Episcopal News Service – February 24, 2011

Tweeting, texting, friending, surfing: Churches confront the ‘digital divide’

By Pat McCaughan, February 24, 2011 [Episcopal News Service] In a Feb. 15 tweet the Rev. Jim Liberatore (aka gamma909) sent Genesis 18 in 130 characters to followers across the web: #Gen18-men visit-Abe hospitable-Men:wife 2 have kid-Wife pushing 100, laughs-Lord miffed-Abe haggles Gd dn on destructn thing.

He has declared 2011 “The Year of Connection” at St. Andrew’s Church in Pearland, Texas. To that end, he has embarked upon a mission to tweet a Bible chapter a day and endeavors to get each one “to 130 characters, so they can be retweeted. If I do 140 (characters) they have a problem sending it on,” he said.

“I’m about one-third of the way through Genesis,” said Liberatore, 60, St. Andrew’s rector, during a Feb. 15 telephone interview from his office.

It’s an example of how social media is changing or could potentially change the way Liberatore and other Episcopal clergy do church. Some say they have enlisted Twitter, Facebook, blogs, websites and e-mail to render more user-friendly church meetings, evangelism, Bible study and even pastoral care.

“My congregation is very young and mostly new to the church so they’re not going to necessarily open the Bible,” Liberatore said. “It’s foreign to them, but e-mail and Twitter and other social media are not foreign to them, so I’ve put the two together. I want to get them into the Bible and find some way to challenge them and get them to at least think about it,” he said.

Bethany Hopkins, 33, a St. Andrew’s member for about 18 months, said she loves the daily tweets because they “remind me … of the church and my responsibilities as a Christ-follower. It also reminds me of my Christian support locally and the joy that I have by being able to look to that love when my day isn’t going so well.”

Darrel Borden, a St. Andrew’s member for three years, said he has retweeted the mini-bible as well as forwarded Liberatore’s “Somewhat Daily Devotionals” e-mails to friends locally and beyond.

They “get right to the heart of the matter. We just find that they really make a point that touch our lives in a way we relate to,” added Borden, 63.

Katie Cordes, 33, said she read the Feb. 16 Somewhat Daily Devotional on her BlackBerry handheld device while waiting for auto repairs. The message, about not judging others by outward appearances, hit home for her.

“I like it a lot because I’m really trying to carry my faith with me all week, all day. It really works well for me that it’s right there with me, all the time.”

In the Diocese of Los Angeles, the Rev. Minh-Hanh Nguyen, associate rector at St. Anselm of Canterbury Church in Garden Grove, said two months ago she decided to use Facebook to evangelize in her native Vietnam.

“I am trying to reach out to young adults,” said Ngyuen, who left Vietnam in 1975, during a telephone interview from her office. “What I named the page means Progressive Christianity. I want to know about the spirituality of young adults there and their interests.”

Friended by young people both in the United States and Vietnam, the idea is slowly gaining traction, she said.

Communications Director Anne Rudig said personal stories “get the most likes” on the Episcopal Church‘s Facebook page but are balanced with others news as well.

“We have to let people know that the Haiti appeal is still going on and what’s happening in Sudan,” she said. “We have to make people mindful of the things that the whole church is concerned about.”

A new Episcopal Church website and blog will debut later this year, in addition to the current Twitter account and the church’s Facebook page, which started in 2009 and has about 25,000 friends, Rudig said.

“In terms of a communications strategy, basically we’re doing everything we can,” she added. “If it doesn’t cost very much and it reaches a lot of people, we’re all over it. We don’t care what the format is, print or digital; we don’t have very much money but we do want to reach a lot of people.”

She hopes local congregations without websites will take advantage of an upcoming opportunity to create cost-efficient websites because “people shop online for everything,” Rudig said.

“They really shop online for a church, because of the personal investment of walking into the wrong church. It’s one thing to buy the wrong car, or eggbeater or whatever, but to end up at the wrong church on Sunday, that’s misery. So if a church doesn’t have a website, it’s unfortunate. They’re not even in the consideration set of the whole group of newcomers.”

Nancy Davidge, editor of the Episcopal Church Foundation’s Vital Practices, said the challenge of social media for churches “is that it requires a commitment to stay with it and to build a virtual community.”

She cited Unapologetically Episcopalian and the relatively new Episcopal Foodie Network as examples of Facebook pages that are building significant virtual communities and developing continuing discussions.

ECF is sending out three Facebook posts per day, she added. “We’re finding that we get a lot of people reading them and for us a lot is 500. And we’re getting some comments, probably in the 30-or-so range a week. But we’ve been having a harder time getting discussions started. The big challenge is being willing to stick with it and test things and figure out what is it that’s going to catch people and engage them.”

The Episcopal Divinity School recently announced a series of upcoming Conversations about Social Media, planned for mid-March to April to help churches address the “urgency to speak with the faithful in new ways.”

“We find that faculty and parishes are less likely to tweet, but as more become used to social media we believe that will change,” according to the Feb. 8 announcement.

In Southern California, the Rev. Earl Gibson, an associate rector and chaplain at St. Margaret of Scotland Church in San Juan Capistrano, said he has used Facebook as a fundraising vehicle and for evangelism and pastoral care.

He was overwhelmed with the response after sending out a Facebook “wish list” request for donations of furniture and other items to the Hozhoni Youth Center, an outreach project of the Diocese of Arizona in Holbrook, Arizona, that began nearly a year ago.

“I received everything from an organ to an electric guitar,” he said. “I also received future Bible school supplies and other musical instruments, even a Slushie machine” for the drop-in center, designed to empower Native American youth, he said during a Feb. 17 telephone interview.

Gibson said he also was officiated at three separate funerals “in quick succession” via Facebook connections, prompting him to think of pastoral ministry in new ways.

Since the funerals were some 50 miles’ distance away, he asked other Episcopal congregations to host the services, enabling him “to share the beauty of the larger church. It’s a way to help those who don’t necessarily have a faith community, and to make the church known in a wider community,” he said.

Consequently, Facebook has “allowed me to be a priest to more people, to people I might not have been exposed to, who might not have had a priest before,” added Gibson, 40.

“We always look for opportunities to be the church, so why not find those opportunities in a place where I know people will be gathering,” including virtual space, he said.

Similarly, Liberatore said he has trimmed meeting times with e-mail discussions and has exercised some pastoral care via text messaging, an application that has surprised even him.

“I’ve been going back and forth texting with a lady this morning,” he said during a Feb. 15 telephone interview. “Her dad is at the hospital and is having difficulty with his cancer therapy. We’ve texted three to four times. She says, ‘Thank you, I really appreciate it.’

“I’m surprised they [parishioners] feel kept up with,” he added. “Sometimes I send a prayer through a text message. They love it. They know it was a prayer and they also know somebody cares about them. It [their cell phone or BlackBerry] is in front of them so they’re using it anyway.”

But mainline denominations, in many cases, still struggle with the “digital divide,” said Ian Adnams, communications director of the Lutheran Church-Canada, which represents about 70,000 members and is a partner to the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, he said.

Although not quite “stuck back in the Gutenberg Press … they are very deeply rooted in the printed word,” he said during a Feb. 15 interview from his Winnipeg, Manitoba, office. “How many church presses are out there still pumping out page after page after page? The guys I’m interested in are using Kindle and IPad.”

Yet, there is hope, he said. “The digital divide between generations can be a really frustrating and alienating aspect of using social media with the church. Just look at the pews, we have a graying population. However, there’s a great number of people in senior age groups who are finding their way online, so I don’t think we need to despair too much.”

— The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. She is based in Los Angeles.



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