This article was first published in the Autumn 2014 issue of Bearings Magazine, a semi-annual publication of the Collegeville Institute.
Elizabeth Drescher is a lecturer in religious studies and pastoral theology at Santa Clara University and a religion journalist. Her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post, Religion Dispatches, Salon, OnFaith, and other national publications. With co-editor Keith Anderson she is in the process of launching a new magazine, The Narthex, which will cover the changing contours of American Christianity.
An expert on the relationship between the church and digital media, Dr. Drescher has written two books on the topic, Tweet If You ♥ Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation (Morehouse, 2011) and, with Keith Anderson, Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012). Dr. Drescher’s current book project, Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones (forthcoming from Oxford University Press), explores how the religiously unaffiliated make meaning, find fulfillment, relate to transcendence, and navigate ethics. We spoke to Dr. Drescher last summer while she co-facilitated A Broader Public: Writing on Religion for a Secular Audience, a writing workshop at the Collegeville Institute.
How do you envision digital media, and why in particular should Christians pay attention to it?
The conventional way to think of digital media is as new technology—complete with gadgets, wires, boxes, and the mystery of the Internet—which is incredibly dehumanizing. By contrast, I concentrate on the human dimension of social media, in which living beings nurture relationships with one another. Mary Hess, a professor at Luther Seminary, describes digital media as a culture in which to grow meaning. I love Mary’s metaphor because of its focus on living beings. When I write about digital media in relation to spirituality and religion, I’m really writing about how people enter into new media spaces as growing places for spiritual relationships and practices.
What matters to me is not so much how we use Twitter or Facebook, though as with any other landscape, we need some directions on how to enter the space. More important is what we think is happening when we use social media. The social media landscape is a landscape of networks. As relationships grow in that media they become incarnational. They move into embodied spaces. In my writing and thinking, the incarnational dimension is the important part of social media.
With this incarnational approach to digital media in mind, you’ve mentioned that church leaders go wrong when they see digital media primarily as a marketing technique or a platform for advertising their churches. What are some best practices for church leaders in the world of digital media?
In Tweet If You ♥ Jesus I developed what I call the LACE model of engagement in social media: listening, attending, connecting, and engaging. When you think of new media as a platform for marketing, you’re concerned about how you can best craft your message. That concern is at the center of the broadcast model of communication—a model that is outmoded in the digital age. In the broadcast model people are objects rather than subjects. You’re not in relationship with the receivers of your message. Actually, you’re not even a person; you’re just a message bearer. The message is what matters.
When you flip this equation and start with listening—really listening—to the voices and images on Twitter or Pinterest or some other platform, your intention is to be in relationship with people. Just as you might do when you walk into a party hoping to get to know people, you come to a social media space as a person of goodwill, and you look around to see who is there and what they are saying. When you listen in an appreciative way you are paying attention to who people are and what they are saying without judging them. That’s the first step.
The next step is attending, which is a deeper kind of listening. It’s listening with a mind to serve. If you’re attending to people on Twitter or Instagram, you’re now focusing on someone specific. You may notice that she’s really interested in Thomas Merton, for example. The next piece, connecting, comes from the kind of service that results from really having listened and attended. So, you might write to the person who’s interested in Merton, “Here is my favorite Merton quote. What’s yours?” Or, “Have you read this article about Merton? What do you think?” Or, “I don’t know anything about Thomas Merton. Why do you like him so much?” Those types of exchanges build deeper engagement.
When I work with ministry leaders I encourage them to set their message aside. If you come to social media spaces from a place of faith and compassion, the message is in you. That’s sort of the point of Christianity. You don’t get Jesus just by reading the Sermon on the Mount. Christ is an embodied message.
How do you conceive of the interplay between face-to-face relationships and digital communication?
Research shows that people are most actively connected in digital spaces with people they know from face-to-face contexts. We have an exaggerated sense of digital spaces and practices as interfering with face-to-face relationships, but in fact it is more often the case that digital participation enhances face-to-face relationships among people who already know each other.
