This article was first published in the Autumn 2014 issue of Bearings Magazine, a semi-annual publication of the Collegeville Institute.
I started the New Media Project in 2010 to help religious leaders think theologically about social media and digital communication. I was a magazine editor who had just lost her print publication, DisciplesWorld, to the perfect storm of the recession, the rapidly rising cost of print, and the eroding base of subscribers in our declining denomination. It was 2009, and we could not continue to publish. We had, however, made some remarkable headway in understanding what was happening as digital communication platforms became prominent. I was eager to continue the study.
The questions on my mind were larger than how churches might most effectively use Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms. I hoped to explore how their use was challenging the broader thought and practice of faith communities. I wanted to think about social media theologically.
People asked me then, and still ask me now, why we should bother to interpret social media from a theological perspective. Aren’t these just tools, and don’t tools and trends come and go? My answer is, because of community. The body of Christ is the community of followers of Jesus that bears the Word of God into the world. Social forces that impact the ways in which Christian communities are shaped and function therefore are interesting and ripe for theological reflection and interpretation.
Not surprisingly, questions about community formation and health arose repeatedly in the New Media Project case studies conducted in 2011 and 2012. Do social media reduce the amount of face-to-face time people spend together? If so, is that a problem? What are the limits of worshiping online? What about church authority structures? Can social media “save” our communities?
I wanted to crack open these questions by asking specifically theologically-driven questions of social media in relation to some of our most basic activities as faith communities. I developed the following rubric to help evaluate social media practices. We call it the “seven Cs of social media: “How well do social media Collect people, Connect them, or Convert them? Do social media Conspire people—that is, join them together to act toward a common end? How well do social media Cultivate lives of faith? Communities of faith want to Change society: is that one of the purposes of social media? And finally, do social media, like the great learning centers of the Christian tradition, help us Curate ideas and information?
1. How well does our use of social media collect people face-to-face?
Long before digital communication existed, people of faith used their social networks to assemble people. We invite, include, host, and gather people all the time. Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matt. 18:20). The people of God do not flourish in isolation.
Abilene Christian University, one of the six case studies conducted by the New Media Project, gives us one glimpse into how social media collects people. The school claims that social media helped increase the number of face-to-face gatherings by helping students find others with common interests. New Media Researcher Lerone A. Martin wrote that students who matriculated during the beginning of a Mobile Learning Initiative at the school reported an increase in group study sessions and meetings. From 2010 to 2011, 86 percent of them reported improved student-to-student and student-to-teacher collaborations after using the mobile devices given to them by the school for educational purposes.
But we also hear tales of young people wasting away in front of their screens, swimming in isolation. Social media can be harmful. When people feel trapped behind screens that may steer them down negative paths, then the practice ought to be avoided. However, social media practices are worth pursuing when they collect the people of God for the purpose of knowing each other and God.
2. How well does our use of social media connect people?
After the people of God are collected, what happens? Putting people together in a room (or in a Facebook group) does not a community make. Leaders are always evaluating how well a group gels or comes together. How it connects. We aren’t just interested in the numbers. Do social media help or hinder this important connective activity for faith communities?
At the Collegeville Institute this summer we talked about the “narrative heat” that words carry. Well told stories are compelling because they help us identify with characters, scenes, and events. Stories help us connect. They help us feel like we belong.
Telling stories to foster community, to build connections among people, is particularly well-suited to social media. Eugene Cho of Seattle’s Quest Church told New Media Researcher Jim Rice, “Theologically, one of the main things that I would see supporting the usage of new media is the ability to communicate story and narrative. …One of the ways that God created us uniquely as human beings is in our ability to process stories, to narrate stories, and to live a better story.” Cho continues, “Certainly we Christians, let alone pastors, are part of a larger narrative that I consider to be the greatest story, the greatest narrative. …That probably would be the strongest theological reason why I engage in new media.”
When social media practices connect the people of God, creating life-giving communities that can come to know, display, and share the good news of God, then these practices are certainly worth pursuing.
When social media practices serve to divide people against each other, especially through destructive and violent acts such as cyberbullying, or in other ways that do not comport with the promise of love and grace announced by Jesus Christ, then they should be avoided and dismissed. Social media do not function in a vacuum. The content of the story and the quality of the relationships shared through social media become critically important to the practices’ value in creating Christian community.
