Imagine yourself in a time in the distant past. A time before instant global interaction. A time before diverse groups of people could communicate without traveling. A time before social media.
The time was 2004, and the United Church of Christ (UCC) had just launched its “God is still speaking,” campaign. The UCC church where I was a student pastor started to embrace the slogan and, somewhat reluctantly, the theology of continued revelation and inclusion attached to the catchphrase.
Seven signs—no reference to the apocalypse
—were planted on the boulevard outside the church so those driving by could read them.
The trailing question, “Are you listening?”, seemed entirely appropriate in those pre-social media days. For centuries churches saw themselves as the place where people came to hear the voice of God, to build community, and be nurtured spiritually. Or more simply, it was where you went to get answers to life’s difficult questions.
Fast-forward only eight years, and I believe the closing statement would be very different for churches that are beginning to understand the culture and power of social media.
It would take more real-estate—and distract a lot of drivers—but if the church is going to remain relevant to a social media oriented culture, the signs would need to say something like, “God is still speaking, we’re really trying our best to hear what that is and need your help.”
I do believe people are still attracted to faith communities as places where they listen for the divine, foster relationships, and are spiritually nurtured. What has changed is how social media has introduced into the cultural (and religious?) consciousness an appreciation for open discussion, a forum for diverse opinions, and an expectation of being heard.
Beyond being an efficient way to announce events, the church needs to ask how the social media experience is changing the way we think and communicate. What is its common language? What is its cultural consciousness? How can multi-way dialog be facilitated? What is the social media understanding of relationship? How is leadership defined in the world of social media?
In answering these questions, the church may realize it has done a poor job of listening to the underpinnings of societal change inherent in the development of social media. The scary version is that if the church embraces the emerging trends
communications, it may need to give up ‘authoritative’ control of the message.
At the same time, it is interesting—and paradoxical—to note that many churches, movements, and denominations are holding fast to the tenets of institutional power and centralized authority that established the church as a primary cultural influence in the mid-20th century, even as they declare their openness to new ideas.
And as Lerone A. Martin pointed out recently
, ‘new ideas’ aren’t the sole purvey of youth. He wrote, “The driving forces behind the growth of mobile social networking are Internet users over the age of 55.” As if we didn’t already know it, the efficient use of social media is no longer just about reaching young people.
Still, to believe adoption of social media is the catalyst for church growth or a panacea for its decline, is misguided. But paying attention to the cultural changes inherent in social media growth is something the church must do if it is to remain relevant to those who are being affirmed by their online interactions.
Is anybody listening? The Rev. Gregg Brekke owns SixView Studios, a communications company dedicated to the art of visual communication and interpretation. An award winning photojournalist and writer, he serves as Vice Chair of the National Council of Churches U.S.A. Communication Commission, on the World Alliance for Christian Communication (WACC-NA) Executive Committee as the team lead for video and film projects, and as a board member for the Associated Church Press. An ordained United Church of Christ minister, Brekke blogs at http://revgregg.wordpress.com. 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.