Case Study Report on Quest Church, Seattle

By Jim Rice
October 31, 2011

Introduction

Many thanks to the leadership and members of Quest Church in Seattle for agreeing to participate in this case study for the New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary. In particular, thanks to Rev. Eugene Cho, founding pastor of Quest, for his gracious willingness to allow the Quest community to be partners in this exploration of new media and for his wise and provocative insights on the subjects at hand, and to Rev. Gail Song Bantum, a member of the pastoral staff at Quest, for hosting our visits to the church, arranging interviews with members of the congregation, and for her general warm hospitality, as well as her profound pastoral and theological reflections on social media in the church. In addition, we’re grateful for the time spent in thoughtful conversation on these issues by Jin An, who works in information technology and operations for Quest, as well as lay members of the congregation Joseph Lee and Derek Sciba.

Research problem

The revolution in communications technology over the past two decades has significantly altered the context for churches in the ways people connect. The one-to-many model of broadcast media has been superseded by the many-to-many communication models of social media. While some churches and some religious leaders have leapt into the fray, others are left wondering how to keep up, or even whether to try, with what seems like a roaring locomotive of change. And most important for people of faith are the pastoral and theological questions around new media: How do these rapidly changing modes of communication affect our understanding of the gospel, and how shall we utilize them as we seek to be bearers of the good news in and to (and against) our culture? As new media forms permeate into more and more aspects of our lives, how do we as pastors, church leaders, and ordinary disciples interact with them in ways that deepen and enrich our relationship with God and with one another?

Martin Luther is credited with saying, “If you preach the gospel in all aspects with the exception of the issues which deal specifically with your time, you are not preaching the gospel at all.” The wisdom of scripture and the power of the gospel are both timeless and timely, containing truths that are eternal and yet continue to speak to us in our current moment. We as believers don’t have the luxury of ignoring the fast-changing world around us, mired in texts thousands of years old. Rather, ours is a living faith, vibrant and relevant to today’s realities, even as they might seem the most disorienting or groundless in the speed of their changes.

Staying relevant to those changes doesn’t mean adopting without hesitation every new thing, or jumping on board with each new innovation as it comes down the pike. But we are required as followers of the Light to recognize that we are on a journey, and that we cannot remain static in our faith. The gospel, as Luther said, does deal specifically with our time, and we are called as carriers of that gospel to interact with the world around us. A great challenge of our age is to participate in this engagement with the seemingly unmoored postmodern culture in ways that are rooted in eternal truth even while speaking to today’s questions, to be both anchored and engaged at the same time.

These are not new challenges for the church, but new media represent an important aspect of the contemporary playing field for these matters. If we want the gospel to communicate in today’s world, we have no choice but to engage in the language people are using today, and for many people—especially younger people—social media are an intrinsic part of that vocabulary.

Research questions

To explore these issues with people in the Quest community, we discussed questions under the following six broad areas:

  1. How do pastors, congregations, and religious leaders experience the massive changes in communication patterns and tools, especially regarding social media?
  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?
  3. How do pastors and religious leaders think theologically about new media? How do they help their communities do so?
  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?
  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?

Method and data

The primary methodology for gathering the data used in this case study involved intensive interviews with five members of the broader Quest community including two pastors, one member of the church staff, and two lay members of the congregation. Three of the interviews were conducted on-site at the Q Cafe, an outreach ministry established by the church to nurture and relate to people in the Interbay neighborhood of Seattle. Two interviews were conducted by phone, since the subjects were not in Seattle during the week of my visit. Additional sources of information about Quest Church’s use of communications technology included direct observation during visits to Quest Church, Q Cafe, and a worship service., I also explored other materials on the Quest website, in the Quest email newsletters, Twitter feeds, and Facebook pages, and related paper documents.

While in-depth interviews with a limited number of people can be profoundly revealing, that approach can leave gaps in the picture. For instance, a survey of the whole congregation could demonstrate a broader sense for how the church’s use of social media is working for people in the pews. Most of the input for this study came from people in church leadership along with two members of the congregation suggested by the leadership, thus producing a somewhat narrow view into the life of the church. The resulting data could represent exactly the broader congregation’s thoughts and feelings on the use of new media, but it’s also possible that wider feedback would unveil differing or contradictory views.

Quest is one of six churches, religious institutions, and para-church organizations that are subjects for the case studies by the research fellows of the New Media Project. Other case study subjects include Abilene Christian University (Abilene, Texas), Community of Hope AME Church (Temple Hills, Maryland), Countryside Community Church UCC (Omaha, Nebraska), House for All Sinners and Saints (Denver, Colorado), and The Young Clergy Women Project.

Summary of findings

Social media are an organic part of the life of Quest Church, for both leaders and congregants. Forms of media that are part of the daily lives of members are incorporated naturally by the church-as-community. Social media use isn’t forced; leaders are intentional about not trying to be “cutting edge” or necessarily on top of the latest technological development. But since many in the church—in particular some of those in church leadership, including the founding pastor—are proficient users of digital communication, the church as a body tends to be on the innovative end of the new media spectrum.

