I thank Rev. Tony Lee, pastor of Community Hope AME Church (COH) in Hillcrest Heights, Maryland, for agreeing to let COH be the subject for this case study for the New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary. The executive ministry team of Pastor Lee, Rev. Bill Lee and Rev. Dr. Nancy Lee were generous with their time, answering questions, chatting with me, and even praying for me when there were continuous ministry demands upon their time. Pastor Lee spent hours with me on long ministry days and his “day off,” joyfully engaging the vegan food I selected (a true departure from his normal eating practices). I had an extended interview with COH member and co-founder of Dreams Work non-profit organization, Daniel Bradley. I appreciate his candor and enthusiasm for community work and combining arts, technology, youth motivation, and social justice. Many members of COH welcomed me, hugged me, danced with me, showed me where to go, and shared pieces of their love of COH with me. In this way, COH ministered to me, even as I was there to learn about their ministry to their local community and to the world.
This case study is a contribution to the New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary’s larger research program around this problem: How should faith leaders understand the vast and rapid changes in digital communication? How do new technologies affect overall patterns in communication? How do Christian leaders tell the gospel story using the resources of the Christian tradition and new media? Can we provide a framework and theological interpretation that will help us stay attuned to these rapid changes and the world around us? As the project’s grant proposal states, “Faithfully communicating the gospel in a new age is at stake.”
The research questions I posed to Pastor Lee and others at COH include:
- How do pastors, congregations, and religious leaders experience the massive changes in communication patterns and tools, especially regarding social media?
- Why do pastors, congregations, and religious leaders use new media and social media? For what purpose? Does the purpose further their mission? If so, how? What are they doing?
- How do pastors and religious leaders think theologically about new media? How do they help their communities do so?
- Has the social media revolution changed what lay people or constituents expect of religious communities and their leaders? What they expect of Christian thought and practice?
- How has this massive shift in communication patterns and tools impacted the way in which communities gather and are formed?
- How can pastors and religious leaders using new media be resourced well from the deep veins of wisdom in Christian thought and practice in this new context?
As COH is a part of a historic African American denomination, I’m particularly interested in how a black church’s use of new media is understood in light of scholarship on contemporary black churches and the digital divide. In his 2005 book, T.D. Jakes: America’s New Preacher (New York: NYU Press, 2005), sociologist Shayne Lee describes a new cohort of ministry in African American church culture. He notes that “the new black church” has an ability to “combine an other-worldly experience of ecstatic worship and spirituality enlightenment with a this-worldly experience on style, image and economic prosperity.” Although Shayne Lee largely describes “the new black church” in terms of the market demands of contemporary black Christians and how churches meet them through worship and charismatic leadership, he also notes a role for technology. “The genius of the new black church is the flexibility, sophistication, and ingenuity to use twenty-first-century technology to win twenty-first-century souls.”
Two things are noteworthy in Shayne Lee’s work. First, he notes that “the new black church” often occurs outside of mainline or historic African American denominations. Rather, “the new black church” is often found in innovative independent churches with large memberships. Second, there is little mention of digital technology. This is not a fault of Lee’s scholarship since his primary focus is on one particular preacher and his exemplification of “the new black church.” Rather Lee’s exclusion of online technology in his examination of “the new black church” can also be seen in the other important books on contemporary black churches—Jonathan L. Walton’s Watch This!: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism (New York: NYU Press, 2009) and Marla F. Frederick’s Between Sundays: Black Women and Everyday Struggles of Faith (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003). To contextualize this scholarship, I should note that most scholars of African American churches focus on content through attention to history and theology, and only secondarily on modes of worship. To explore any technological mode of transmission is a relatively new area of research for black church studies.
Nevertheless, the new media scholar is left to ask two related questions: Is there something about historic African American denominations that make it difficult for individual churches within them to be innovative in ways that are relevant to twenty-first century black church-goers? The larger question may be: How do churches hold tradition and technology in tension, especially when they are a cultural and racial minority? And what should be made of the use of online and digital media in “the new black church”?
