The medium may be the message…but the message still matters

Posted Feb 14, 2012 | New Media Project

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By Kathryn Reklis


Best practices: During February, March, and April, 2012 the New Media Project bloggers are looking intentionally at new media “best practices.” Join the conversation: What are the new media best practices in your church or organization? What are some other examples of how communities engage in new media well? Tell us in the comments below.

Recently, I spoke briefly on behalf of the New Media Project at a workshop for clergy co-sponsored by Odyssey Networks called ON Scripture. Right before I went up to offer words of welcome, Paul Raushenbush, the Senior Religion Editor for the Huffington Post, exhorted the gathered clergy not to abandon the digital domain to other voices. Increasingly, “the world” can be found online, Paul urged, and where the world is, so the church must be also, offering the hope of the gospel. It was a great lead-in to talk about the New Media Project, and I saw lots of people eagerly writing down our web address hoping they’d find answers to some of their pressing questions.

The thing is, almost all of the religious leaders I’ve talked to, including those I met that day, are trying to figure out if and how to enter the new media maelstrom. Many pastors and lay leaders are already active on Facebook and Twitter, but they don’t know how this should translate into their church work. One of the things we’re learning in this project is that there are tons of people offering advice to religious leaders on the “how-tos” of social media: how to re-vamp a church website, how to develop a social media policy, how to use Facebook to engage your community. You can search and read a collection of these resources right here.

Besides the very necessary and practical how-tos, the thing most churches need to think about as they develop a social media program is message. We all know the adage “the medium is the message,” and that is probably more true of new media than ever before. But that doesn’t mean the content of the message doesn’t matter. New media is also driven by another slogan: “content is king.” Now that almost anyone can produce content—YouTube videos, web pages, blogs, Twitter feeds—what you say/do in new media space matters more than ever.

This isn’t just a practical word of advice—though it is true that content drives success in terms of reaching and connecting—but it is also a theological imperative. Using new media should be thought of as “mission” in the broadest sense of the term—how do the core commitments, beliefs, and values of your community translate into the social media sphere, and how does your presence there advance your call to connect and serve?

All the case studies for this project offer insights into how particular communities are experimenting with their mission-message in social media. My own case study was with Countryside Community Church in Omaha, NE, which produces a weekly online television program called Darkwood Brew. Rather than set their sights on an expansive Twitter following or inter-church texting lists, they are focused on creating video content that they hope will resource a reformation in Christianity, moving beyond the polarizing battles of “left” and “right,” “liberal” and “fundamentalist.” Because this is their mission, they have invested heavily in creating online video that they hope will increasingly be watched by small groups of people gathered to seek truth and hope in more expansive ways.

In my March blog post, I want to talk more about how the medium of this program—online television episodes—shapes the message. For now, if your church is considering a new expansion into social media, I’d suggest that you add “mission-message” to the top of your planning agenda. Figuring out what you want to say, be, and do in social media will make figuring out how to do it that much easier.

Kathryn Reklis, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is the Executive Director of the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D candidate in religious studies, concentrating in theology, at Yale University.

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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