Jesus is the tweet. You are the hashtag.

Reflecting on Life in the Digitally-Integrated Church

Editors Note: Each month, Bearings contributors offer insights on a key theme in the practice of life-as-ministry. As the final installment in the issue, The BTS Center’s scholar-in-residence Pamela Shellberg, PhD reflects on the articles in the issue and poses questions for further reflection by Bearings readers and the communities in which life-as-ministry plays out for them.


 

The theme of October’s issue of the Bearings magazine, “Re-Mediating Religion,” gestures toward remediation as a defining characteristic of new digital media as it changes, innovates, and disrupts the old media.

But the theme also plays on the words media, mediate, and remediate. It draws attention to the reality that religious belief and practice has always been expressed through media of some sort. It affirms that there are many forms through which experiences of the divine are mediated to us. It challenges us to acknowledge that new media is repairing forms of religious expressions that have lost communicative power – and to engage more seriously in exploring how and why.

The authors in this issue—Keith Anderson, Jim Keat, and Elizabeth Drescher through an interview with Heidi Campbell—insist that faith leaders really have to do better than to just allow engagement with technology and social media to be reduced to arguments over whether or not one should use them at all, as if the critical issue is whether or not we like it and why or why not. They insist that leaders need to do better than to allow the false choice of embrace OR rejection of social media outright. This dichotomy of total embrace and total rejection as a part of the “values of religion” versus “values of technology” debate should not be allowed to dominate the discussion on religious engagement with media.

In three importantly different ways, they are saying that if leaders are still fighting new media and still resistant to engaging it (and believing they can choose to ignore its effects), they need to, well, get over it.

As Keith Anderson suggests, “Perhaps being led where we do not want to go—or didn’t even think of going—is not such a bad thing after all. In any case, as Jesus points out to Peter, it’s inevitable.”

Below are some paths for reflection and questions for the journey we’re all inevitably following to explore on your own or with a community of traveling companions.

 

Perhaps being led where we do not want to go—or didn’t even think of going—is not such a bad thing after all. In any case, as Jesus points out to Peter, it’s inevitable. ~Keith Anderson

QUESTIONS FOR THE SERIES AS A WHOLE

Consider the three different forms of writing in this issue: a more typical article, a tweeted sermon, and an interview. First, with your mind’s eye, see the visual presentation of a single poem on a page, a handwritten letter delivered via snail mail, and a Wikipedia entry on a computer screen. Try to feel how each visual form creates an expectation of what you’re going to discover in the reading; feel how they lead you to anticipate, for example, images or metaphors, the intimacy of friendship, or factual information satisfying a question you have. Now do the same with the three magazine pieces – look at their forms.

  • What do the forms of the three pieces in the magazine – the article, the sermon tweets, and the Q&A of the interview – lead you to expect to find?
  • Do you have biases or prejudices about the forms? Do they shape what you anticipate, or your judgments about, what you are reading?

Resistance to, suspicion of, and superficial engagement with new media and digital technology in the church reflects faith leaders’ fear of loss of control. [Keith Anderson asserts that the reality of no control is over when it comes to religious/spiritual discourse and that it will “always be case at the intersection of religion and the new media.”]

So this is “a thing” – a real thing – and, a thing to be reckoned with.

Many ministry leaders have come up in traditions where pastoral identities are formed to have features of being a “steward of the tradition,” of a changed identity with the imprimatur of ordination, of bearing special obligation to hold the line of continuity within the faith tradition. In this way, new media simultaneously illuminates and becomes a lightning rod for the content and character of this fear.

  • What is at stake here?
  • What is the source of the fear?
  • What is the content of the loss?
  • What is it that we feel some kind of special obligation to steward?
  • What is it we think is ours to control? How have we come to think so?
  • What do we imagine will happen when control is lost?

REMEDIATION IN THE D-I-Y CHURCH

“In the church, we assume that we will be the ones to determine and define what church and the Christian faith will look like in the 21st century. We have conferences on rethinking, reimagining, and innovating, all of which are good things. However, there is an underlying and flawed assumption that the church exercises some measure of control over that process. We somehow maintain the notion that Christianity is the sole property of the church.”

“As Jesus prophesied to Peter, the ascendant post-WWII American church once used to fasten its own belt and go and do whatever it wished. Now others are taking it where it very often does not wish to go. Quite often those are good places for the church to explore, but we don’t recognize them as such because we didn’t choose those places.”

  • What rings true to you in these statements?
  • Where do you have resistance?
  • Where do you feel like Peter, being led where you do not really want to go?

HASHTAGGING THE GOOD NEWS OF SOCIAL MEDIA

Tweets in a Twitter feed have a constraining form, the 280-character limit, which forces a tight economy of expression. Indeed, Jim Keat was tweeting before Twitter doubled the character limit, so his tweets are more compact, following the previous 140-character limit. Tweeting in this economic way is not unlike the discipline of writing a 17-syllable haiku or a five-line cinquain that follows an abaab rhyme scheme. In all cases, the constraints imposed by the forms can be especially generative of fresh images and insights.

if you don’t have a Twitter account yet, follow the link in the article to see what this sermon looks like as an actual twitter feed. Again, try to feel how the different visual forms (the text form of the magazine article versus the actual twitter feed) differently impact the experience of what you read/hear.