The advent of affordable mobile technology changes the digital divide with roughly half of African Americans and Latinos accessing the Internet on their phones. Nearly 25 percent of Twitter users are African American even though African Americans represent only 12.5 percent of the U.S. population. Duke University scholar Mark Anthony Neal notes that field songs during slavery were a form of social media, and Tweeting in and among the African American community is a contemporary instantiation of historical ways of communicating and forming community (“A History of Black Folk on Twitter,” TedxDuke, April 19, 2011). Nevertheless, concerns remain. African Americans and Latinos use their phones for Internet access disproportionately more than their white counterparts; the former seem to use entertainment components of online activity more than educational ones, and mobile technology rarely allows for the often necessary ability to complete applications or update a resume, according to Jesse Washington in “New Digital Divide Seen for Minorities on Internet” (SF Gate, February 13, 2011). In other words, when given Internet access, African Americans and Latinos are more often consumers than creators.
How does race (or race and class) affect the questions we ask of churches and their use of new media? Can they assume that all their members have access to digital media? How do they adapt their use of new media around the realities of the digital divide? Or is it safer for such ministries to assume the presence of a household television than access to social media, a smartphone, and laptop?
Method and data
I conducted this case study through online research first. Before the site visit, I watched two worship services on COH online through their live stream. I also downloaded free music available through the website and watched several YouTube videos of guest speakers at COH, also available on the church website. I looked at Tony Lee’s Twitter feed and Facebook page, the COH Facebook page, information about the mission and history of the church on the website, and conducted an Internet search on Tony Lee and COH, resulting in over 30 articles, social media sites, and audio presentations related to COH in mainstream media.
I traveled to Washington, D.C., and neighboring Prince George’s County, Maryland for four days in September 2011. I spent time with COH and Pastor Tony Lee at the annual church picnic. I attended Sunday worship services. I spent more than six hours interviewing Pastor Lee and more than two hours interviewing the executive ministers and in focused conversation with church members. I felt comfortable joining church members in worship and dancing at the church picnic. Before Lee formally introduced me, I was assumed to be a normal visitor in the church, and I was welcomed in that spirit.
It is important to note the personal connections I have to Pastor Lee and COH. Although I had never met Lee outside of the context of this case study, nor had I attended COH, I was familiar with both. I am ordained clergy in the AME Church, so Lee and I share several friends and colleagues in common. My parents are also native to Washington, D.C., and I felt comfortable navigating the city on my own, despite Lee’s offer of full hospitality. Further conversation indicated that we were both christened in the same Baptist church in Washington, D.C., where both of our grandmothers were active laity. These commonalities and sense of kinship affected the tone of our interaction, so that we were frequently conversational, mentioning other colleagues and their use of online media by name, with shared surmising on the present state and future of our denomination. Thus I saw my work less as an objective journalist or distanced observer, but rather as a new friend, part acquaintance and part stranger, seeking to paint a picture of COH in a church and geographical context that we both cherish.
This approach affects the kinds of answers I received and how my questions were heard. I hope that the strength of my presence not only invoked a more conscious reflection on the uses of new media, but allowed what cannot occur at a distance—asking follow-up questions, noticing physical behaviors and the embodiment of the congregation and worship, and receiving questions I might not have expected.
As a final note, this is one among several case studies to be conducted by the Research Fellows of the New Media Project at Union. My colleagues Jason Byassee, Verity Jones, Lerone Martin, Kathryn Reklis, and Jim Rice will surely cover very different places in very different ways.
Summary of Findings
My primary finding at COH was a remarkable intentionality about the use of new media on the part of the executive leadership, while the laity’s use of new media was so automatic that they were rarely cognizant of its dominance in their experience of the church. COH is a church plant of the African Methodist Episcopal Church situated in the predominantly African American and socio-economically depressed neighborhood of Prince George’s County, close to southeast Washington D.C. Although known as a church that attracts young un-churched African Americans, COH is noticeably intergenerational in leadership and membership. The clergy readily give out their cell phone numbers and admit to being easily reached via Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging. They admit that Facebook and Twitter are some of the easiest ways to check in on many of the 2,200 members of their growing congregation. They say that they are at their phones or computers anywhere from 70 percent of the time to “all the time.” Through social media they can find out about how someone is doing or receive requests and information from members. This goes both ways—members of a large church are also able to feel close to their clergy and see that they are not untouchable, but rather able work, play, and fellowship like the laity.
