Faith Works 4-2-16
Social Media and the World We Know
As some of you online may have noticed, I tried to . . . well, cut back a bit for Lent.
That goes with the usual territory of personal discipline and spiritual preparation heading towards Easter; some diet, some start new exercise plans for the soul or the body (or both); we all are familiar with giving something up for Lent.
I knew from the start that "giving up" social media was not really going to be an option. For good or ill, and I hear from those who would say "ill" quite regularly and very loudly, social media is now as central to ministry and community as the phone was by the 1960s and until recently.
In my reading in congregational histories, going through stacks of old bulletins and newspapers, you can see where bold churches got phones in the 1930s or so, and after World War II, secretaries and receptionists became as standard to church life as custodians or "sextons" had been the previous few centuries.
And while my personal experience with congregational ministry only really starts to flicker into awareness in the 1970s, I can attest to the fact that church secretaries, as a large part of their responsibilities, answered phones and wrote out those infamous little messages on pink pads headed "While You Were Out."
One congregation I served in had a spike on the corner of the reception desk, and whichever of the two of us clergy came in first had the pleasure of tugging the stack off the spindle and sifting through the notes to figure out which were sales people being sneaky, which were callers with a personal need being discreet, and generally starting with the member questions or inquiries – unless you got to one that said "so-and-so just went to the hospital" and that note put the rest back on the spindle, and you back into your car.
I did have, thanks to the support of a church family that had a business and a large phone contract, a beeper for a stretch, and learned the tricks of how to communicate through the minimal read-out, as well as how to find and work the credit card number trick to call from a pay phone back to the church or someone else facilitating communication.
There's not one aspect of any of that I'd willingly go back to, especially the answering machine at home. Those evening "please call me back" messages could be anything from "I had a question about the color of the rug" to "I need help" and you had to call them all to be safe. Not to mention the last message of seven which was "so-and-so just went to the hospital" which meant, etc.
Now the church office phone tends to be rung by salespeople almost exclusively. That's why so many churches have joined many other older households in cutting the cord and stopping having a land line, which has become simply an insistent scold of solicitation in our house and I suspect yours. We're blessed in that at our church we have a reason to staff the phones in certain windows of time, because we're helping support a medical loan ministry on the premises which does keep the line serving a practical purpose.
And this is why social media is now key to connections; as a pastor, I get notifications directly, and with the chance for follow-up questions. Almost everyone in the congregation either texts me info (or questions of their own), shoots me Facebook Messenger notes, or DMs through Twitter, along with the still robust e-mail . . . all of which I can get in my pack-of-cards-sized smartphone.
Add in that general communications are more through group e-mail than bulk ground mail, repeated or emphasized in Facebook and Twitter (we're not really into Instagram & Snapchat, but I know churches that are), and you've got a more immediate, and frankly more personalized series of means of communication than we had 25 years ago when it was all about the telephone.
I did enjoy taking as much of a break as I could from making personal posts, replying with comments and putting out tweets that were mere individual opinion. It was a chance to get some perspective, as I reflected on what I wasn't saying, and that sometimes didn't need to be said.
But I'm back at it now, with a hopefully more disciplined sense of how to "share" in community with today's tools.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's been known to post an opinion or two. Tell him how social media is your connection to a wider community at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.