Friday, July 16, 2010

The Church Facebook, Twitter and Community

Wondering why one the members of you church wasn’t in her regular pew on Sunday? No need to wonder, she was at the lake, soaking up rays and drinking beer. Did you know that a member of your church staff, such a nice gal, really likes especially violent Quentin Tarantino movies? How about that wonderful woman in your Sunday school class… every time you ask her how she is doing, she says “I am blessed!” Except today it’s Monday and you didn’t ask her but you read her expletive-filled rant on facebook about exactly how angry she is at the customer service of her phone company. Ever curious about the political views of your “friend” from church? Maybe not so much after you heard them expressed in 140 characters of partisan hatred on twitter.

Only recently have I begun to consider the profound impact social media will have on Christ’s Church. I want to tell you that, on the surface, it looks like a bad thing, but I believe it may be one of the best things that ever happened. Social media may be, in a strange way, taking us back in time to a place where community looked a little different.

I didn’t grow up in church but I did grow up in community. The town I grew up in claimed fewer residents than my current church claims members. The thing about a town of around 5000 is that if you knew somebody, you knew them. In a small town you tend to know an awful lot about people whether you try to be nosy or not. For my friends and my family’s friends, whether I thought about or not, I of course knew: where they lived, where they worked and what kind of car they drove. I likely knew: where and if they went to church, whether or not they approved of drinking alcohol, whether or not anyone in the family smoked and their political affiliation. Really that is a limited list. I likely knew if they were a rude driver (by whether or not they had ever cut me off), whether they were racist or sexist (by their comments and jokes), and what they liked to do to have fun.

Honestly, I knew stuff about my friends and neighbors that I would have rather not known, but what about the person in the pew or chair next to you? What about the person in your Sunday school class? Or the man you usher with every Sunday? Or that woman who team teaches children’s Sunday school with you. Now I am not saying that it is good or even appropriate to know the most intimate details of these people’s lives. I believe in good boundaries and they need to allow the level of intimate sharing to move with the level of intimate relationship. However there is a danger lurking here. There is a danger of putting on our Christian cloak as we enter the church and taking it off when we leave. All of us can maintain a “Christian persona” for a couple of hours a week, right? But what do we look like when we take it off?

The apostle Paul exhorts in his letter to the Romans (12:9)

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.

The word he uses for “genuine” means “without hypocrisy” or literally “without a mask.”

This is the beauty of social media. It can take the mask off. When our private and social world interacts with our church world, people get a chance to glimpse us as we are. And here is the good news: it leads to a better picture of reality and gives us a little hope of accountability.

The reality is that we are not always the people we try to act like on Sunday morning. First of all, as Christians, we believe that we are all broken people in need of the redemption available through Jesus Christ. So, we will not always live up to the picture of perfection that we may wish to use to judge ourselves or others. Second, as Christians, we don’t agree on what that picture looks like. I think some reality and integrity here is a good thing. How we spend our free time, what we believe about politics, how we deal with our emotions, these are things that Christians, even those who share a denomination, might disagree on. But, if we consider ourselves living in community, shouldn’t we want to see each other without our masks?

And what about accountability? In the new world of “leave church, drive home, open the garage - insert car – close the garage,” it is easy to feel like no one is watching. When, through social media, we start sharing more of the details of our lives, we not only have to think about what we are sharing, but what we are doing and occasionally, someone in our community might ask about what exactly we are doing.

Hebrews 10:24-25 reminds us,

And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

The more we know about one another, the more we are able to do this.

Let’s be clear, social media is not a substitute for true community. It may be a move in the right direction towards reality, transparency and accountability. But it may also remind us that we probably all need to spend a little more time with one another, enough time to begin to be more open and honest about who we are. But in the meantime, here are a couple of suggestions about how we deal with knowing a little bit more about one another.

First, don’t freak out. If you see something online that shows a different side of someone you thought you knew, don’t overreact. If you see your prim and proper Sunday school classmate in a bikini holding a brown bottle floating down the Guadalupe, takes some time to ponder what that means. If it totally contradicts what you knew about her, consider where you developed that conflicting image. Also leave some room for misinterpretation. That bottle could be root beer. (Someone recently noticed, through a social media site called foursquare, that I spend a lot of time at local Catholic church. Was I converting? Nope, just watching my son play t-ball.)

Second, don’t be afraid to talk about it. If someone you consider a friend writes or shows something online that raises some questions for you, talk to them. If your friend, who professes faith in Christ and lives accordingly, suddenly posts a hatred filled rant online, you might be called to ask why and talk about what has happened to provoke such a post and how it reflects their beliefs.

I think this could get interesting. See you online.



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