Pastor Lee is an admitted techie who follows technology blogs and websites. He examines the use of digital technology in both church culture and the entertainment industry as he thinks about what will be most effective for COH. Lee considers how he can harness new media in a way that doesn’t merely imitate what other churches are doing, nor simply add new features for the sake of being innovative. He wants to use media that “fits [his] flow and the flow of the church.” He wants to use new media to create community. Lee is excited about projects that connect the church’s commitment to social justice and new media. He ticks them off as a list in his head: a web channel for the youth, the videos that the youth are currently making around bullying that they take to local schools to facilitate workshops, and the ability to post articles on the website that talk about justice issues in the wider world with a mechanism for members to contribute their thoughts.
COH members don’t talk much about using the church’s new media. I randomly asked people at the church picnic about how they engage the church’s new media, and they say that they don’t really use it. However, as we continue chatting about how and why they come to COH, they reveal a fairly active engagement with new media. They will talk about sharing their positive experiences about COH in their Facebook status updates. Members of the men’s ministry speak positively about receiving text messages from Minister Chris. The texts inform them about church activities and what is happening with other congregants. Two people gave me the same example: Someone is going through something, and they texted Minister Chris. He then forwards that text and asks us to pray for that brother. Several members admit that they watch COH worship services online when they don’t come to the church building, and no one blinks an eye when the clergy check their phones from the pulpit and give shout outs to the people watching online before delivering the sermon. When it’s time to read Scripture, approximately half the congregation stands up and reads from a phone or iPad Bible app. This raises no eyebrows in the church.
While COH engages new media, they do so alongside old media. They still have a moon bounce, football, and homemade baked goods at the church picnic and after church. They sell church t-shirts in the back of the sanctuary after service, and they are still renowned for their Street Team Ministry that hands out club-promoter-style handbills throughout the city—often along with a bottle of water or a breakfast bar. These handbills simply invite people to come to COH. This combination of new and old media contributes to the diversity of the church, and the invisibility of the media itself. Everyone has been reached in a mode they recognize, and so they tend not to see the mode itself.
Lee is simultaneously excited about plans for engaging the newest media out there and aware of its limitations. He repeatedly says that new media “extends their arms” and “gives them more touches.” His use of the word “touch” rather than the tech-terminology of “hits” reflects his desire to be both “high tech and high touch.” Despite this level of deliberation, Lee continues to be amazed at the national and international attention COH receives through the website and social media. There are people watching COH on their mobile devices in Ohio and Korea. They give to the church; they consider Lee their pastor. Nevertheless, Lee knows that he still needs to show up in hospital rooms and at funerals and worship services in person. He refuses to let new media make him lazy.
Narrative responses to research questions
1. How do pastors, congregations, and religious leaders experience the massive changes in communication patterns and tools, especially regarding social media?
Pastor Tony Lee describes himself as a techie. The other clergy refer to him as a “tech guru.” Lee started out in technology in the late 1980s when he had a job at the Small Business Administration. They needed someone to teach others how to use Harvard Graphics on a PC and assigned the task to him. Next thing he knew, he was the assistant network administrator teaching new software to the staff after he taught himself. He keeps his ear to the ground by reading a lot of technology and gadget blogs. He notes Mashable.com as a favorite. Lee has also hosted a popular weekly radio program on local station WPGC for the last two and a half years. He pays particular attention to how business, technology, marketing, and entertainment people use new media. He tends to focus on how they advertise and build community through new media.
When it comes to ministry, he thinks of new media as televangelism. Citing Billy Graham’s initial foray into television programming, he laments how many churches still treat websites like television—unidirectional marketing of a product. Lee sees his use of media as evangelism. New media “levels the playing field.” Lee continues, “You don’t have to be rich. Facebook is free.”
