From Guttenberg to Zuckerberg: How Social Media is Changing the Church
Tonight I preached on how digital mission, if you’re interest click here to download the PowerPoint I used:
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Of all the messages the world has ever heard from politicians, story tellers, advertisers and more the gospel is still the stickiest. The good news is that God’s message is your message, which makes your presence and voice online wholly (and holy) indispensable!
I want to challenge you tonight as a Christ follower to change your mind-set of the way you spend your time online. I want to challenge you to forgo denomination, to sit in the same pew, and write this ongoing story together and share new ways to reach a fragmented world for Christ.
Together, we can light up the online space. We can “go” and we can “tell” as Jesus asked each of us to do. And we can change absolutely everything.
Throughout history, game changers have stepped forward in the faith to affect the way people communicate God’s truth in the culture in which they live.
As far back as 2002, Pope John Paul II got. He understood the significance of the Internet and inspired Christians around the globe to embrace it as a way to share Christ with the world. Here’s what he said in a public speech:
“From this galaxy of sight and sound will the face of Christ emerge and the voice of Christ be heard? For it is only when His face is seen and His voice heard that the world will know the glad tidings of our redemption. This is the purpose of evangelisation. And this is what will make the Internet a genuinely human space, for if there is no room for Christ, there is no room for man … I dare to summon the whole Church bravely to cross this new threshold, to put out into the deep of the Net, so that now as in the past, the great engagement of the Gospel and culture may show to the world, ‘the glory of God on the face of Christ.”
Communication channels have changed radically since Moses walked down the mountain, stone tablets in hand. Old Testament scribes wrote on parchment made from treated skins of sheep or goats, and they used pens fashioned from reeds. The prophets preached in synagogues and countryside’s. Later, Paul wrote his letters on scrolls of papyrus and gave them to friends who would deliver them to the churches in other cities.
Little did Paul realise the frenzy that would kick up on the other side of his prison bars as game changers emerged, ready to take up the charge of the gospel. Generations of followers communicated the gospel with various tools. In 1440 the printing press changed everything as Bibles went from locked archives to retail.
In 1517 Martin Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the University Church in Wittenberg and changed the game again. Religious tracts were used as major channels throughout the turbulence of the Protestant Reformation. John Calvin wrote, debated, and preached tirelessly during the Reformation. In the eighteenth century, John Wesley travelled 250,000 miles by horseback in his efforts to spread the Word, and he preached in open fields to as many as twenty thousand people at a time.
In 1922 Aimee Semple McPherson preached what is believed to be the first radio sermon. Christian writers such as A.W. Tozer and C.S. Lewis followed with critically important writings through World War II. Passionate game changers such as Dwight Moody and Billy Graham also shared the gospel over the radio waves. Television and revivals catapulted the reach of Billy Graham’s ministry. His first television crusade generated 1.5 million letters to the television station, confirming the power of that medium.
Bill Bright was another game changer when he wrote The Four Spiritual Laws, the most widely distributed religious booklet in history, and later commissioned The JESUS Film, one of the most influential films ever made. The renowned documentary on the life of Christ has reached more than 6 billion people in 234 countries and has been translated into one thousand languages.
But just because a technology evolves, there is no guarantee that a demand will support it. Remember the Microsoft Zune? The Apple Cube? Google Buzz? You don’t remember the technology failures because they failed. Multiple factors can be attributed to why social media has grown so rapidly, including cheaper broadband, a fire to innovate and the global economy shift. As unprecedented economic, political, and social factors continue to fragment continents, cities and even homes, words such as connection, community, and relationship increasingly dominate the conversation.
To explain this in statistics it took radio thirty-eight years to reach fifty million users; television, thirteen years; the Internet, four years; and the iPod, three years. In just a nine month period, Facebook added one hundred million users, and downloads of iPhone applications reached one billion.
Still think using social media is a passing fad or another waste of time? You may soon join the ranks of these leading, albeit well-meaning, thinkers:
- “Everyone acquainted with the subject will recognise it as a conspicuous failure.” Henry Morton, president of the Stevens Institute of Technology on Thomas Edison’s light bulb, 1880.
- “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty – a fad” The president of the Michigan Savings Bank advising Henry Ford’s lawyer not to invest in the Ford Motor Company, 1903.
- “Remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop – because women like to get out of the house, like to handle merchandise, like to be able to change their minds.” Time, 1966
- “While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially it is an impossibility, a development of which we need waste little time dreaming.” Lee DeForest, American radio pioneer, and inventor of the vacuum tube, 1926.