In a similar vein, the church doesn’t use new media just because everyone uses it in their personal lives. Rather, as members of the church seek to communicate and connect with one another, social media are used exactly because they meet the need in helpful, efficient, and natural ways. Leaders and congregants experience the use of new media as beneficial to building and nurturing their community of faith, and so they use it. In some ways, querying Quest members about what they experience as common-sense pragmatism in their use of new media might be akin to asking a driver why she uses roads: it’s the way to get to where we’re going. And they never forget that their destination is always about being drawn nearer to God and growing stronger in their discipleship—not about being “better” at social media.

Despite the almost matter-of-fact nature of Quest’s adoption of new media, people in church leadership are intentional about the rationale behind it and are able to specifically articulate those reasons. Leaders of Quest use social media to:

  • Get to know the congregation
  • Help members of the congregation to get to know one another
  • Enable the church to connect with the real, day-to-day lives of congregants
  • Attract new people to the church
  • Amplify the church’s voice in the world
  • Efficiently communicate information within the church community
  • Organize events and activities for church members
  • Communicate the gospel story
  • Build community among church members
  • Facilitate the connections between and among members of small groups
  • Expand pastoral care
  • Make the pastors more accessible to members
  • Invoke gifts among members
  • Help people plug into the work of the church
  • Mobilize around social issues
  • Build support (including financial) for various causes

While Quest leaders speak of the benefits of new media, they do so with a strong and explicit awareness of the dangers and temptations that come along for the ride. Several leaders at Quest emphasize the importance of balance, of keeping a healthy perspective as new tools evolve, and not letting electronic media “take over one’s life,” as one pastor puts it. Several stress the necessity of boundaries, both personal and in terms of the church community as a whole, in the use of social media. The now-pervasive use of digital media has added volume and pressure to the work of the pastors and increased expectations for quick responses from already-busy people. Quest leaders warn about what they see as a growing temptation to hide behind new media and to attempt to use it to replace actual human connection. They offer the reminder that Christianity is an incarnational faith requiring actual presence. They also warn about the danger inherent in the speed of new media, with the attendant risk of sending out messages without thinking carefully about what is being said or posted. In addition, they are concerned about how best to respect confidentiality in this new media context, confidentiality between individuals and between the church itself and the public.

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?

The pastors at Quest Church don’t consider themselves early adopters of new media. For instance, while Eugene Cho uses both Facebook and Twitter extensively now and is a regular and influential blogger, he said he wasn’t in the first half of the church to be on either platform and is never the first to adopt any new trend in media or technology. Yet being pastor of such a young congregation—the average age at the last church census was around 25 years old—means that new media “is just part of the culture I’m part of,” Cho says.

But the Quest pastors report that it has taken some intentionality to adjust to the rapidly evolving tools of social media, many of which hardly existed when Pastor Bantum begin her work in ministry almost a decade ago. “I’ve had to learn what it means to do ministry in this context,” she says.

One of the biggest areas of change, the pastors agree, is the expectations members of the congregation have for quick access to pastors. While most days are still 24 hours long, and while other pastoral demands have not shrunk, people’s expectations of access to pastors has increased with the growth of new media. Since it’s so easy to fire off an email or a Facebook direct message, the thinking goes, it must be easy for the pastor to respond quickly to such communications. But—as is true in most fields these days—the volume of incoming messages only seems to grow, and the high expectations for rapid response is an added pressure on pastoral staff members.

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?

The use of social media, Quest leaders say, helps them get to know the congregation and helps members of the congregation to get to know one another. It enables church leaders to connect with the real, day-to-day lives of congregants, and in particular, with younger members of the faith community. Digital media have been helpful in attracting new people to the church and in amplifying the church’s voice as it speaks to the world beyond its walls. The tools have been invaluable for efficiently communicating information within the church community such as organizing events and activities for church members. But new forms of media have also been used to communicate the gospel story beyond Sunday morning, to help people be about the “evangelizing” work of the church. Social media have helped build community among church members, facilitated the connections between and among members of small groups, and been a vehicle to expand the avenues of pastoral care. For good or for ill, according to some, new media have helped make the pastors of the church more accessible to members of the congregation and served as a means for calling out gifts among members, helping them to plug into the work of the church. Social media tools have been effective in the church’s work of mobilizing around social issues and building support for various causes, both those initiated by church members and initiated by others.

3) How do pastors and religious leaders think theologically about new media? How do they help their communities do so?

The Christian faith is an incarnational faith; that is, real presence is an intrinsic aspect of the tradition. As Pastor Bantum puts it, “I can’t help but think of [questions around new media] sacramentally. Sacrament can’t happen outside of incarnational presence.” Given that assumption and starting point, social media can be many things and can have many benefits but cannot replace the center of our faith—human interaction with God and with one another.

