A digital reformation?

By David Waters While a New Jersey pastor was ordering his married staffers to quit Facebook or resign, a U.S. … Continued

By David Waters

While a New Jersey pastor was ordering his married staffers to quit Facebook or resign, a U.S. Catholic bishop was telling his single, celibate clergy to tweet the gospel.

As it turns out, Rev. Cedric Miller of Living Word Christian Fellowship Church in Neptune, N.J., might have had ulterior motives to take control of his church’s privacy settings.

But Catholic Bishop Ronald Herzog made several fascinating comments we should consider as social networks expand at the speed of light.


(Bishop Salvatore Cordileone of Oakland, Calif. makes the sign of the cross during the fall meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Monday, Nov. 15, 2010 in Baltimore.)

“We have to be enculturated. It’s more than just learning how to create a Facebook account. It’s learning how to think, live and embrace life on the digital continent,” Bishop Ronald Herzog told the general assembly meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in Baltimore.

“The church does not have to change its teachings to reach young people, but we must deliver it to them in a new way. If the church is not on their mobile device, it doesn’t exist.”

If that’s true, Twitter cannot save us.

Not that clergy should ignore seismic shifts in interpersonal communication. As Herzog rightly pointed out, the Church has been slow to adapt to technology. Exhibit A: the printing press, which gave everyone access to the Bible, cutting out the need for a middle man.

But technology didn’t trigger the Reformation, it only revealed the church’s growing disconnectedness from the Kingdom of God, as described and promised in the Gospel, not to mention the real world around it.

Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the church door (his Facebook wall), but its impact was due to its content, not merely its distribution. Of course, it would have taken Luther more than 80 tweets to distribute his Ninety-Five Theses. So it’s doubtful the document would have had the same sort of impact, even if all of his followers read it. But I digress.

Martin Luther used his door as a bulletin board. John Wesley delivered the gospel on horseback. Billy Graham used television as a pulpit. Rick Warren tweets.

The medium wasn’t the message. The Message was the message.

Can the value of the message be measured in clicks?

“The opportunities can be incredible,” Herzog said. “Let me give you one example. The USCCB started a community on Facebook last August. There are now 25,000 ‘fans’ associated with that community. [...] Furthermore, if those 25,000 are like the average profile of a Facebook user, they have 130 friends, or contacts, on Facebook. With one click they can share the information they receive from USCCB. If only 10% of the USCCB fans share what they receive from USCCB, we are reaching 325,000 people. Multiple times a day. All it costs us is staff time.”

But what are they sharing? Press releases or acts of compassion? Event schedules or acts of justice. Hyperlinks or links to food, clothing or shelter?

I was discussing all of this with a friend of mine, Rev. Joe Kerrigan, a Catholic priest in New Jersey. He had just returned from an art exhibit in Slovakia called “New Testament” which portrayed Gospel stories via common PC experiences.

Jesus’ cleansing of the temple was a disk defragmentation process. The raising of Lazarus was a download and installation. The Last Judgment? A system shutdown.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with Microsoft?

Kerrigan, Jersey kid, has taught himself to speak several languages — Spanish, Slovak, Serbo-Croatian — in order to communicate with those around him. He embraces nearly all forms of communication, including email, which is how we were communicating about this.

“We need to blog and tweet with the best of them,” he wrote. “But we need to have the substance worth blogging about in the first place. We still build more social capital and reach more newcomers through free food than anything else. Long live the jello casseroles!”

The Church isn’t just a social network; it’s a social justice network. Save and share aren’t just words on a screen, they are acts of love and mercy and justice and righteousness.

As St. Francis might say: preach the gospel always, if necessary use tweets.

“Anyone can create a blog,” Bishop Herzog noted. “Everyone’s opinion is valid. And if a question or contradiction is posted, the digital natives expect a response and something resembling a conversation. We can choose not to enter into that cultural mindset, but we do so at great peril to the Church’s credibility and approachability in the minds of the natives, those who are growing up in this new culture. This is a new form of pastoral ministry.”

Are social networks a new form of pastoral ministry? How should the Church enter into the new world of social media?

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  • Sajanas

    The nice thing about technology is it cuts both ways. The Skeptics Annotated Bible lets me easily look up all the parts where God is not a nice guy, where Jesus threatens everyone who doesn’t buy into his philosophy with eternal torture (but he is love, right?), and etc. The great thing about the digital media is that people aren’t able to frame their arguments entirely on their own like it is in a book or a sermon. If a pair of Mormons show up at my church, I could pull up news articles about all the gay suicides in Utah because of their church’s policies of shunning people. With Jehovah’s Witnesses, I can see that they too shun family, and refuse people life saving care. The skeletons are much harder to hide. I’m sure just going to the RCC you wouldn’t realize that they endorse lies about condoms and AIDS, and have a tremendous child abuse problem.So the real struggle isn’t using electronics, its about making sure that your religion is really as moral as it pretends to be, because in the 21st century, we can find out at the click of a button.

  • ElizabethDrescherDotNet

    “We need to blog and tweet with the best of them,” [Kerrigan] wrote.Maybe. But the issue many old school users of new media miss is that digital media is not a broadcast platform–at least not primarily. Reaching 325K people via TV or Radio might have been a good thing, and it might feel good in the digital domain. But the challenge is much more significant because praxis in what I’ve been calling a full-on Digital Reformation since 2008 is profoundly defined by participation, and that requires much more focus on LISTENING to those 325K people more than it does to crafting a message that will get their attention.John Paul II did a great job at drawing big crowds of young people, but that didn’t translate into greater growth in youth participation in the Roman church. (Check out, e.g., Enzo Pace’s wonderful example of a hook-up culture at World Youth Day celebrations in Rome in 2000.) To translate spiritual seeking and interest into active spiritual practice in our churches, much more than “something resembling a conversation” (Herzog) is required by way of pastoral ministry in this new context. I take up some of these issues in my forthcoming book Tweet if U ♥ Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation (Morehouse 2011). My hope is that the book will nudge leaders in ministry out of the broadcast/advertising approach to new media that has failed for mainline Protestants and Catholics for decades.

  • usapdx

    Even though the computer works both ways, all can be informed and commit world wide yet you cannot hide from a computer. So truth must be the key or you leave yourself wide open.

  • joe_allen_doty

    IN SPITE OF WHAT THEY CLAIM, the Roman Catholic Church denomination is not THE church. It’s a politicized ritualistic denomination and most of what it does is NOT even found in the books of the New Testament.

  • ThomasBaum

    joe_allen_dotyYou wrote, “It’s a politicized ritualistic denomination and most of what it does is NOT even found in the books of the New Testament.”How would you characterize the Catholic Eucharist?Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.