Recently I had a lively conversation with Gary Soulsman of The News Journal, our local paper, about how the digital revolution, and social media specifically, is transforming the landscape of the faith community locally and globally. He mentioned having spoken with Elizabeth Drescher whose new book Tweet If You (Heart) Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation offers a fresh look at faith and the media. By coincidence, I had finished the book only days before. And it is a book that I would recommend. Here’s why…
There are numerous books on the ‘how-to’ of faith-based media but Ms. Drescher’s book is different. She addresses the ‘why’ question. According to Drescher, the phenomenon of social media is not a fad, something to take or leave in the knowledge that it will be gone as fast as the VHS tape. Instead we are looking at a shift as powerful as the Reformation. She is not the first to stress the significance of this transformation. But her purpose is to highlight the social dynamics of that shift. And by approaching the subject from that angle, she succeeds in making big points.
The author punctuates her lively narrative with charts that dramatically illustrate how communication has markedly changed over time. For example, one entry in her chart identifies premodern communication as interpersonal and multidirectional; modern mass media as one-directional and top-down; while digital social media communication is multi-directional and networked. But, Drescher points out, many churches still used their websites in a modern, one-directional way. The church website often becomes a bulletin board, essentially a digital newsletter or brochure, falling far short of what how the digital world functions. Actively integrating a dynamic church website with social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter brings the full power of the internet within reach. Examples of churches that do this successfully and those that fall short are analyzed in the conclusion of the book. The bottom line is that opening avenues of dialogue and networking are key to fully engaging the internet and the host of positive relationships that can be forged with people who may not otherwise walk through your sanctuary doors. Like any productive conversation, that means listening to what others have to say. The author points out that certain courtesies apply. If someone asks to ‘follow” you on Twitter, return the complement. Wish people “Happy birthday!” Don’t simply post comments as if only you have the important news. Respond to others’ comments and remember the interaction for future reference. As a result, you will send the all important message that you care. With conscious effort, our media friendships can approach the intimacy of our face-to-face contacts.
My orderly ‘Modern’ mind struggled with Drescher’s rendition of history. However, it is not her telling of history that draws me, but the truths inherent in the book. It is human nature to desire a sense of connection. Contemporary digital media is abundant with opportunities to help people nurture their souls and validate their place in the God’s world. Tweet If You (Heart) Jesus reminds us that that is our primary goal.
Paula W Hartzell is the Director of the Interfaith Resource Center located in Wilmington, Delaware.