When thinking about these issues theologically, Bantum says, “I can’t help but keep coming back to Jesus. There are many times when Jesus, in his life of ministry, preached and performed miracles to the masses and the crowds. But there are probably more moments when he stepped back and chose to be with the one, whether it’s the Samaritan woman or one of his disciples.” Bantum sees that truth as a warning to church leaders to “not get so caught up in the masses,” not become so overly focused on “broadcast” communication that they begin to lose sight of the one-to-one relationships that she believes lie at the heart of pastoral ministry.

When Pastor Cho thinks theologically about social media, he says he focuses on the ability to communicate story and narrative. “One of the ways that God created us uniquely as human beings is the ability to process stories, to narrate stories, and to live a better story.” And new media, of course, provide channels for delivering and shaping narrative—including the “greatest narrative,” the gospel story itself. This is a central criterion when looking at the church’s use of new media, Cho says. Social media aren’t “just a means for us to engage in pop trends, but also to utilize to communicate the larger narrative of God that has been personified in Christ. That would be probably the strongest theological reason why I engage in new media.”

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?

Lay people and other constituents expect much more access to religious leaders than they did a decade ago. As one congregant explained, in the past one might have a conversation with the pastor after church. A week later, the pastor might be expected to check in with the congregant about the previous week’s talk. Now, a member of the church might send the pastor an email or contact her via Facebook and expect a response in a matter of a few hours or a few days at most. In addition, many congregants have an increased expectation for hearing from and about the pastors and the church leadership more frequently than in prior times. Regular updates are expected on the church website and Facebook page. Even low-tech vehicles such as the church listserv are held to a higher standard.

Many church members now expect their pastoral leaders to communicate in ways that go beyond the Sunday sermon and beyond the walls of the church community. For instance, it has become more common if not yet commonplace for pastors to write a blog regularly, sharing their thoughts and reflections on news events, liturgical seasons, or happenings in the church—all things which in the past might have been done once a week at Sunday worship.

5) How has this massive shift in communication patterns and tools impacted the way in which communities gather and are formed?

New tools of communication have had a significant effect on how communities gather. For instance, many people today are drawn in part to a particular community of faith after doing online research. “Search engine optimization” of a church’s website has become an important outreach tool. Reaching new people and inviting them to church may be accomplished as frequently today through blogs and Google searches as by more traditional methods of word of mouth or door-to-door outreach.

The ongoing formation of communities of faith is also affected by new forms of communication. Organizing events in the congregation or bringing together small groups is likely to be accomplished using Facebook and other social media. Bible studies and podcasts of sermons can supplement the Sunday worship service or adult Sunday school classes. Even spiritual channels such as “prayer chains” use new media to link the congregation to the intercessions of its members.

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?

Pastors and other leaders using new media first need the encouragement to stop and think theologically about their use of these new technologies. Second, they need the tools to do so. It’s like the old story of the frog in the pot of water. When the pot is gradually brought to a boil, the frog doesn’t notice the incremental change in temperature and thus boils to death. In some ways, despite the rapid pace of technological change in the past two decades, especially in the realm of communication media, each individual aspect of the overall change has been more evolutionary than revolutionary. Thus, despite the fact that in a relatively short period of time we’ve seen a massive transformation requiring a consonant new type of thinking, many people in the church haven’t quite kept up. Some have failed to realize that the cumulative effect of the communication revolution has been a new mode of our being together as human beings. Young people today have grown up in a world demonstrably different than that of their parents, and their patterns of thought and behavior are shaped by that difference. The church must be “wise as serpents” in recognizing these changes if we hope to continue to be relevant in this rapidly changing world. And so the first step is simply to acknowledge the scope and breadth of change and recognize that it has theological implications for disciples of Jesus today.

The best resource for informed engagement with these issues will be an engaged church in communion with one another. That is, we need not reinvent the wheel in these matters. Some parts of the church are already deeply engaged in new media and have already started the important work of reflecting theologically, spiritually, and politically on that engagement. We need to listen to one another even—and especially—across all of the old dividing lines. As some begin the journey of engagement with new technologies and new forms of communication, we have the rich and vibrant resource of others who are ahead of us on the voyage, ready to be guides and mentors as we step into the great unknown. We are not alone; we walk together.

Conclusion

In observation of how Quest Church has used new media to nurture and sustain their community of believers, three principles emerge: 1) Engage new media, but do so thoughtfully. 2) Have it be a natural, not forced, fit with your congregation. 3) Keep proper perspective and balance as you engage with any new cultural trends or forces and particularly with new technological advances.

As we seek to find our way amid a rapidly transforming context, we recognize that new methods of communication are merely new ways to engage in an ages-old task—that of being agents of transformation and ambassadors of reconciliation and healing in a broken world. We know that the questions for us are not simply about what technology to utilize or how to do it best. Rather, we will always be striving to understand what the appropriate aspects of this new technology for furthering the work of the body of Christ on earth might be. What will bring us closer to God and to one another? Because we are in the world but not of it, we will continue to engage the tools, trends, and technologies of culture and society with “another world in view.”

Jim Rice, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is editor of Sojourners magazine in Washington, D.C.

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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