A theology of the text message

Posted Nov 02, 2011 | New Media Project

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By Jason Byassee


Nadia Bolz-Weber has written for our site about offering pastoral care via text message. She is not an uncritical user of shepherding-by-thumbs; in fact, she suggested to me in the case study about her and her church, House for All Sinners and Saints, that social media can be more dangerous for families than for churches. Her situation is different than most of ours. Not only do older churches tend to have parishioners’ mailing addresses (unlike Bolz-Weber), but also they tend to use them for newsletters printed on paper. However, the question still stands for us: can we use text messaging to offer pastoral care?

I would have said “no” once. I’m still tempted to. I see what happens to parishioners’ attention when they pull out their phones in Sunday School or in a meeting—it vanishes. More dangerous than that, however, they think they’re listening. I spotted my first ever texter during a sermon the other day. I know some would say to deal with this, work it into the sermon, but I couldn’t. It shouted to me this: “Whatever you’re saying is not nearly as important as my BFF hearing from me right now.”

Here’s the thing: as soon as I started at my church in July, I started getting texts. Serious texts, revealing things I’d thought would come face-to-face. Sick family members. Jobs under duress. Deep anxiety. Theological questions. What does one do who refuses to be a pastor who uses text messaging? Ask for appointments? Ignore the messages? Clearly you have to respond, and if so, it has to be with theological and pastoral seriousness, offering prayers, counsel, blessings, peace. Tony Lee of Community of Hope AME speaks of pastoral “touches.” I like the flexible language—it can mean meeting someone out in town, shaking hands after church, or texting or Facebooking. No one way is necessarily better than another (a pastoral handshake can be offered with inattention, glancing over someone’s shoulder to search for who’s coming that’s more important). But if texting increases touches, I’m all for it.

Granted, these text messages I’ve gotten tend to come from people my age and younger. Youth pastors tell me they can’t track their kids without text messages or Facebook because they don’t answer phone calls or check voicemail or do email (all so 1990s). One shouldn’t count on ministering to the Boomer set or older via text. (I wouldn’t assume this however. People whose kids and grandkids text tend to find their way into the medium as well.)

Maybe the way to think of texting is to over-accept it. In Sam Wells’ language, borrowed from improvisational acting, we could block it—just say no. Or we could accept it, blessing it as the greatest form of communication since ______ (insert cliché here: the printing press is the usual one). Or we could overaccept it. In Wells’s neologism, we draw it into a wider story. We say yes, we Christians are people of the Word. The most important reading we do is of scripture, best done in community, where we read with patient attention, chewing the same words over and over for the sake of the health of our souls. But then there are all sorts of other reading we do—shorter bits of scripture, signs of discomfort on people’s faces, the eyes of a stranger trying her first step back into church in some time. Reading can happen slowly or quickly, we’ll do the latter on the way to doing the former.

The language that Leadership Education at Duke Divinity uses may be helpful here—Traditioned innovation means reaching back into our tradition as we innovate for a new day. The exemplar here may be the nearly-sainted Steve Jobs. I hadn’t realized until reading a recent article in Image Journal that Jobs took a calligraphy class that helped him later design Apple’s fonts. The church, for 2000 years, has been the world’s greatest innovator on tradition. How could we not, as we receive Israel’s tradition and reconfigure it for a day in which the promised One has come and is still coming? We’re the people who gave the world the hospital, the university, Western science, and arguably, modernity itself (all mixed bags, but bear with me). How can we not receive this new thing, texting, into the story of a community pursuing new life in Christ together?

Jason Byassee, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Senior Pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, NC and a Fellow in Theology and Leadership at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

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