Finding the balance
Churches are embracing the gift of technology. But Facebook and email can’t always substitute for face-to-face communication.
By Kathy Wolf Reed
Most days of the week, the young pastor awakens to the sound of her bedside smartphone. Grabbing the device one morning, she learns via Facebook and Twitter that a father in the congregation has been up since 3 a.m. with a crying baby, that today is the birthday of a church elder and that thousands of miles away a colleague is dealing with heavy overnight storm damage to his congregation’s sanctuary. Before her feet have even hit the floor, she says a prayer for all three.
The rest of her day is not unlike these first few moments. Emails pour in with urgency and she receives texts from young people. She barely remembers to check the voice mailbox on her office line at the church. (After all, if it’s urgent, members know to call her cell.) By lunchtime the pastor has made electronic contact with more than 35 members of her congregation; yet the only person she has made eye contact with is the church’s administrative assistant. Though she wishes she had more time for home visits, the pastor feels compelled to clean out her inbox first.
The use of technology in today’s world is increasing at an astonishing rate. While the average age at which young people acquire their first cell phone plummets, many grandparents and retirees now consider themselves avid Facebook users. More and more people use the Internet to communicate with friends and family, pay bills and read the news. In a growing number of Presbyterian congregations, pastors and members are connecting, sharing prayer requests and doing church business online. And they are discovering that the use of technology in a community of faith has both benefits and limitations.
In her latest book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, examines the ways in which technology both helps and hinders interpersonal communication. She notes that when one does not have time to make a phone call, a simple text (“Praying for you!”) can remind a loved one that he or she is in our thoughts. Texting church members scheduled for surgery or traveling long distances reassures them that someone is praying for them during a time when a face-to-face visit may not be practical or possible.
When Adam Copeland served as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Hallock, Minn., he lived more than an hour’s drive from most members of the congregation. Copeland found that making himself available via text message, email and Facebook helped him build relationships with church members.
“As someone new to the community, I found that viewing people’s profiles helped me get to know them, on some level at least, rather quickly,” he says. In addition, many members facing health challenges shared their health status or appointment updates via Facebook. Members unable to attend church because of health, weather or travel were able to read recent sermons on Copeland’s blog, connecting them to their faith community.
While online connectivity can instill a deep sense of community among church members and leaders, at some point everyone must decide where to create boundaries in the use of technology to share personal information. Turkle observes that in other realms of life, “People are skilled at creating rituals for demarcating the boundaries between the world of work and the world of family, play, and relaxation.” However, as people become increasingly attached to their email, Facebook accounts and cell phones, the lines between public and private realms of life have blurred. Often, the church gets caught somewhere in the middle.
While he was pastor of Mission Bay Community Church in San Francisco, Bruce Reyes-Chow, moderator of the 218th General Assembly (2008) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), developed a set of boundaries to reinforce the lines between his public and personal relationships. When using technologies with instant chat features, Reyes-Chow made himself available to chat only with close personal friends and family members. Though church members could not chat with Reyes-Chow online, they could depend on him to respond promptly via text messages, email or phone calls.
Reyes-Chow embraced the fact that most of his congregants were used to these technologies and would text and use Facebook regardless of their church involvement. “Just as older generations expect their leaders to know how to use a telephone,” he remarks, “younger generations expect us to know how to use social media.”
Congregations and other groups have discovered innovative ways of using technology. While attending the 219th PC(USA) General Assembly in Minneapolis last summer, Chuck Proudfoot preached to his congregation at Community Presbyterian Church in Payson, Ariz., using Skype videoconferencing technology. The willingness of his congregation and the handiness of his laptop computer allowed Proudfoot to fill the pulpit back home while serving as an Assembly volunteer.
At the College Conference at Montreat (N.C.) in January, nearly a thousand students gathered to worship and learn. Recognizing that many of these students had Twitter accounts, the conference leadership team encouraged participants to “tweet” their experiences throughout the event. As they listened to sermons and speeches, students actively participated by sharing quotes and posing questions to one another. At a face-to-face “tweet-up” a few days into the conference, participants discussed the ways Twitter had allowed them to express their impressions of the conference with those unable to attend.
