?Next to Jack the Ripper, whose identity remains unknown to this day, the most infamous murderer in British history was a man by the name of Hawley Harvey Crippen. He was a self-styled doctor who practiced a version of homeopathic medicine. He was also married to a woman he grew to hate, eventually killing her and dismembering the body. The quack told friends and neighbors that she had gone to America and died.
Soon, however, suspicion grew that something was awry. Crippen fled across the Atlantic with a paramour, while Scotland Yard investigators examined his home. They found partial remains of the body and began searching for the traveling couple. This was in 1910, just as wireless radio communication was being popularized. In fact, the capture of Crippen was largely due to the use of Mr. Marconi’s technology. Ship after ship passed word across the ocean, like runners passing a baton in a relay race, to be on the lookout for the doctor and his companion.
The captain of the SS Montrose had been keeping his eye on a suspicious-looking couple on board his vessel and finally sent the message: “Have strong suspicions that Crippen London cellar murderer and accomplice are among saloon passengers. Mustache taken off-growing beard. Accomplice dressed as boy. Manner and build undoubtedly a girl.”
Long story short, the law was waiting for Dr. Crippen and company when they arrived in Canada. This story is told famously in Erik Larson’s 2006 book, Thunderstruck. It was a world-changing moment. A revolution in communications was underway.
Spark by spark, dot by dot, and dash by dash, the world was becoming smaller.
Recently, while in a hospital waiting room with family members of a wonderful lady who was about to undergo surgery for a serious health issue, I called the group together for prayer. A girl in her late 20s asked me to wait a moment as she fished through her purse.
I wondered why.
Then she held up her combination cell-phone, iPod, computer and device of all trades-one of those hi-tech whatchamacallits-and pushed a button. Then she said, “Alright, go ahead.” I prayed, earnestly so, for the person in need; but I was at least a little curious about that gadget. My first thought was that it was a camera. So I kept my eyes closed-you know, to look more spiritual in the picture.
But I soon found out that the prayer had not been recorded as an image. Rather it was recorded as an audio file via the device’s voice memo feature. Then this plea that had already made its way to the throne of grace through the miracle of instant spiritual access was e-mailed to the patient awaiting surgery.
A twinkling of an eye later, the file was opened on the patient’s device; and the lady waiting to go under the knife heard the prayer. It was my first experience with cyber-supplication. Hers, too.
Just when many of us who have been around the proverbial block a few times have made our peace with so many changes in how ministry is done, now along comes a whole new genre of technology and practice to sweep the world and invade our parishes and pews.
I mean, seriously, didn’t we just get Power Point, like, last month? Now we are being told something about our face needing to be booked and some kid is asking us if we are on Twitter?
Every time some new technology or methodology comes along, many churches and pastors seem to follow a predictable pattern resembling the well-known stages of grief.
First there is DENIAL: “Well, if the parchments were good enough for Paul, they are good enough for me. Movable type is a fad; it won’t last long. Besides, that Guttenberg guy doesn’t know much about theology.”
Then comes ANGER: “If the psalms were good enough for King David, they are good enough for me. At any rate, that Luther has a foul mouth; someone should put a mighty fortress around his tongue.”
The next stage is BARGAINING: “OK, Mr. Rodeheaver can use his trombone for some of the songs, but we reserve the right to bring out Spurgeon’s pitch pipe for the a capella numbers.”
Following that is DEPRESSION: “Yeah, yeah, I know that contraption will amplify my voice so that more people can hear, but George Whitefield didn’t need one. I sure wish I lived in the 18th century. That must have been so cool. Sigh.”
Finally comes ACCEPTANCE: “OK, then it’s official. By a vote of 12 to six, with four abstentions, we will install a computer with one of those modem things in a spare office. Wait. What? DSL-what’s that?”
Churches can jump on bandwagons, but they rarely do so in a timely manner and usually only after protracted and pointless debate and study.
So here we are in 2009; and while some are still debating the merits of methods and technologies now already obsolete, we are faced with the challenges and opportunities presented by newer social media vehicles immensely popular right now, such as Facebook and Twitter.
What is a preacher to do? Does using social networking tools put the gospel message at risk? Can anything of real and lasting value come from technology that limits information to a mere 140 characters?
We regularly see examples of how social media can play a constructive role in society. Last year when a hotel in Mumbai, India, was attacked and held for a time by terrorists, the world first found out not via Fox News, CNN or any other mainstream media outlet. Instead, someone sent a Twitter message (called a tweet): “Mumbai is in chaos. 18 dead, 40 held hostage at Oberoi, a five-star hotel, firing going on at a JW Marriott.” That message was 107 characters long, and it got the word out about the emerging and ongoing story several hours before any traditional news organization went on the air with it.
More recently, as thousands of Iranians took to the streets in Tehran and elsewhere to protest a clearly corrupt election process, the preponderance of any news we were getting here in the west came via Twitter as courageous people sent messages all over the world.
I am a grandfather six times over. This, by definition, means I am an old dog who has difficulty learning new tricks. It is a proven fact that the older we get the harder it is to acquire knowledge and skills on a conceptual level. If you doubt this, prepare to be humbled soon as some 5-year-old gives you a tutorial on a video game.
How much of our resistance to any change is more about the fact that new things intimidate us instead of the well-articulated arguments we pontificate about? “Well, back in my day, we didn’t have sliced bread or running water. We even had to grow our own oxygen.”
Scott Bettinger, is the president of Echo Media in the Detroit, Mich., area. His company specializes in helping churches and other organizations tap into the power of technology. He suggests that, “Whether or not pastors dive into social media, at the very least they need to understand it to better understand their people.”
