Wednesday, November 14, 2012

How to Tweet in Church

What if we stopped telling people to turn their cell phones off in church and, instead, told them to use them throughout the service?

This summer, in order to save paper and preparation time, we trimmed our Sunday-morning bulletin from a tri-folded, ledger-sized behemoth to a slim, half-letter publication. At the top of our old version, a familiar message was printed: “Please turn your cell phones off or on silent.” Looking back, I wish I could say that we cut that line out of our bulletin in an effort to embrace the growth of social media, but, alas, it was axed simply because of space. Maybe that was the Spirit at work even though we didn’t know it.

Last night, I went to my first ever “tweet-up.” Honestly, I wish they called it something else because it was far more informative and productive than the name suggests. I kept looking around for giggling seventh-graders, but apparently a “tweet up” is a chance for Twitter friends to meet in person—hence the name. Actually, I did meet some people I’ve known on Twitter but not in real life, so it did accomplish that, but it was less a “meet and greet” than it was a brainstorming session for the future of ministry in the Episcopal Church.

At the session, I asked other, far more experienced lay and ordained ministers about the use of social media in church. Typically, I think we use Facebook and Twitter as a side-running commentary. It describes what happened, or advertises what is to come. From my perspective, most social media seems to be a separate, parallel conversation that is not at the heart of the event itself. Instead of being at the center of life, Twitter and Facebook are like a newsreel that records and characterizes “real” life—always commenting but never the focus itself. “How can social media become the center of what we do in church? How can we integrate Twitter, for example, into Sunday-morning worship or Sunday school or bible study?”

I could feel the array of light bulbs going off in my head. Several people answered with stories of preachers who accepted questions or comments on a sermon in real-time. Others talked about bible studies in which people were invited to ask a question or contribute their perspective through social media. One person spoke of attending a wedding that was tweeted in real time, and another mentioned an ordination where the same happened. And that got me wondering… What would a social-media-friendly worship service look like?

Good evening and welcome to St. John’s. Before our service starts, I’d like to invite you to take out your smart phone or tablet, if you have one, and scan the QR code on the bulletin. That will take you to a fuller version of the service sheet, some background information on the scripture lessons, and a calendar of upcoming events in our parish. Also, during the service, I will have the Twitter app up on my iPhone so that I can see some of real-time questions or comments that you may have. At this service, we consider the virtual exchange a part of our worship, so please treat it as such and, if you would like, explore the possibility of “doing church” through social media.

This happens to be the feast of the Consecration of Samuel Seabury, the first bishop of the Episcopal Church. Even before the American Revolution, Seabury wanted desperately for there to be a resident bishop in the colonies. In his opinion, we lost too many good men who sailed back to England for ordination. (They either died on the way or found life in London too pleasant to give up.) He probably was one of those clergypersons who dreamed of being a bishop someday, but I do believe he had good intentions in his heart. He knew that this new expression of church, which would become the Episcopal Church, needed its own leadership. He knew that we couldn’t grow if we were still doing things the old way.

Today’s lesson from Acts 20 is a parting word of encouragement and warning: “Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son.” Paul wants to make sure that the gospel message keeps getting preached even though he’s being carted off to Rome, so he tells the Ephesian elders to stay focused: “And now I commend you to God and to the message of his grace, a message that is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified.” That is a message for today’s church as well.

The good news of Jesus Christ is able to build us up. It’s a message that the world needs to hear. As a clergyperson, I still think of Sunday morning in the pulpit as the primary time for me to preach. What if Twitter became a greater preaching opportunity? What if people were drawn into worship and study because they now had something to contribute to the conversation? As Episcopalians, we’ve always been good at “active” worship—standing, sitting, kneeling, receiving Communion, etc.. Where would you rather go to church—a place where you sit and listen for 45 minutes or a place where you are invited to interact with the whole Christian community?

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