Lee wants to use the new media that works best for his personality and the kind of congregation that COH is. This is largely trial and error. When snowed in one weekend, he started “Ask Pastor.” Weather was inclement and worship was cancelled. Lee was online and noticed that many congregants were using Formspring. So he started the “Ask Pastor” area where folk online can pose all sorts of questions to Lee. At the same time, Lee hasn’t updated his blog in three years. He confesses that he prefers oral communication to writing. Upon reflection, he thinks he might blog more often if he had the time. The social media face of the church is still largely Lee. He edits and uploads everything while tending to his own Facebook and Twitter accounts. He is developing a social media team that can take care of some of the editing work. He’s changing the website to a platform that is easier to use and allows other ministers to contribute content and respond to queries.
There have been some downsides to COH’s social media. He mentions a member who stalked him through “Ask Pastor,” asking incredibly personal questions. She declared that God told her that she and he were meant to be romantic partners. Lee said it ultimately required an in-person intervention with other members of the clergy present.
Mainly, Lee reflects on the blessing that occurs when he meets people physically that he previously only knew through social media. Social media allow him to connect with new people and stay in touch with people who may move away from the local area.
2. Why do pastors, congregations, and religious leaders use new media and social media? For what purpose? Does the purpose further their mission? If so, how? What are they doing?
Both the COH ministers and laity describe using new media and social media as a way of connecting. Laity often describe watching worship services online. Doing so allows them to be at church without physically being at church. They mention receiving texts from ministers that let them know fairly quickly what’s happening at the church or who needs prayer and attention. They feel comfortable texting, Tweeting, and posting messages to ministers on Facebook when they need to reach them.
The ministerial staff articulates the same experience from another vantage point. Through Facebook, Twitter, and Formspring, they are able to learn about the activities of the church members. With a large and growing church, this helps people feel connected. Clergy will post the sermon topic on Facebook and Twitter Saturday night and remind followers that the service can be watched online in real time. When we discuss crowdsourcing the sermon topic, Lee indicates that it doesn’t fit his personality. They tend not to use new media for making decisions; the only occasion he recalls doing so is when he asked for input on the title for the new 8:00 a.m. service (Hope Happy Hour). Of course, people give input whether Lee asks for it or not. He remembers receiving a critique about something he had said in a sermon, and he realized he was wrong. He apologized and liked that he was available online to receive the critique. He knows he probably would not have heard it in person.
Lee and other clergy hear about members and community events via Facebook and Twitter. Just a couple days before my visit, Lee received a message on Facebook indicating that a member’s brother had committed suicide. He reach out to the member and attended the funeral. Ministers are also able to see if members seem to be falling in with a negative crowd or are struggling through people’s status updates. “People are interestingly honest on Facebook,” he says. Then someone can follow up and see how the member is doing. Clergy and laity often use Bible apps on their smartphones or tablets during service, and Lee indicates a preference for the iPad because “it looks more like a Bible.” He laughs at himself when he hears the words aloud. He loves having biblical commentaries downloaded on his phone and iPad because he can research a sermon while traveling.
Lee believes that COH’s most effective form of new media is the live stream worship service. They have laptop and mobile capabilities. To foster community, the preaching minister will check to see who is online and mention them from the pulpit before preaching. The sermons and music available on demand and for download are also very effective. People are able to get a feel for COH even if they can’t be there. They can hear a relevant message over and over. Lee is delighted that the website has a section for gamers. He says it makes the church site interactive. I like that it shows how being Christian can be fun and accessible. These forms of media have been more effective than blogging, Lee says, but he fears that there are still people whom the new media don’t reach.
Lee thinks that his best practice is to use media that match him and the congregation: “Consistency is better than having a super-smashy website you never update; [a best practice is] something regular that you engage people in frequently.” His worst practice has been managing all the media himself. That will end soon through the creation of a media team that can edit videos, upload, check Tweets and online users during services, etc. Lee realizes that he can’t do it all.