- “Transmission of documents via telephone wires is possible in principle, but the apparatus required is so expensive that it will never become a practical proposition.” Dennis Gabor, British physicist, 1969.
Broadcast to Social Media
In the five hundred years or so between the inventions of the printing press and the Internet, we have lived in a broadcast media environment of books, radio, newspapers, and television. These media served as highly effective platforms for sending a single, well-crafted, attention-getting message out to as many people as possible. But broadcast media afforded little opportunity for feedback or discussion, except, perhaps, for letters to the editor. In the church, we have used this one-to-many broadcast communication model in sermons, printed newsletters, letters from the Rector, and broadcasting worship services on Radio 3 or Songs of Praise.
Social media represents a profound shift in this model. Today, almost anyone can publish a blog, have a YouTube channel, and host their own podcast – in effect an internet based radio station. Anyone can comment on, extend, qualify, discuss, and share a clergy’s sermons.
In the era of broadcast media, the most influential ministry platforms tended to be those of large congregations with equally large budgets, diocesan teams, university seminaries, or people who had the opportunity to write for magazines and newspapers. The number of these positions was already limited, and had been commonly reserved for senior ordained clergy. Now, as mainline denominational structures shrink, these traditional opportunities and platforms are becoming more scarce – and less influential. Meanwhile, today, with just a blog, Facebook status update, or tweet you can influence conversation inside and outside of the church just as much or more than those in traditional leading roles.
With today’s technology, you can reach in minutes, and even seconds, the physical ground that Paul and other game changers covered in years. Like Paul, each one of us can use God’s Word to teach, warn, motivate, and inject God’s perspective into popular culture.
Like Paul, you can share your life and how God is moving in it. You can mobilise people to pray, to give, to rebuild, to extend hope, and to step forward with the fresh revelation and power that God promised each and every one of us.
It is mind-blowing how instantly you can communicate a need, connect others to it, and rally a tidal wave of genuine support from people all over the world.
Whilst at the Third Lausanne Congress in 2010 we were told that 25% of people coming to faith do so through media on mobile phones – how is our local church supporting that kind of ministry?
Facebook is the number one social networking tool on the Internet, with one billion (and growing) registered users, making it the third biggest country in the world. The largest growing segment of Facebook users are those aged 55 years plus. The average user has 130 friends, spending 24 minutes per day on Facebook, meaning that users spend more than 700 billion minutes per month on Facebook!
Facebook is one of the most powerful ways to connect with others and share your faith online. If you want to know what the world is thinking, you don’t need to guess. That’s because the average Facebook user creates seventy pieces of content each month, totalling over thirty five billion pieces of content each month, including web links, news, stories, blogs, notes, updates and photos.
Your Facebook profile or timeline is the backbone of your Facebook presence. Your profile is your digital identity in the Facebook community, sharing not just your name, birthday, location, and professional status, but a full range of perspectives on your life as these are revealed in photos, favourite quotes, and interest. A Facebook profile is so much richer and more dynamic than any church website could be because it’s updated much more regularly – several times a week to several times a day.
Everyone who requests to be in your Facebook network and is accepted, and equally everyone who accepts your request to join their network, is your “friend”, regardless of their status in your personal life.
Remember, and this applies to other social networks too, it’s not the quantity of friends you have on Facebook as much as it is the quality of the relationships you maintain. Accumulating a huge number of friends is not a contest so let go of the numbers. For a believer; adding friends is a genuine commitment to helping others find God’s best for their lives. Each time you add a friend, commit to being open to praying for, listening to, engaging with and loving that person as God puts his or her needs in front of you.
Twitter is a micro-blogging platform, with every post limited to 140 characters, including spaces between words. Tweets tell a story in real time through short bursts of commentary and information.
At a glance:
- Twitter has 200 million registered users
- Each day 460,000 new users sign up
- 110 million tweets are posted each day
- There are 600 million search queries on Twitter per day
- There are more than 100,000 Twitter applications
- Thirty-seven percent of active Twitter users use their phone to tweet.
Twitter is an open platform – that is, anyone can see your tweets, whether or not they follow you – unless you lock your account. Twitter doesn’t reach as many people as Facebook, but it reaches people in a very different way, a more open way that is very good for engaging influential thinkers within and beyond the church. Whereas Facebook leverages your existing real-life social network, Twitter connects you to people beyond your existing relationships. You can find people with similar interests and join in geographically – often globally – distributed conversations. It’s relatively easy to find people with common interests by simply typing any word or phrase into the Twitter search bar.
A blog, short for Weblog, is a personal journal updated frequently, and shared with the public. The blog format is usually a series of written, audio, pictorial, or video entries posted to a single page, often displayed in reverse chronological order.