Heather Scott, a recent graduate of Belmont University who was working as an intern at Montreat, reflected on her experience as a student and facilitator of the event: “With almost a thousand college students attending the conference, it was not possible to talk with all of them,” she says. But Twitter enabled students attending the conference to share their ideas with others at Montreat as well as with young adults following the event electronically across the country.
Reyes-Chow says online discussion of church events can be a means of outreach to those who otherwise might never seek involvement in a church community. When nonchurchgoers see comments on topics or events posted by church members on Facebook, they may ask to hear more about the life of the church. By “creating opportunities for conversation that are organic and natural,” he says, the online postings lead to a more authentic form of evangelism.
For every benefit that new technology affords the church, questions arise. Earlier this year, Catholics and Protestants alike raised their eyebrows when Pope Benedict XVI blessed the use of an iPhone application designed to lead users through the practice of confession and to provide an electronic means for keeping track of their sins. While some applauded the Vatican’s embrace of technology, others wondered whether it would detract from the deeper spiritual meaning of confession.
“I think a lot of times we can use the Internet as an escape from truly being in community with one another,” says Jennifer Fouse, a Presbyterian campus minister at Vanderbilt University. She often sees students, friends and colleagues posting things on Facebook and Twitter that she knows they would never say in a face-to-face setting. “It can be cowardly,” she observes. “But more important, it keeps us from sitting down in person together and building relationships.”
In her book, Turkle notes that online communication can magnify conflicts. “Misunderstandings are frequent,” she observes. “Feelings get hurt. And the greater the misunderstanding, the greater the number of emails.”
For churches that want to take advantage of the latest technology, there is an additional dilemma: how does faith shape the way we use technology? For instance, if the majority of members in a congregation do not possess email accounts, is it good stewardship to begin an online newsletter? If most session members check their email accounts just once a week, does voting on important matters electronically build community? If most of a church’s members rely on visits and phone calls to share news, what good does setting up a congregational Facebook page do for these members?
Technological advances empower the church to witness to the world in new and exciting ways, making possible increased communication, wider connections and outreach to those who might never otherwise show interest in the church. But the idolatry of technology by some in the church community can be deeply troubling. In congregations that long for more young people in the pews, it is common to hear people say, “If we just brought a screen into the sanctuary, more young people would come” or “If we just make a Facebook page, then the church will grow.” Such attitudes can create a slippery slope toward superficial efforts at church growth, say some church leaders.
“If we begin to think that technology will save the church and save us, we have made an idol of technology,” says Reyes-Chow.
We must be good stewards of technology, Copeland says. “If social media and other technologies are gifts from God, then we should use the same framework for faithful use of these gifts that we use with other gifts from God.”
The Apostle Paul wrote these words to the Roman Christians with whom he so deeply wanted to connect: “I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (Romans 1:11–12). This suggests that the purpose of all God’s gifts, including technology, is for Christians to build up one another in Christ. Whether it’s with text messages or handwritten notes, Facebook posts or home visits, God calls us to be in relationship with Christ and one another in ways that grow healthy, gracious communities of faith.
Kathy Wolf Reed is associate pastor for youth and campus ministry at First Presbyterian Church in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Technology and the new PRESBYTERIAN HYMNAL
The way technology is used in the church has changed dramatically since the last Presbyterian hymnal was published in 1990. Today’s pastors and other worship leaders want to be able to access hymns online and to project them onto screens during worship. This new reality poses both challenges and opportunities in the development of a new Presbyterian hymnal to be published in the fall of 2013. Staff of the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation and members of the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song are thinking creatively about how to use new technology to meet the musical needs of the church. They plan to develop multiple electronic products to allow maximum use of the songs included in the hymnal while respecting the rights and wishes of individual music copyright holders.
Worshipers at the 220th General Assembly in 2012 will get a preview of the new hymnal when samplers featuring songs that are likely to be included will be used in worship. View more information on the new hymnal.