In church communities people used to see each other just on Sundays, for the most part, and periodically in times of crises. Now, social media extends those relationships, so that when I see someone at church I might know that they just got back from vacation, or that they had a challenging time getting tires for their car this week. So a conversation has already happened in the context of our relationship since the last time we saw each other at church.
Another way digital practices enhance face-to-face relationships is by putting people in contact with people they have not met. Online dating is a good example. Unlike Internet pornography, online dating makes relationships more incarnate. As a holdover from the broadcast age, we’re used to seeing people on screens as actors. But the crafters of Match.com and other online dating sites have learned that successful online dating depends on people developing meaningful relationships in which they present themselves in fully human ways. Instead of putting up fake photos of themselves or lying about who they are, people make better connections when they present genuine images of themselves. Meaningful conversations online often lead to meaningful face-to-face connections.
On a personal note, I met Keith Anderson, my coauthor for Click 2 Save, online. Keith emailed me after he had read an article I had written for Religion Dispatches. In turn, I visited his blog and saw that we had similar sensibilities. Eventually, we decided to write a book together. I’m an academic, and Keith is a pastor. We have different but complimentary expertise and experience. For almost a year we wrote the book together through Skype and Google+. When we finally met each other at the end of the writing process, we were both nervous. But that incarnational moment when I picked Keith up at the airport was wonderful. And the time we spent together over a long weekend enriched our writing and our relationship.
You hear these kinds of stories all the time. I know lots of people in churches who have connected with people in their communities not because they advertised their churches but because they were in relationships with people in digital spaces and grew those relationships. I’ve never been an advocate for online churches. I don’t think that’s the point. If people are sick and can’t leave their homes, people in local churches should visit them, perhaps using digital spaces to augment that connection. Digital communication enhances and expands face-to-face connections; it doesn’t replace them.
The audience for your books about the church and digital media is primarily mainline Christians. You suggest that, unlike evangelicals, mainline Christians may be better poised for positive engagement with others in the digital age than they were in the broadcast age. Why do you think this?
Catholic and Orthodox Churches are rooted in the pre-modern period, and mainline Protestant churches in the early Reformation period. Many evangelical groups, on the other hand, came of age after the Enlightenment. Catholic, Orthodox, and mainline Christians’ way of being the church is relational. Communication happens in multiple dimensions through multiple media. There were no pews in the medieval cathedrals. People walked around, looking at art, saying prayers. The medieval church had all sorts of problems, but part of what worked in it was worship as a time when people in the community were with each other, making sense of their spirituality together. Learning and knowing and engaging spirituality together is a great model. But when pre- or early-modern liturgical churches such as mainline Protestants entered the broadcast age, they weren’t equipped for it. Our DNA is to chat and hang out and swap stories, and that makes for very bad broadcast messaging. Our way of connecting isn’t shiny or monolithic.
Think of the Canterbury Tales routine, where the characters constantly interrupt each other while they’re telling and listening to tales. That’s what we do as mainline Protestants and Catholics. And that’s what happens on Facebook and Twitter. Somebody posts something, somebody else responds, and someone else—maybe someone you don’t even know—jumps in. Pre-modern communication is like that. And pre-modern communication is built into the ecclesiology, liturgy, and theology of pre-modern and early-modern churches.
Mass communication, by contrast, has completely different norms. Early in United States history there was a movement to use middlebrow, mass-market publishing for spiritual purposes. Evangelical traditions were developing during this movement, learning how to be churches while this mode of communication came to the fore. So it’s not a surprise to me that the first big religious celebrities on the radio and T.V. were evangelicals.
You describe yourself as a digital optimist and a digital realist. Explain this optimism and realism.
I think that greater connectedness and greater distribution of authority are good things. Connectedness and diffuse authority have a lot of power for bringing lived religion to the forefront of church life. Churches have a lot to account for in not valuing and taking seriously people’s everyday spirituality. We have alienated a lot of people. The media landscape—both online and offline—is changing religious culture in such a way that the churches that are going to continue to thrive are those that understand the democratic and connected nature of lived religion. The hierarchical structures of churches are being flattened.