Not confined to any magic word or character count, blogs allow you to go deeper into a topic, build relationship, to strengthen your reach and influence for Christ online. There are over 150 million blogs globally.
Since the gospel is the stickiest story ever told, committing to write a blog is one of the most powerful channels to get that story heard. Brian Bailey, author of The Blogging Church, says the case for Christian bloggers comes down to one point:
“Blogging is simply a new way of telling stories. In the same way that we seek out new modes of worshipping, preaching and reaching out, we must find new ways of sharing stories. The message doesn’t change when the methodology changes. If the methodology fails to change, however, we begin to distance ourselves from the people we are called to reach, and we risk becoming irrelevant.”
Online videos are enormously popular. People are engaging video at increasingly higher rates (about 5%) than other social media. Engagement, with video increases with each subsequent generation – the younger the person, the more video they see. For Millennials (18-33 year olds) watching video is the fourth most popular online activity behind email, search, and social networking. And because images and music speak beyond language barriers, videos have a huge international attraction.
YouTube is the web’s largest video sharing site, where more than seventy-two hours of video are uploaded every minute. It is also the web’s second largest search engine. That means that many of the people who are looking for a church like ours will go to YouTube rather than go to Google or another search engine. They want to see us in action, hear our voice, not just read our words.
The average person will watch five hours of television a day. Video is a primary way in which we communicate and learn, and yet it is largely lacking in mainline churches.
Following all those ideas and statistics it is easy to be over whelmed. But as Paul challenges us in 2 Corinthians we need to not lose heart, not be crushed, not in despair, not abandoned, not destroyed, as we’ll hear in a moment, if anything the opportunities that we have to share the Gospel are ever increasing in this digital world.
Jesus: The Master of Buzz
Remember the viral buzz generated around The Blair Witch Project back in 1999? How about the Susan Boyle Britain’s Got Talent audition video? Don’t forget the explosion of the YouTube phenomenon that is now Justin Bieber, or the hilarious viral e-mail sent each Christmas that allows the whole world to Elf Itself.
We each have the opportunity to give voice to the supernatural acts of God in this day and age. Everyday believers just like you are already stepping out and adding to Jesus’ phenomenal buzz.
- Twitter: TweetReach.com estimates that on average my tweets reaches a further 4,785 people beyond the 2,598 followers I have.
- LinkedIn: I have 1,667 connections on LinkedIn, which gives me the potential for connection (within two degrees – i.e. friends of friends) of over 485,000 people, and nearly 11 million people within three degrees.
- Facebook: According to Facebook.com, the average Facebook user has 130 friends, of whom 10% (13) might like or share your status / photo / video / weblink with their estimated 130 friends your single post could potentially reach 1,690 people. The graph only grows, as their friends share with their friends and so on. If you have more friends, obviously that number climbs, so my reach would be 25,500 assuming each of my friends had 130 friends.
However you want to look at it, as a resident of the twenty-first century you’ve got the potential to wield some serious digital influence – for Christ. As Percy read earlier, “For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord”, we are to be servants for Jesus’ sake. As a follower of Jesus, you have an imperative message from Him. The message is as sticky, as good as it gets. Sticky content is independent of time, change, and cyberspace. The Apostle Paul, no doubt a thought leader of his day, knew the message was unlike anything else the world had ever known, and he wrote: “We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives.”
Adapting to technology does not mean you change the message to fit the culture. The Word of God stands and does not need to be spiced up or watered down to fit the taste buds of any culture or generations. The Word is as alive and active as it was when God spoke it into existence. The only thing that you must change is your mind-set about how you must now relate to the culture around you.
Writer and theologian Francis Schaeffer said that “each generation of the church in each setting has the responsibility of communicating the gospel in understandable terms, considering the language and thought-forms of that setting.”
You must maintain a holy, heavenly perspective, just as Jesus did, which is perhaps the most critical mandate for a Christ follower online. This connection to the Father is immensely important.
Practicing the Arts of Digital Ministry
Whilst the technology that we’re being invited to be used might be scary, in essence I want to encourage you to rely on traditional modes of engaging with people that have served the Christian community well for generations.
Called to Humility
The online world provides the perfect storm for pride to rise up like a toxic tsunami. To quote C.S. Lewis, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.” When you think more of yourself, you create a place where pride creeps in, and if you’re not careful, it finds a place to set up permanent residence deep inside you.
As I’ve said earlier, we’re not here to focus on ourselves, but instead to be Jesus’s servant, faithfully sharing his message. What does the characteristic of humility look like online:
- Humility seeks to serve: humility looks for opportunities to share what has been given. It will answer a simple technological question, make a quick recommendation, or offer a resource that might be the perfect portal for sharing Truth in the future.
