious and the irreligious, Republicans and Democrats, with all kinds of ethnicities and nationalities on display. Sunday morning may still be the most segregated hour in America, but Sunday nights on Twitter after NFL football and episodes of Downton Abbey or The Walking Dead are some of the most integrated.
Recognizing that diversity in church really should be a whole ’nother essay in and of itself, my point is not that talking about hit TV shows or sporting events is the way to achieve diversity. Rather, diversity is in many cases less of a goal and more of a signpost of success. Not that we shouldn’t have targeted audiences, but we do ourselves and our communities a disservice if we’re packaging the Gospel in such a way that it can only be ingested and understood by a select few who match our demographic background. Those who cite church growth pioneer Donald MacGavran’s homogeneous unit principle as a way to justify their cultural exclusivity miss the entire point of his groundbreaking work: it was not a blueprint, but a warning. Neighborhoods change, economies change, and political atmospheres change. Churches who minister effectively within their community framework should be continually preparing for the demographic shifts taking place therein. Those that don’t, churches that no longer have models, solutions or voices that are relevant to diverse communities, will continue to find themselves shrinking into irrelevant, cultural senility.
RECAP: What You Can Do About It
So when it comes to community building in church and online, anonymity, distraction, and superficiality are potential problems, and interactivity, accessibility, and diversity are potential solutions. And the good news is, even though your pastors and church staff may set the tone, you can do your part to promote a more authentic sense of community, in both your church and your social network.
Just abide by these six principles, and you’ll be well on your way:
1. Don’t be an internet coward. If you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, don’t say it online.
2. Learn to include others. If all of your posts and conversations are full of inside jokes and coded references, people will eventually stop reading or listening to your thoughts.
3. Discuss things that matter. Fun is good, but the community suffers when its needs are ignored.
4. Be an active contributor. It’s good to give space for others to speak, but don’t hold back too much. Community requires people to give as well as receive.
5. Be honest. Have a filter, but still open your heart and mind to the people around you. If you can establish enough trust, their depth of support will carry you further than you could get on your own.
6. Seek out people who are different. If everyone in your circle is just like you, you’re missing out—big time.
Are there any that we missed? Tweet to us @UrbanFaith or @JelaniGreenidge and tell us which principles we missed.