I am the defacto moderator of two Facebook groups. There used to be only one. Now there are two. These are related to the Rio Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. As Director of Communications, it is my job to keep on eye on the corporate* image of this collection of around 380 churches.
The moderator job is my least favorite thing to do. I get to be the one that thinks about what these posts and comments look like to people who are reading them. Now these are “private” groups, but that doesn’t mean much. First of all, all you need to join is know someone in the group and ask to join. Nearly all the members are part of the Rio Texas Annual Conference, either lay or clergy. Part of my responsibility of looking at the image of the conference is seeing how it is perceived by its members.
Those members constitute a broad picture of the Methodist Church. They come from small rural churches, large urban churches, county-seat churches, suburban churches and everywhere in between. Members might attend a conservative-leaning church or liberal-leaning church. They may see themselves as conservative, progressive, middle of the road, or they might not think much about where they live on the theological spectrum.
I wonder what they see when they look at some of the debates that occur in these forums? It is a lot to think about, but I am fascinated. This is a whole new aspect of the evolution of communications and technology, with large implications for the life of the church
Early on, the Roman Catholic Church was the single arbiter of theology to all. That all changed in 1517 when Martin Luther made public his grievances against the Catholic Church by posting his 95 Theses on the door of Wittenburg Cathedral. Historians may differ, but this might have been the churches entrance into the new world of social media. It just took a while for the technology to catch up. Suddenly, theology became a subject for debate. And the size of the group able to engage quickly started growing. Martin Luther’s books furthered his criticism of the church and empowered laity to engage at a new level. Add to this the new technology of the printing press and various saints working to translate the Bible into common language and suddenly seemingly anyone could read and interpret the scriptures for themselves. Once the floodgates were open, they couldn’t be closed.
The point of this post is not to tell the story of the reformation or to explain the many denominations that sprang from it. It is to track some important shifts in the church including the one we are in the midst of.
In some ways, the reformation is a continuous movement that continues to ride the wave of technological advancement. As advances came in printing and books got less expensive, more people had access to bibles, commentaries, and theology texts. As travel became safer and easier people became free to move from community to community and region to region. The birth of radio exposed thousands to the voice or preachers other than their own. Television allowed people to worship with congregations on the other side of the country or world and hear scripture interpreted by multiple voices.
Then the internet came: websites, podcasts, blogs, live-streams, forums, and on an on. And that is where we are today. One of the things I often see in our Facebook groups is this scenario: A lay person posts a thought or a link and a clergy person from another church responds, often in an attempt to correct or debate.**
The implications of this shift are fascinating. It wasn’t too long ago that most church members interacted with one pastor. While a few people might circulate in a slightly larger community where they would come in contact with other pastors, most would only know the pastor currently appointed to their church.
Even as technology has advanced and people had access to blogs, podcasts, and live streams, this sort of real-time, back and forth interaction between clergy and laity from different churches is very new. This is not necessarily good nor bad. However, it does bring into focus the wide differences of belief held under the large tent called The United Methodist Church. Highly engaged clergy and lay people have known about this all along. However, the average member of the average United Methodist Church didn’t often swim in these waters.
This is not something that is likely to stop. In fact, as social media usage increases and more platforms emerge, this may become the reality we live in.
The question is, what should we do about it? Only a few pastors are deeply engaged in social media. Most simply don’t have time to go to all the online places their members go. And what does this say about our covenant as clergy within the church? The boundaries between churches and parishes used to be a lot clearer. Now someone can engage in a one on one debate with a pastor from another church in another city. And many others can watch those debates.
Certainly, moderation can help. However, the two Rio Texas Facebook groups are just a small fraction of all the different online places where theological debate occurs.
I think the first step is for us to become aware of this shift we are in the midst of. As pastors stand up to preach on Sunday, as lay people prepare a Bible study, they need to be aware that the people they are speaking to are hearing other voices as well. Some may be feeding them sound doctrine; others may be leading them astray.
*Before you respond with a “The church is not a corporation,” note that I am not referring to the church as any sort of chartered business, just a single entity that in made up of a group.
**That is, in fact, the reason I now moderate two groups. The original Rio Texas Facebook group became a place that was mostly debate. The discussions mostly center around human sexuality and Israel and Palestine. The intensity and consistency of these debates caused some members to exit the group. I started another group with much clearer guidelines so people would have a safe place to share news, stories and ideas from their local churches.