I heard Andy Stanley talk a few years ago about how so many preachers spend way too much time fighting culture-and social media is smack dab in the middle of culture-when instead we should see it as the wind, something to be harnessed. I have in my files sermons preached in the early 1920s decrying the use of radio to preach the gospel, warning that using such a medium was beneath the dignity of God’s message.
So it is with tools such as Facebook and Twitter-there is understandable resistance to using them in a ministry sense because we fear that which we do not understand.
The first thing we need to know about social media tools is that we must understand their limits-what they can and can’t do. They are designed for attention spans that are very short. And while John 3:16 in the classic King James Version would fit in one “tweet” at 117 characters, fans of the Amplified Bible would find themselves increasingly frustrated. The Shakespearian idea that “brevity is the soul of wit” is more important these days than ever before.
So, if you can’t preach three points and a poem via Twitter, what can be done to express and enhance ministry?
“Think of social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter not as extensions of your pulpit,” suggests Bettinger, “but rather as a living room sofa. A place for conversation.” This is crucial. If the goal of ministry is to build a community of Christ-followers committed to the cause of the gospel and His kingdom, then it follows that somewhere early on there must be a connection that leads to a conversation. Twitter, Facebook and other such tools are tailor made for that vital ice-breaking work.
Earlier this year, during Passion Week, Paul Blue, senior pastor of First Family Fellowship in Greenville, Texas, decided to use Facebook to prepare the hearts of his congregants and their friends for the upcoming weekend services. Each day that week he posted a brief thought about what was going on in Christ’s life back then and gave a Scripture reference for his 400 Facebook friends to read.
“It created such an anticipation for Easter Sunday in our church,” said Pastor Blue, “but I also noticed people outside our city forwarding to others in their friend circle.”
Cornerstone Church, a young and growing ministry in East Windsor, Conn., uses Facebook regularly to promote its activities. And because they rent facilities for their services, the social networking tool becomes a cyber-fellowship hall of sorts for the membership.
And these tools benefit ministry expressions outside the church, becoming a way to connect with people or reconnect with people not seen in years. Ric Ackerman works in the video, graphics and music field, providing logistical support for organizations and events as diverse as mega-church programs and concerts at major stadiums. He says, “Facebook has bridged two worlds for me in many ways. While I have renewed hundreds of old high school, college and ministry friends from the past 30 years, it has also helped my non-believer friends, who number in the thousands, to get a real-life view into my world as a believer.”
Some use social networking tools to enhance their prayer lives. John Strain, who has been the senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Toms River, N.J., since 1992, takes special time each weekend to go through his Facebook friends list and pray for the pastors represented there. “Several of my church families-adults and youth-are on Facebook,” he says, “and I use it frequently to encourage them as I respond to their posts.” Pastor Strain believes that the potential-for-prayer aspect is the best thing about using such a social media tool.
Many churches have pages on Facebook, and it is a way for people around the world to keep up with what is going on in particular local churches. And for those pastors who write a regular blog, Facebook and Twitter are great ways to point others to what has been written.
My personal experience with social media tools started slowly, largely because of generational reluctance. But once I learned my way around, it opened many doors to help me get to know people in our church better-and for them to get to know me better. I find it especially rewarding to connect with young people this way. On a daily basis, I can keep up with them, a few sentences at a time. And it usually works out that I am able to have a real conversation the next time we meet in person. “Hey, how was the zoo?” or “Are you feeling better?” or “I read that article you linked to from your Facebook page-very interesting.”
If you are a pastor or spiritual leader and find it hard to keep up with names and what’s happening in the lives of the sheep, these tools could help you immensely. And it doesn’t have to take a lot of time.
Joe Sangl is a financial planner and author of the wonderful book I Was Broke-Now I’m Not. He travels across the country conducting seminars in churches, helping believers become better stewards. He is also a big fan of social media tools such as Twitter. In fact, he sent me a tweet directly on point as I was writing this article: “Social media amplified the individual voice and allowed us to follow our heroes of the faith and learn from them at a distance.”
Of course, as with anything, we must be careful about being preoccupied with anything. We should never worship at the altar of any tool or technology. Twitter, Facebook, computers, televisions, cars-all and any of it can become too important to us. But if we remember to keep such things as servants and not let them become masters, our lives and ministries can be enriched.
Recently, our youngest daughter and her husband gave us our sixth grandchild, a beautiful boy named Tiernan. I was at the hospital but keeping a wise distance from the festivities. When the baby arrived, I sent out a tweet: “eight-pound boy-red hair.”
Anyone up at 4:13 a.m. that Saturday got the word. Soon came a picture.
Congratulations poured in.
Then at 7:26 the very next morning I sent a different kind of message: “Pray for Tiernan Michael Zizolfo, my grandson born yesterday, he has made his way to the NICU. Nothing alarming, but possibly an infection.” All turned out well, but it was comforting to be able to get word to people of prayer that quickly.
Don’t be afraid of social media tools in ministry. What Marconi unleashed on the world is still on the march. Sure the lingo can be confusing-who would have guessed 10 years go that we’d have a word like tweet in our regular vocabulary? Then again, I’ll just bet Mr. Morse’s code was a little hard to figure out at first, too. And remember, when the first telegraph message was sent a little over 165 years ago, between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, the words were taken from the Bible as a reminder of the potential power of any tool and of the hand of God in and over all: “What God hath wrought.”
If you sent that today as a tweet, you’d have enough characters left to include John 3:16, with five to spare.
David R. Stokes is the senior pastor of Fair Oaks Church in Fairfax, Va., and host of the radio program “Loud on Purpose,” heard daily at 2:00 p.m. on WAVA 105.1 FM. On Twitter he is @davidrstokes.