What is God up to online? In Tweet if You Love Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation (Morehouse Publishing, 2011), Elizabeth Drescher tells us that he’s up to quite a lot. She also warns that if churches don’t join him in cyberspace, they could soon be left behind.
Tweet if You Love Jesus is designed primarily as a user’s manual for ‘mainline’ Christians who are reluctant to invest in social media. Drescher, who teaches in the undergraduate program in Religious Studies and the graduate program in Pastoral Ministry at Santa Clara University, writes primarily for a mainline Protestant (Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist) audience in the United States. But her conclusions have much wider resonance and provide insights for churches everywhere.
Drescher rightly contends that mainline churches were left far behind in the television age, during which evangelicals and charismatics ruled the airwaves. But she sees hope for the old mainliners in social media technology, arguing that (p. 9-10):
‘The good news … is that the very characteristics that have made mainline Protestants so generally ineffective with broadcast media are actually assets with regard to digital social media, which highlight practices of creative improvisation, participation, and distributed authority.’
One of the reasons why I read the book was to inform the writing of my forthcoming book (co-authored with Gerardo Marti), The Deconstructed Church: The Religious Identity and Negotiated Practices of Emerging Christianity. Emerging Christians have been at the forefront of using social media technologies and I was curious about what Drescher might have to say about them.
Not much, it turns out – the emerging church is not among Drescher’s main concerns. That said, the emerging church shares with mainline churches practices of creative improvisation, participation and distributed authority. I think that Emerging Christians’ ready engagement with social media technology has shaped their movement in significant ways. Indeed, has given them more tools to empower people to explore their own faith – something Drescher also hopes to promote.
But I think she wrongly lumps the emerging church in with evangelicalism when she claims that emerging churches often develop ‘out of the homiletic, pastoral, and organizational strengths of a particular leader’ (p. 134), neglecting the more grassroots and communal examples of emerging church that Gerardo and I have found frequently in our research.
So while Drescher includes fascinating case studies of the digital media practices of the evangelical Harvest Bible Chapel and the mainline Wicker Park Lutheran Church in Chicago, as well as the Twitter practices of pastor James MacDonald of Harvest Bible and Bishop Andy Doyle of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, a case study of an emerging group’s use of social media could have provided further perspective. Of course, I wish Drescher had spent some time analysing the practices of the emerging church primarily because it is one of my pet interests.
But that doesn’t take away from the fact that Tweet if You Love Jesus is an remarkably entertaining as well as practical book.
Drescher fills it with illuminating insights, such as when she compares the digital age to medieval times (where reading was a much more social activity than it has been during the individualised, modern era) or describes how the Letters of Paul were written as “a proto-digital practice of blogging” (p. 78ff). There are delightful stories about St Erkenwald or the “People Who Are Rather Fond of the Episcopal Church” Facebook page (p. 88ff).
On the practical side, there are helpful lists of questions at the end of each chapter that reluctant digital pilgrims can ask themselves as they consider embarking into cyberspace. For example, the questions for chapter seven (‘The Tweethood of all Believers”) include (p. 136):
- How distributed is leadership among all members, and how much is it focused on clergy?
- In what areas would greater involvement of rank-and-file members of churches – people who have perhaps never been actively involved in formal leadership or administration – enrich the practice of leadership?
- Where might such distributed involvement create friction or otherwise challenge the practice of leadership as it stands today?
- In a new world in which crossing borders and sharing authority is more important than ever, how can you imagine employing the tools of social media to both loosen boundaries and reinforce them?
Further, the clever “Digital Social Rule of Life (1.0)” (p. 173ff) outlines good ‘digital social practices,’ serving as a sort of primer for how perplexed cyber-pilgrims can learn the rules of the game for developing relationships and community online.
For Drescher, the stakes are high. She claims that if churches fail to engage with the ‘Digital Revolution,’ institutionalized religion as we know it will continue to decline. In a world where even the Amish have an online newspaper (p. 7), Tweet if You Love Jesus provides insight into how we can renew the churches, ‘open throughout to the possibility that God just might be doing an entirely new thing among us – 140 characters at a time’ (p. 21).