By Susie Shaefer, guest blogger
As the mother of a toddler, my days are filled with lessons in listening. There is the obvious work of teaching a young person to “listen” (which usually means “do what I tell you”), but there are also the surprises of finding out what they really absorb. A recent example involved a toddler dance party with the Pandora “toddler station” playing on my phone. In the usual mix of Mary Poppins songs and “Wheels On The Bus,” the song “This Little Light of Mine” came on. I started to show her the motions I learned for the song at camp, which are definitely easy enough for a two-year-old. She gave it a try and then looked at me and said “Sing this song at church?”
We did, in fact, go to church a few weeks back and sing that song. I had no idea my child was listening, as she is a toddler and, well, she acts like a toddler in worship, wandering around and coloring and looking at books. As a proponent of keeping kids in worship, as someone who does ministry with kids, I shouldn’t be surprised, but as a parent, I was surprised. Of course, I was happy to know that she was listening in worship. But I was surprised she was listening and absorbing so much and grateful for the reminder that she is always picking stuff up, the good and the bad.
Putting ourselves and our ministry on the Internet is a bit like spending time with a toddler: we can never be sure who is listening and absorbing what we say. Certainly, there are questions about how we present ourselves, which Gail Song Bantum
and Jim Rice
have explored on this blog. But like all relationships, social media are about more than the speaker—and an online audience has the option of anonymity. So as ministry moves into the social media neighborhood, what will it mean for us to consider our invisible audiences? What does it mean that we don’t know who is learning or listening or hurting from our online presence?
1 John 4 challenges and commands us to love our brothers and sisters because if we are unable to love those we do see, we will not be able to love God whom we do not see. In the age of the Internet, we may have the opportunity to carry this further. If we claim to love God, whom we do not see, then we must also learn to love those brothers and sisters whom we do not see.
The reality is that our full selves will never be expressed online—or in any other medium. While face-to-face, long-time relationships may get close, we are never fully known by anyone but God. So the question of the silent audience, the unknown interlocutor, or the casual acquaintance isn’t reserved to online communication. It’s just that the option for lurking on blogs, commenting anonymously and selectively, can make it all the more difficult to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Maybe the answer to wondering about and caring for our anonymous listeners lies in the same questions around identity and integrity. Maybe we learned the answer in elementary school: “If you don’t have anything nice to say….” Or maybe there are simply more questions to be asked about what being online does with our sense of being incarnate, as beloved children whom God calls by name—even if those names aren’t shared. Susie Shaefer is a priest in the Episcopal Church, a stay-at-home mom, and served for the last year as the co-chair of The Young Clergy Women Project, one of the case studies of the New Media Project. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.