There are also risks. In the medieval church those who predicted mayhem should people be given the Bible to read for themselves were right. People with self-appointed religious authority can take ideas to dangerous places. Like all communication media, the digital environment can be toxic and polluted. I don’t have any naiveté about that. But I think that we Christians should be a part of the conversation online, having our voices heard and our influence felt. It is scary and challenging, but it is also exciting.
How do you respond to critics who say that social media fosters little more than “chatter” or that nothing worth saying can be said in 140 characters?
The shortest verse in the Bible is “Jesus wept,” right? You can say a lot of really powerful things with few words. For most of its history the biblical tradition has been communicated orally, in small nuggets. You know, the choice of 140 characters isn’t arbitrary. It’s about the size of a phrase the human mind can process, hold, and remember. In fact, if you break down most psalms into their natural breaks, those lines are about 140 characters each.
Also, it’s funny to me how some people seem to believe that before the Internet everything we said to one another was substantive, interesting, and complete. Actually, face-to-face conversations usually begin with small talk. When you show up at a coffee hour after church, people are talking about the latest movie they’ve seen, the last football game they’ve watched, or what happened on their favorite T.V. show. Nobody ever opens a coffee hour conversation by saying she has just read a great book on Bonhoeffer. But, in time, the conversation may reach that topic. I think we forget these patterns when we’re in social media. It’s not the media, it’s the social that’s important. We’re used to envisioning media as completed projects, but we’re actually walking into the social as things are developing. It’s in the aggregate of our social media experience that we come to substance.
Amid handwringing about the shrinking size and growing marginality of mainline churches, you argue that being small and outside of the limelight can be an asset in the digital landscape. What do you mean?
In broadcast terms, success is measured in numbers. If you have a big audience, you are doing well. That ethos transferred to churches. A bigger church was seen as inherently a better church. But we know that average church attendance rates historically have been about 20 percent of the population. During the colonial period in the U.S., church attendance rates were actually more like three to five percent. For a moment during the Eisenhower administration, for a lot of complicated reasons, the number shot up. And because we were at the height of the broadcast era, we got fixated on those numbers. But that period was a blip in Christian history. We know now that super-sized churches have a lot of pathologies that make it hard for them to attend effectively to the spiritual needs of their congregants.
I remember once walking up a hill from the harbor in Norwich, England. It is a huge hill, with a cathedral at the top. As you wind up the street on the way to the cathedral, you pass about eight churches. Somebody might look at them and say, “We don’t need that many churches.” But those churches represent real communities. It wasn’t that parishes were at war with one another, but each parish cared for everyone within the bounds of its little community. I think that the smallness and the intimacy of that model is meaningful. Smallness and intimacy are very much in the DNA of pre-Enlightenment churches, and I think it’s a real advantage.
In the digital sphere, clusters consist of about 20 people. People want to engage with other people. When you’re good at engaging a handful of people, that engagement is the measure of success.
You are currently working on a new project on the religiously unaffiliated. What is the relationship between that project and your work on the church and digital media?
I started thinking about my current project while I was writing Tweet If You ♥ Jesus. Young adults are more likely than older adults to be religiously unaffiliated, and it seemed to me that this correlation had something to do with the extent to which they have been steeped in digital culture. They are digital natives in the sense that they belong to a networked, relational culture that is disconnected from the way the 1950s churches operated. For the last two years I’ve been interviewing the unaffiliated, and a surprising number of them are really “Jesus-y.” They’re just not really “church-y.” Churches don’t work socially for them because the church’s social model is a broadcast model. It’s not a relational model, generally speaking. And the churches that are most successful at staying in relationship with people who would otherwise see themselves as unaffiliated have a strong sense of relationality.
There’s no program or singular movement that is going to be “the thing” to attract people to the church or keep them involved. Paying attention to context is key. Successful ministry is about looking at your network, listening to it, and really attending to it. It’s saying, “Where do we connect so that we can have deep engagement?” If churches do not pursue meaningful efforts to connect people, any programmatic approach is going to struggle.