3. How do pastors and religious leaders think theologically about new media? How do they help their communities do so?
Lee talks about using new media for building community. Growing passionate about the topic of community, he tells me about the name of the church. Drawing from the book of Hebrews, Lee quotes, “‘Faith is the evidence of things hoped for; the substance of things not seen.’ Hope is an ingredient in faith. If you can make people hopeless, they can lose their faith. We see ourselves as a place where people can come to gain hope and therefore grow in faith—people who may not be welcome in other spaces. A wide range of people can come and grow in a sense of hope, peace, joy and eventually faith—to receive the tools that are needed to become better in their lives.” Lee pauses and says, “Social media just gives us longer arms. It extends our arms and lets us have other ways to reach and to touch people who need hope.”
Lee refuses to make a huge distinction between his uses of new and old media. He doesn’t like to compartmentalize that way. Social media are somewhere in the larger line of tools COH uses—radio, TV, handbills, newspaper, music. When I ask if social media can instill hope, Lee relates it to the printing press. The creative value depends on what is written. “People can use it to communicate hope. It’s a tool. Social media can be utilized for a wide range of things.”
If the goal is community, new media are tools for evangelism. When asked, Lee describes the content in traditional terms—the good news, the love of Christ, the way that knowing Jesus transforms our individual lives. In practice, Lee is a liberation theologian. His message is focused on including the excluded. The church motto is repeated on the website and during every worship service: “We don’t care who you are; what you’ve done or who you did it with. We don’t care if you did it last night or if you woke up doing it this morning. You’re in the right place at the right time to become all that God has called you to become.” COH spends as much time outside of the church building as it does inside, if not more. They are committed to working against crime in the community, with young people around bullying and self-esteem, and in local gang-intervention. As a result, COH is a diverse community. Lee says there are people in the church who don’t have high school degrees and a Pulitzer Prize winner; people who work on The Hill and people who don’t work at all; people with crack house testimonies and people with White House testimonies.
When COH started in 2006, Lee received a lot of negative feedback about the church website and their use of social media. People thought it would only attract young people. Now that social media are all over the place, people don’t critique as much. Nevertheless, Lee often finds himself situating COH within the larger African American Episcopal Church traditions. Because COH does not use traditional AME liturgy and incorporates new media and contemporary music, Lee is often accused of bucking tradition. Lee gives a history lesson on African Methodism in contemporary terms by noting that the uniform liturgy was “branding” that met the needs of the people “when black people didn’t feel stable and churches were popping up all over the place.” Lee continues, “If you idolize the liturgy without understanding its shape and evolution, then you can’t shift and evolve. So what are the needs of folk now?”
In this context, Lee does not see himself as doing something that radically departs from tradition. Lee describes himself as “a regular AME minister doing what AMEs do. We build churches; we adapt. And that is part of the tradition of the AME church. This is remembering what the AME church does well.”
4. Has the social media revolution changed what lay people or constituents expect of religious communities and their leaders? What they expect of Christian thought and practice?
5. How has this massive shift in communication patterns and tools impacted the way in which communities gather and are formed?
At COH, lay people appreciate the way that social media make the ministers more accessible. Several parishioners say that they know that COH has many members, but it doesn’t feel like a large church. Several people even compare their experiences at other mega-churches in the area to being at COH by saying “they don’t feel lost here.” Yet COH is not particularly adept at using small groups or forms of organizing auxiliaries that differ from other churches. It’s the use of social media that helps people to feel closer to their pastors.
Members critique sermons on Facebook, but they will also say that they appreciate being able to see the pastor in various non-holy activities though status updates. They can learn about Lee hanging out with his family, having dinner at a new restaurant, and going to a concert. It helps them to feel that being a minister may not be out of the purview of their own calling. It takes away the sense of celebrity. I find this particularly noteworthy for a “new black church” that (like the not-so-new-black-church model) relies heavily on charismatic leadership for its sustenance. Because most members have cell phones and social media accounts, they are able to access clergy this way. If members of COH expect an immediate response from clergy, they also feel that they are receiving it. Social media remove the veil between clergy and lay members.
On the other hand, the use of social media around community formation appears to be more vertical than horizontal. There are no ministries completely online, and members say they do not text each other with prayer requests. The minister is still the mediator for the community.