  • How is the character of this sermon remediated by the 140-character limit of each line?
  • What tweets especially impacted you?

Jesus is the tweet. You are the hashtag. ~Jim Keat

Keat makes strong points about the hashtag phenomena in tweets and how they provide the context for a tweet. The hashtag is not decorative, but rather, at the very point where the tweet itself is laser focused, the hashtag opens to a wider vista.  Take some time to click on the hashtags in this sermon.

  • What do you find?
  • How do they impact your reception of the sermon?
  • Which hashtags, without any further exploration, expanded the context for a particular tweet? What did it do? How did it do it?

#WhatWouldJesusTweet?  What DID Jesus tweet? Look through one of the synoptic gospels and find statements by Jesus that require 140-characters or less.  How would you hashtag the contexts?

“Jesus is the tweet. You are the hashtag,” Keat tells us. Write your hashtags.

RE-MEDIATING THE GLOBAL, DIGITAL BODY OF CHRIST

A very important aspect of Elizabeth Drescher’s interview with Heidi Campbell is her effort to remediate the role that the church typically takes toward technology. Observing its apprehension to engage digital media, she recognizes a fear of loss of control over religious teaching – fear that is expressed in the church’s adversarial role toward it, and a stubborn refusal to be open to technology’s positive values.

The church’s role can be remediated, repaired and restored, in at least three ways: in shifting the church’s perspective to engaging digital media for the valuable information it provides about people’s spiritual needs; second, in choosing curiosity about what can be discovered about the body of Christ over a spirit of resistance and withholding; third, in an honest assessment of what the church isn’t doing, given the myriad ways people are having their needs for spiritual advice, discipleship, and mutual accountability met online, even when we know they would prefer face-to-face experiences.

I think there’s a real opportunity to learn more about how people are expressing universal spiritual values and concerns. This gives ministry leaders the chance to really study the culture and what counts as ‘the spiritual’ or ‘the religious’ now if they’re willing to look in non-traditional contexts. ~Heidi Campbell

Most pastors have been trained to study their sacred texts, the analysis and interpretation of those texts referred to as exegesis. But they are also trained to analyze and interpret the culture, to exegete the context into which the texts can speak. An adversarial role toward new media is to miss the opportunity, and maybe even blatantly disregard the obligation to exegete contexts by engaging media as an interpretive tool.

Campbell says, “I think there’s a real opportunity to learn more about how people are expressing universal spiritual values and concerns. This gives ministry leaders the chance to really study the culture and what counts as ‘the spiritual’ or ‘the religious’ now if they’re willing to look in non-traditional contexts.”

Think carefully and honestly about how you see the relationship between the church and technology.

  • What have you desired to learn about the people missing from your pews? What have you desired to learn about the changing character of spiritual life today?
  • Have you seen digital media as a resource for study, learning, and insight? What would be required of you to take that perspective?
  • What arguments from the church’s adversarial role with technology get in the way of your engaging its positive values?
  • What else gets in the way? (for example, resistance to the prospect of a steep learning curve?)

Speaking directly to the fear of loss of control over religious teachings, Campbell suggests that preachers and teachers never had as much control over their words and ideas as they thought.

  • Can you think of a personal experience in your ministry context that would support Campbell’s claim?

The space of social technology doesn’t allow for the comfort or control of one-directional ministering, pastor to penitent, but opens the space for response. This becomes an important learning space – not a space where control is lost, but a space where something is learned about what is resonating, what is inspiring to people. So, instead of acting out of fear, with resistance or withholding, digital media offers an opportunity to learn what is going on in the hearts and minds of those to whom pastors are in service. Campbell insists, “We never really knew this as easily before, so that can feel a little threatening. But it’s such valuable information.”

  • With as much specificity as possible, can you identify what is threatening about the loss of control when ideas, words, and concepts are released into the unbounded digital space?
  • What is necessary to transform apprehension and withholding into curiosity and a desire to learn?

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Cover image: Tevin Trinh, Untitled. Via Unsplash. Desaturated. CC2.0 license.

Inside image 1: mkhmarketing, “The Art of Social Media.” Via Flickr. CC2.0 license.

Inside image 2: Screenshot, @Jesus on Twitter.

Pamela Shellberg

Dr. Pamela Shellberg is the Scholar-in-Residence at The BTS Center, crafting “Course Corrections,” a program for imaginatively responding to changes in the church and in life based on the biblical template of Paul’s life and writings. During the 2015-16 academic year, Pam was the visiting professor of New Testament studies at Andover Newton Theological School, jointly appointed by ANTS and The BTS Center. She is the author of Cleansed Lepers, Cleansed Hearts: Purity and Healing in Luke-Acts (Fortress Press, 2015). A teacher in schools for lay ministry in the Maine Conference of the UCC and the New England Synod of the ELCA, she thinks and writes about the metaphors in poetry, art, and music as lenses for bible reading and as tools for interpretation. Pam may be reached via e-mail.

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