3. How well does our use of social media convert people?
The Great Commission is clear: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:19).
Sometimes the “evangelism” commanded in the Great Commission has been reduced to increasing numbers alone—numbers of conversions, baptisms, confessions, meals served, those attending. When numbers become the focus of Christian activity, a marketing mindset can take over.
Marketers were among the first to recognize the potential of social media to sell products, especially as they came to understand that social relationships drive consumer choices more than advertisements do. But a world altered by social media requires a different way of seeing that world. Some marketers continue their one-way communication strategies even as they attempt to use social media networks. They announce things and broadcast messages, an approach that is counterintuitive to active social media users.
If Christian communities reduce evangelism to marketing for the purpose of increasing numbers, then they will misunderstand the power of social media and will likely annoy people online. If we think less about increasing numbers and more about transforming people’s lives—and understand that relationships are crucial to transformation—then social media begins to make sense as a powerful tool. Social media practices based on an aim to convert people to the knowledge of God through transforming relationships are worth pursuing. However, if social media tools are used in ways that ignore the power of transforming relationships, and are used more like marketing, then they will likely fail.
4. How well does our use of social media conspire people or nurture community?
It may be that “conspire” is pushing the alliteration of this list a bit too far! But the definition of the word does mean more than just a nefarious plot to take over something. It also means to act in harmony toward a common end.
Through our work, I’ve heard dozens of stories of pastors conducting pastoral care online, including this example from a blog post by Sister Julie Vieira:
When A Nun’s Life’s online community gathers for prayer every Monday, I am profoundly aware of how something as “small” as a chat room can have the potential for making whole. During live broadcasts, we use chat for people to share prayer requests. . . . We also spend time in the chat room after the podcast to socialize. . . . Sometimes it is the prayer time itself that is balm for the weary soul. Sometimes it is in the chatting with one another after prayer that a needed LOL or word of encouragement or surprising insight gives us just enough to make us feel more fully ourselves.
Do social media help us care for people? If so, then those practices would be worth pursuing.
5. How well does our use of social media create space to cultivate faith?
Martin Luther famously theologized about a priesthood of all believers in which all the followers of Christ are called to ministry, not just the ordained clergy. He was looking for, or perhaps creating space for, Christians to reflect on their faith, learn from scripture, and reach conclusions that might differ from those taught by clergy.
Social media is sometimes accused of flattening the playing field of social arrangements by creating space for broad access to information, which then can threaten hierarchies of power. Who needs an expert—perhaps a scholar, theologian, or pastor—to tell you what to think when you can study the subject for yourself or ask a friend? But what if we thought of the space created by social media as a space well suited to the cultivation and formation of faith? This digital space can be open, creative, imaginative, and educational. If social media practices create space for cultivation of the people of God, then perhaps they are worth pursuing. If the space becomes formless, devoid of content, open to whatever suits a fancy, then it may devolve into something that may not convey God’s grace, and perhaps should be avoided.
6. How well does our use of social media change societies?
Hashtag (#) activism has become a new phenomenon in our world. From the Georgetown Law School student who protested the school’s refusal to cover birth control in its health plan, to the pressure brought on universities to abide by Title IX and combat the growing incidences of rape on their campuses. From the protests around the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, to concerns about despotism in the Middle East, people are mobilizing and organizing for positive social change, using social media to increase the volume.
When social media practices function to change societies in ways that are liberating, just, and empowering so that all might live abundantly, then they are worth pursuing. When social media is used to fan the flames of despotism, which it certainly may do, since there is no reason why the forces of oppression can’t use this tool to influence opinion and action, then it is no longer a good.
7. How well does our use of social media help us curate ideas and information for our communities?
How well are we using social media to curate and share or spread the words of others? Medieval monastic libraries collected manuscripts, copied them, and passed the copies on: we should do at least as much through social media. If we aren’t sharing the knowledge we’ve gained, then we are missing much of the power of social media, as well as a significant opportunity to exercise leadership in our communities.
The seven Cs of social media may not offer instruction about how to create a Facebook or Twitter profile. But perhaps they will sharpen our theological tools for considering how communities of faith are engaging social media today.