- Humility models gratitude: humility is thankful and says thanks – often. It gives people a nod when kindness is extended. It is digitally generous. Humility acknowledges interactions, favours, referrals, prayer, and when value is shared.
Humility has a gentle tone: humility lifts others up. It doesn’t condescend or diminish another person’s value. It doesn’t ignore, marginalise, or favour. It never criticises or corrects in public, especially over minor things. Just check out the example of Mo Farah this week, having won the New Orleans half-marathon last Sunday, Farah was asked by WSDU presenter LaTonya Norton if he had ever run before. Farah broke into a smile and replied that he had run a half-marathon before, but that this was his first time running in New Orleans. Not once during the interview did Norton note Farah’s 5,000 metres and 10,000m gold medal success at the London Olympics, only ever referring to him as the male winner of that Sunday’s half-marathon. Various people on the twitter world criticised the presenter to which Mo Farah replied:
“Just wanna say to everyone being nasty to LaTonya Norton please stop!! She made a mistake like we all do!! She didn’t mean anything by it!”
Does humility mean you can’t express self-confidence? No, not at all. Just know there’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance. Confidence can talk a lot, but that talk tends to inspire others and be concerned with igniting excellence in others. Arrogance tends to be self-absorbed and oblivious to the needs, insights or aspirations of others.
As a Church we try hard to be a welcoming place, we have a welcoming team who greet the congregation and newcomers to worship. We have a visitors booklet stuffed full of information. We encourage people to come and chat with John and Sarah after a service to introduce themselves.
These are certainly good practices, but the problem is that it requires people to have arrived in St. Andrew’s or All Saints first. Today digital social media enables us to extend our hospitality and welcome beyond our actual church into digital spaces.
Digital media requires us to do this well – to be active and visibly participatory – making ourselves available, greeting friends and strangers, finding points of connection, and creating what might be a digital foyer.
Our website provides a sense of this, helping to tell the story of our ministry and painting a picture of what someone might expect at worship. However, websites are simply not enough. Websites, although they increasingly integrate elements of social media, are really primarily about providing information. Information can help those who want to know the who, the what, the when, and the where of our community, but it is no substitute for active and authentic engagement and connection with people.
Caring for God’s People
When Jesus started His ministry, He began to call individuals to “follow” Him. You will see and hear the expression “follow me” or “I’m following …” a lot in the social networking realm, but to date, no one has yet to offer the return on investment (eternity) that Jesus offered. Once the disciples began following Him, Jesus proved worthy of their trust by being consistently genuine and authentic. Basically, He cared, and it showed as He walked, talked, prayed, ate, and lived out the highs and lows of daily life with His beloved tribe of twelve.
The same trust, built through consistent, real, one-on-one dialogue, is the goal in your online relationships. It will be a steadiness of character, a showing up, and a reaching out with a Jesus brand of compassion that will touch hearts for eternity.
It is a paradox of social media that people will share very intimate and sometimes life-and-death matters in social media spaces, even though such sharing becomes immediately both public and permanent. Today, new loves, breakups, engagements, marriages, divorces, birth and death announcements, health news, and personal locations are all shared online.
Social media therefore can serve as a good “leading indicator” that something is amiss with someone. People share that they’ve had a hard day, that one of the kids is sick, that dinner was a disaster. They post expressions of grief, news about changes in jobs and relationships. Even updates about the rubbish British weather or political frustrations can give us insight into the lives of people in our local and extended communities. When we login, pay attention, and listen with heart and mind as people share their lives, we often become aware of things we may not have otherwise discovered.
The kind of open and generous sharing calls us to deep listening and prayer. I see my Facebook news feed and Twitter stream as place of and occasions for prayer. People, regardless of faith, in my experience, deeply appreciate these digital expressions of pastoral attentiveness and concern. Importantly, digital ministry gestures throughout the week are more immediate and more closely connected to the news as it has played out in someone’s life.
We can also actively solicit prayer requests, something we’ve often done with Uncover, in preparation for Parish Prayers on a Wednesday morning – they see that God answers all knee mails! Interestingly I receive as many prayer request from those who don’t see themselves as Christians as from those who do.
Social media is changing the way we learn because it has changed the way we access information and the way we connect with one another. Scott McLeod, a professor of educational leadership at the University of Kentucky describes it this way: “We no longer live in an information push-out world where we passively receive information that is broadcast out to us by large, centralized entities. Instead, we now live within multi-directional conversation spaces.”
