I spent last week on my own at our home in the Scottish Borders writing a draft of my dissertation for my MLitt at the University of St Andrews. The first part of the week was wonderful as I caught up on reading, and I had a couple of nice evenings when I was able to take the computer into the garden, but as always, it did become a bit of a slog. However, the draft is finished.

My dissertation explores some of the challenges that social media such as blogs and Twitter might pose to an organisation like the Scottish Episcopal Church which has formal structures of leadership, governance and communication. It’s hardly a new topic, but it was interesting to study it within my own particular context, and I am immensely grateful to the clergy and bishops who patiently participated in interviews as part of my research. I have to confess, though, that I finished the dissertation with more questions than answers.

I’ve grown weary of the criticism of social media by those who do not use it, and my dissertation is in part in response to some of those criticisms. I am not a cyber utopian. I do not believe that online communication and social networks are the cure for all of society’s ills. But neither should all the blame for our fragmented communities, selfish individualism or increasingly polarised society be placed at the feet of social media. Ultimately, I strongly believe that we need to approach social media in the same way that we should be engaging in all other forms of communication: with care and discernment.

Something I’ve become convinced of is that we must recognise that the online/offline, virtual/real categories so often referred to, particularly in criticisms of social media, are actually profoundly unhelpful binary distinctions. That’s not to say that there are no ethical, philosophical, sociological or theological implications of online communication – quite the contrary. It’s just that the ethical, philosophical, sociological or theological issues raised by these constantly evolving communication technologies are actually extensions of ones we should already be exploring.

It is difficult to know at this stage to what extent online communication is having an effect on, for example, the way we communicate, how we understand personhood and relationships, or how authority is assumed or bestowed. Scholarship on these issues is evolving as quickly as social networks are. My mind may change again, but I am increasingly of the opinion that there is a stronger continuity between online and offline behaviour than is often acknowledged. In other words, social media is often magnifying current offline social trends, not necessarily creating new ones.

Therefore, some of the questions social media is raising for us in the church are the same questions we really should have been asking ourselves anyway: What kind of church do we want to be, and is this how we are actually viewed by those outside our church buildings? How do we enable the diversity of our church to strengthen our communities and not be a source of internal division? How do we hold together in a creative tension the rich traditions we have inherited and the prophetic movement of the Spirit towards uncharted territory? And in the midst of all of this, how do we communicate with one another in a way which reflects Christ’s command for us to love one another?

Those are all rather introspective questions, I concede. And one of the great gifts of social media is, of course, its potential to reach vast numbers of people. This blog is new and unestablished. It does not yet have a regular readership. But with links to Facebook and a couple of tweets, my last post had more hits than most churches in Edinburgh Diocese have communicants on an average Sunday morning. So why do we hear so little about social media when mission is being discussed?

But that great potential also brings with it great responsibility, and that’s where the questions above come in. How we in the church communicate with and about one another says far more about who we are and what we’re about than any formal church profile or mission statement, and it is to our detriment if we forget that. One of the gifts the church can offer to social media, on the other hand, is a different way of communicating: one which involves listening carefully, responding to difference with kindness, creating space for intelligent debate …  one which models the love with which God loves us. This, I think is the greatest challenge we face.

5 thoughts on “love in the time of social media

  1. Thanks Kelvin for this. I have been using computers for as long as I have been ordained. About 27 years. I have been using email and creating simple websites etc for church use since just before the millennium. I have been using things like bebo and Facebook for about 6 years. Twitter… I am still confused about… And blogs… I just haven’t got up to speed. But then I have had no tuition… Like so many… I’ve just caught up with it all as best as I can… Often advised by my children. This means the church has benefited/suffered in as much as the finance, resources and energy I have put into it have stretched … On no occasion has any church, locally, in diocese, or provincially, helped me… It just hasn’t had the resources. Why, in an age when.. as you say… mission and communication in the secular world of business and commerce etc. is so reliant on it, hasn’t the church dived in. Church websites seem to be full of the bishops’ latest letters, or a confusing list of diocesan, provincial documents… Hardly the material that attracts users of the Internet. Few congregations have the resources, perhaps even diocese… But surely at provincial level there could be the resources that are NEEDed to provide a fully financed accessible Internet facility that shares the SEC’s music, worship, opinion, activity, literature, photography, poetry, etc, from aspects of the church. We have the musicians… Why aren’t they encouraged to produce new music, composed and produced and played on site? An SEC music media and ‘pop chart’ ! We have folk who work with children… Why aren’t they encouraged to put resources on line.. And goodness knows we have plenty of folk producing pew sheets and sermons for every Sunday and occasion, why isn’t there a shared resource on-line? And why aren’t things like the daily prayer put on the front page of the site.. To show and encourage us to be a prayerful people? And why aren’t there folk, paid, to help those of us who are struggling to keep up with the immense potential of the web, to teach us and ‘set us up’ with, and link the technologies that are open to us? Apologies for the rant… It is not, of course, against you. I hope it supports what you are suggesting. Yours, Paul

    1. Paul, thank you for your very thorough comment. There is so much that you have said which I would agree with, and I have hope that the SEC Information and Communications Board is beginning to realise the importance, not only of having a good website or encouraging churches to have a website, but actually offering the technical support to help people engage with it well (by adding resources, etc). I have been encouraged by Kelvin’s recent I&C reports which have included plans to make the websites far more interactive – so that they are about exchanging information, not just disseminating it.
      I know social media isn’t for everyone, and I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s a vital skill for ministry (though it’s certainly a helpful one to have). However, I have been disheartened by the animosity towards it I have often found in the SEC. I hope that that attitude is changing. I think it is. Though as always, these things take time.
      Thanks again for your comment and for stopping by!

  2. Kate, this is a fun window into your dissertation. I can tell it will not only be well written, and interesting, but supremely important for your community (and every community) to take seriously. I agree that it is time for people to do away with sweeping over-sighted binary distinctions of online/offline thought and behavior. Indeed, more dialogue and engagement happens, even for those within the church, on the walk to and from a service, sadly than what typically happens within.

    1. Thanks Sean – good to hear from you on here! It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the ‘holy moments’, the meaningful conversations, are so often found outside the service? But it’s that simple act of gathering together which allows that to happen, and perhaps the structure of the service opens up the time beyond it to encourage a different level of openness in communication. Social media, used well, can be a part of that wider conversation, which is a point that so many in the church are missing.

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