Tuesday, August 27, 2013

"Pastor, is that an iPhone in Your Pocket?" or "Six Reasons I Use Social Media for Ministry"

NB: This is a guest post for Ryan Holtz's blog which can be found here. Check it out.

“Wow, I’ve never meet a pastor who uses social media like you do!” I often hear. Which surprises me. Because social media use among clergy is growing. And social media has become an important part of my ministry. It’s the way the world is talking!

Here are six reasons why I use social media for ministry:

1. It connects me with a wider community.

In my job it’s easy to be insular. It’s a cliche that ministry is a 24/7 enterprise. And that can be true. But while I rarely get that 3:00 am phone call, there is ALWAYS something to do. Social media helps me see beyond the church world into the wider world that we say God loves, and helps me make relationships with people I might not meet otherwise.

For example, I’m writing this for Ryan Holtz (@RyanHoltz1), and we have never personally met. Yet, I have found our twitter interactions valuable. Also, when I was living in Lethbridge, I made connections in the community through Twitter (@powe2550), allowing me access to opportunities and partnerships that would never have been available to me without social media.

2. It connects me to the daily lives of those in my congregation.

A governing principle of social media in my denomination (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada) is to wait until a congregation member “friends” the pastor on Facebook, or “Follows” on Twitter or Instagram, or “Connects” on Linkedin before reciprocating. The thinking is that there is a power dynamic at play, and pastors shouldn’t use their pastoral authority to push their way into the social media lives of those to whom they minister.

That’s wise guidance. But it’s also a little paranoid. Just like asking for a pastoral visit where I get to experience my members in their natural habitat, and gain insight into their lives and faith in ways I can’t in the brief Sunday morning interactions, I ask to connect on social media so I can experience them in a more meaningful way. And they can see what I’m up to. It goes both ways.  I’m not “spying on them” as some have suggested, but building relationships with the tools that people use today.

I have ministered to people in crisis over Facebook, and have said prayers for people over Twitter. These tools enhance my ministry in ways I couldn’t have dreamed of when I started as a pastor.

3. It connects me to a variety of perspectives that I wouldn’t otherwise encounter.

Some social media commentators are worried that tools like Facebook and Twitter are polarizing the political discourse, since users can choose who they will and will not follow, or engage with. That users will only follow people or read content they agree with. They’re concerned that people are “unfriending” cousin Janet in California for voting for Obama, or are blocking the tweets of a high school buddy who has since become a Fox News fanatic, which lowers the variety of voices people hear, and diminishes informed political thought. Which results in splitting people unduly into two camps, and negatively influencing policy.

That may be true for some. But I have friends and followers from across the political and theological spectrum. Having such a diversity of thought cross my screen each day keeps me from tweeting in an echo chamber. For example, I swing to the left both politically and theologically, yet conservative commentator David Frum (@DavidFrum) is one of my favourite tweeters. I find that I need alternative views to challenge my own ideas and beliefs, to protect me from lazy group-think.

4. It connects me to a larger body of colleagues who both affirm and challenge me.

I find social media VERY helpful in gaining new ideas for ministry, and insight into older models. I often throw questions out for colleagues in Twitter and Facebook such as “What’s the most helpful preaching resource you use?” and receive useful feedback.

Also, late one December, I was banging my head against my keyboard, hoping a Christmas sermon would pop out, but nothing was coming. So, I went on Twitter and complained about “sermon block.” Within an hour, 20 preachers had sent me drafts of their Christmas sermons.

While I didn’t use any of them, they were excellent inspiration for coming up with my own. And we had wonderful conversations and debates regarding the content of the sermons.

5. It connects me to others when I’m feeling alone.

Since I live alone and (mostly) work alone, nights can get mighty lonely. And I’ve found social media connects me with others. Also, when I separated from my wife in 2009, my connections on social media (usually divorced men themselves) created a virtual support, which helped me get through some pretty tough nights.

While some say that social media connections aren’t real, these friends were (and are) pretty real to me. Even though I have never met most of them in person. Social media friends never replace face-to-face friends, they’re another form of relationship that should not be diminished.

6. It connects the gospel message to those in my networks.

Social media is the newest way to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. And not just by posting my sermons, or tweeting inspirational quotes or bible passages. But also by sharing good news in a bad news world. Tweeting words of love and encouragement. Proclaiming what I believe to be true, that God is active and alive in the world, creating something new and beautiful each day.
I would never send an unwanted tweet or comment on an Facebook status without thinking about how it would be received any more than I would stand on a street corner and preach at people as they walk by. My message is built as much upon relationships as it is by my faith.

New technology has always been used by churches to connect with others and proclaim their message. For me, social media has become so in grained into my ministry that I can’t imagine how I would minister without it.

Feel free to connect with me.  I would love to continue the conversation!

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