New media provide only one way for people to come to COH. While one member proudly says that he gives the website address to friends and strangers so they can check out COH, he admits that that’s not how he learned about COH. Many people hear of Lee through newspaper articles, handbills from the Street Team Ministry, the radio show, or community activism. Most of the people I talked with say they came to COH with a friend. Once they find COH, they may discuss their positive experiences there in Facebook status updates. That’s one way they share about COH with friends. It’s also another way that the ministers can find out about the success of a ministry event. The night I arrived, the Women’s Ministry kicked off Women’s Season with a book study with the author. The executive minister, Dr. Nancy Lee, said that she saw women excited about it all over their Facebook updates the next day. She knew it was a success and immediately sent an email of gratitude to all the volunteers.
6. How can pastors and religious leaders using new media be resourced well from the deep veins of wisdom in Christian thought and practice in this new context?
The church website features a section for the pastor’s blog, prayer requests, questions for the pastor, free music downloads, live streaming of worship services, archived worship services on demand, video clips of guest preachers, and games to play, along with basic information about the mission and history of the church. COH uses Facebook, Twitter, an interactive website, Flickr, YouTube, CafePress, Formspring, PayPal, Lifestream.tv, mobile devices, and other forms of new media. Ministers speak the most about using Facebook and Twitter, while acknowledging the wide uses of the Livestream video access. When the earthquake hit Washington, D.C., recently, Lee was visiting a sick member. He wasn’t sure what happened, and cell phone service was down. He was able to receive news and check on members via Twitter. Still, Lee expresses dissatisfaction with the current website. He’s aware of all it still doesn’t do. “I don’t think [my use of the website and social media] gives me the pulse of the congregation.”
When asked what kind of resources he would like that he doesn’t currently have, Lee laughs and says he would like to own the platforms—his own TV network and a movie distribution deal . . . or at least some stock in Twitter.
On a more serious note, Lee is astutely aware of a need for more deliberate reflection—which is ironic given his current level of research and intentionality. Using the language of spiritual accountability, Lee says that he already has a group of peers, and they talk about best uses of new media. These peers are other clergy, technology people, and even a professor at George Washington University. He says that they often email him new things they think he may like. Lee indicates that they don’t come together to have these conversations; the conversations are usually one-on-one. Lee would like to talk to other people who are “thinking about the same stuff and trying to use the same stuff.” Lee says, “I want to sit with [others who are using new media in churches] and talk and shape how this relates to and can be applied to church. Especially how this relate to mobile devices—not just a mobile friendly website but making it catered to the mobile experience.”
Lee’s yearning echoes what I have heard from ministers and other leaders for decades: they often lack community. This seems more acute when one is an innovator with new technologies. There’s not enough community for sharing knowledge and experience, reflecting on best and worst practices, thinking through advantages and disadvantages, or problem solving.
I can tell Lee feels isolated in this aspect of his ministry. The irony is that new media help create community for his parishioners, but may create loneliness for him as the minister. I hope that the New Media Project can foster this kind of community—if at first, just among the leaders of the case study communities.
COH’s use of new media is effective because it’s part of how they use all kinds of media. COH has been able to do what only a handful of churches in the local area and larger church denomination have been able to do—grow when most mainline denominations are declining, attract young people who are typically un-churched, and do so in a way that maintains an intergenerational presence and the best of black church traditions. COH focuses on new media that build community, shorten the divide between pew and pulpit, and mix with old media to fit the people Lee’s trying to reach (i.e., handbills and media accessible on a mobile device).
The use of new media is effective in part because of Lee’s intentionality, and in part because it’s seen as a means to an end and not as an end in itself. Lee resists the seduction of shiny, pretty gadgets and platforms. He seems to focus on classic themes of church ministry—adaptability, meeting needs, instilling hope—in a way that is relevant for the people in his context. While these sound like core components of any ministry, the use of technology in this context renders it what scholars call “the new black church”…online.
Monica A. Coleman, a research fellow for the New Media Project, serves as Associate Professor of Constructive Theology and African American Religions and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Associate Professor of Religion at Claremont Graduate University in southern California.
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.