The ability people have to find out almost anything on Google, Wikipedia or YouTube necessarily changes the role of the ministry leader as an education. Those in leadership no longer function as “resident theologians” by virtue of any special gnosis or knowledge received in seminary, or from the shelves of the theological books and commentaries in their office. Instead, in a sea of information, they need to help others to become theologians themselves, inviting people to reflect critically upon all the information they encounter and to engage in discussion with others over that information.
Just as I’ve suggested that websites are not a substitute for hospitality, so I believe that putting sermons online is not a substitute for spiritual formation. An online sermon is a great service to provide for those who are unable to attend church on a Sunday. It shouldn’t be seen though as a way of social engagement, it is as Professor Darleen Pryds, from the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, California, describes as “a very middle-aged approach to social media.”
Consider the difference between a sermon and the increasingly popular Pub Theology offered by churches around the country. In a traditional sermon, a congregation gathers to hear a vicar impart information. There may be some discussion afterwards in coffee, but the structure of the learning is centred on the teacher who shares their expertise.
By contrast, pub theology is normally facilitated by a “resident theologian” around a table, with everyone having the opportunity to bring something meaningful to the discussion. Social media presents a similar opportunity – a theological conversation happening in a public place, influenced by the life that is all around it. This is, of course, entirely consistent with the Latin root of “sermon”, sermo, which means “discussion.”
There are two dangers to this style of learning. Firstly, that it becomes increasingly individualised – a focus on “me and my Bible” or “me and my computer”. Secondly, that people may seek out only those who reinforce their theological views, rather than challenge or develop them.
Digital social media offers powerful ways to build community. They facilitate increased awareness of each other’s lives, providing more occasions for connection and conversation, as well as for the discovery of common interests and passions.
Many people worry that digital relationships will eclipse face-to-face engagement; however, studies show that people active in social networks are more likely to be engaged in face-to-face volunteerism and faith communities. This is because people who long for community seek it out in many forms, and people who connect in meaningful ways enjoy opportunities to extend that connection in both online and offline settings. Thus, one of the important roles we have on social network sites is to cultivate a sense of community that moves between both online and offline locales.
For example, I think Twitter enables this very powerfully – Twitter conversations create opportunities for face-to-face connections, to create a more substantial relationship. I’ve seen this work in a number of conversations I’ve had around youth ministry, and created very important friendships from these online conversations.
Dibden Youth has created an online community through our Facebook page. We share information on upcoming events with the 80 people who are part of the page, but it goes well beyond using the page simply as a digital bulletin board. We regularly pray for them, we inspire them with quotes from Christian saints, encouraging them to reflect.
All of this digital engagement reinforces the face-to-face engagement.
Making Public Witness
As we end I want to share with you three examples of creative ways to share faith using evangelism. First off, in Facebook, someone took the time to create Jesus’ account for Holy Week – I’ve used it a number of times in schools and youth work to help young people engage with the Gospel.
Second, Twitter users followed the Natwivity throughout Advent, when different figures from the world’s most famous story wrote 140-character updates each day. It included Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, the three wise and King Herod. Natwivity was organised by design company Share Creative and the Evangelical Alliance to bring the 2,000-year-old story to social media platforms.
The Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus video has been seen by over 24 million people on YouTube alone. It’s a spoken word, a modern poem by a young man highlighting the difference between Jesus and false religion.
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The possibilities for the Kingdom in the online world are real, they’re here, and they’re now. The invitation exists for anyone with access to the internet. Transformation has started, and you are here to be part of it. The testimonies of grace, forgiveness, redemption, and new life are echoing through cyberspace – if you listen.
So hopefully tonight you’ve learned some of the tools, now the time has come for you to write your story. You can be a digital scribe. You are no different than the disciples, the evangelists, and great communications of the gospel who walked the earth before you. No different than Queen Esther, whose knees were shaking before the king; no different than the Apostle Paul or the fire-hearted evangelist Billy Graham who both dove headfirst into their cultures with a message so contrary that hearts turned inside out.
I don’t seek to push you online. Studies show that Christians are already there, with their shiny gadgets in hand. It is however, a wake-up call prompting you to get intentional about how you spend your time online – connecting, serving and leading the conversation in such a way that others will seek to know Christ personally.
Much of the thinking from the sermon came from Personal Connections in the Digital Age by Nancy Baym, Sticky Jesus: How to Live Out Your Faith Online by Tami Heim and Toni Birdsong, Give Me That Online Religion by Brenda E. Brasher, Tweet If You Love Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation by Elizabeth Drescher, Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible by Elizabeth Drescher and Keith Anderson, and The Church of Facebook: How the Hyperconnected Are Redefining Community by Jesse Rice.