The Rise of Social Media
Editor’s Note: The Baptist Messenger is taking a look back at the first decade of the 21st Century in a monthly series titled “Project 2010.” This first installment examines the rise of social media and how it has affected the local church.
Back when on-line message boards were the rage among those fortunate to possess access to the Internet, discussions across continents and perspectives were commonplace among people who did not know each other personally, but who debated issues in such a way that the clarity gleaned from conversation gave way to both an invention and a trend.
The blog (a contraction of the words “web log”) was originally the personal thoughts of Swathmore College student Justin Hall as he chronicled the events and opinions of his personal life as well as shared news and information. Beginning in 1994, he successfully transformed what was little more than a personal on-line diary into a cottage industry. Ten years later, the New York Times Magazine called him “the founding father of personal blogging.”
Blogging, however, did not remain a personal hobby for long. Bloggers soon began to scoop newspapers and transformed themselves into legitimate news outlets. Humiliating for long-standing news organizations, blogs rearranged the entire news industry. No longer were journalists “in the know” solely capable of “reporting news.” Ordinary people who were clever enough to investigate the issues behind everything from their local city council meetings to national security issues could break news faster than traditional “journalists” and rendered many long-standing reporters obsolete overnight.
The fourth estate is no longer confined to a professional group of good writers working for an established newspaper. Journalism’s borders have been compromised, resulting in thousands of approaches in a brutal market where the mainstream media is forced to compete with cheaper, more nimble, start-ups that expose the fault-line in modern media. Appealing to younger audiences accustomed to digital communication, this rapid technological transformation is unparalleled in history. In three decades, the invention of digital technologies have reached more than 1 billion people and created a new demographic class—the “digital native.”
First made popular by authors John Palfrey and Urs Gasser in their book, Born Digital: Understanding The First Generation of Digital Natives, these new children of the digital age face tremendous opportunities and great peril simultaneously. Before them lies a vast new frontier of non-stop information which could easily lead to information overload. Internet addiction is no longer considered a laughable condition. News, information, and images are constantly available, causing former Pitzer College professor Barry Sanders to speculate that the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) might be right when he said in his 1888 work, Ecce Homo, “Nothing avails, one must go forward— step by step further into decadence (that is my definition of modern progress.”
The Church of Facebook
Facebook first began as nothing more than a hobby for Harvard University student Mark Zuckerberg (whose current net worth from Facebook is estimated to be approximately $2 billion). To date, Facebook has registered more than 350 million members worldwide, and the latest research reveals that Facebook users cumulatively spend 10 billion minutes on the Web Site every day. By 2009, Facebook had reached 54.7 percent of all Americans ages 12 to 17—up from just 28.3 percent in 2008.
This worldwide phenomenon caused sociologists and theologians alike to study the reasons why Facebook has become so wildly popular. In Jesse Rice’s new book, The Church of Facebook, the concept of connection is introduced as the powerful accomplishment and cultural commodity of the on-line community of Facebook. Rice, a former worship arts director from California, borrows from noted psychologists the perspective that “authentic connection” brings about life change for the better.
Rice believes “connection is the key to happiness,” and those who place themselves into relational networks will be “breaking out of isolation” and becoming “more human.” Through Facebook, opportunities to link with those in one’s past and network with new “friends” provide just the backdrop for the church to learn how to spiritually engage the modern culture of cyber-connection. Yet, though Facebook (and now Twitter) provide a means whereby news and information can be transmitted through a personal network absent the middleman of a newspaper or other media outlet, some have sought to theologically orient an on-line community as a substitute for membership in a local congregation.
On-line churches have become a reality in ways which were not possible just two years ago. A leader in the on-line church movement is LifeChurch in Oklahoma City. In a national report detailing the reasons and methods of new cyber-congregations, senior pastor Craig Groeschel stated, “We were blown away at how people could actually worship along (online).”
He was amazed at how “the whole family will gather around the computer, and they’ll sing and they’ll worship together. Instead of trying to get people to come to a church, we feel like we can take a church to them.”
Yet, location seemed not to be the only issue at hand for the cyber-community. The ordinances of the church— baptism and the Lord’s Supper—were now able to be self-administered simply by joining with those assembled with the local congregation via a computer. Groeschel defended the practice as a way to reach people in a non-threatening manner through the anonymity possible through cyberspace.
A Virtual Christian Community?
Life Church, however, isn’t the first to embark into cyber-church. David Jenkins serves as the pastor of what is thought to be the world’s first virtual church, the Church of Fools. According to a London Times article, this virtual venture is a “serious religious exercise, despite its name” that offers members the opportunity to do things one can do in any real church service. By simply selecting a computer character, individuals click their way through the halls of a cyber church, sit where they desire and can even offer an affirming “Amen!” to the pastor’s sermon.
Like most churches, The Church of Fools was open to anyone in cyberspace who had interest in attending. During the formal worship time, however, shouts of profanity were made along with coarse gestures which distracted more serious worshipers. Wardens were in place to press their “smite buttons” which would oust all those persons causing disruption in the services. Eventually, the trouble-makers were too difficult to handle, and after just one week, the church closed its doors to visitors.
Visitors to the virtual church enjoyed the anonymity that often accompanies cyber-identity. Life within the Internet, however, often lends itself to a pretend world where little is what it seems. Emerging from anonymity is the issue of accountability. Computers can all too easily divorce physical reality and the real-life network of relations the real presence of another human being entails into a cyber-fantasy.
The problem of accountability is also grounded in the ease with which one attends such churches. If, as one member of Lifechurch.tv recently proclaimed in The Oklahoman, church is “just a mouse click away,” then church can become little more than another entertainment option as individuals participate in what could amount to little more than another video game.
Ed Stetzer, President of Lifeway Research, is no stranger to blogging, Facebook, Twitter or any other of the myriad of communication tools employed in his work. Yet, Stetzer believes “there is no such thing as an internet church.” Those who regard the church in this manner and participate only by the live streaming of the worship service and “conversing on message boards are short circuiting the fellowship of the saints and their own spiritual growth.”
The classic text which Stetzer uses to underscore the required gathering of Christians together in worship is Hebrews 10:25—“not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” He states “gathering together requires feet and faces, not just electrons and avatars.”
While many believe social media can help in both proclamation of the Gospel and in follow-up to those seeking Christ or a new church home, Stetzer believes social media might provide the “common language for the masses to hear the Gospel.”
Next week: Cory Miller discusses how to harness technology for the Great Commission.