My senior pastor (who does not use facebook) caught me reading “Is Facebook Church?” by Jon Sweeney in the July issue of The Lutheran, and asked me what I thought, so here goes…
Unfortunately, the entire article is only available online by subscription [available here (thanks, Amber)]; but of course there might still be a print copy of The Lutheran around if you haven’t seen it. In summary, Sweeney compares the authenticity of our facebook relationships with the more superficial relationships we may tend to have with our fellow worshipers on Sunday morning.
I also came across a couple of other interesting commentaries on the article. Nancy Campbell writes that the article “was like reading my mind, except it was far more concise and far better written“, which is how I feel about her commentary. In particular, I understand how the fear of being judged can limit our opportunities to connect in person, at church, on Sunday morning; and how some of those barriers can be broken down online. Taking it a step further, Amber Leberman writes of the opportunity that the neutral environment of a social network can actually give us to take “a step toward our faith-inspired virtues of forgiveness and reconciliation“. There is also a short discussion on The Lutheran’s facebook page (scroll down a bit, it was posted June 24).
For me, social networks can not replace, but absolutely enhance my relationships with other members of the congregation. Because I work in the church office, I accept facebook friend requests from other members of the congregation even if I’m not particularly close to all of them in ‘real life’ (I do use the privacy settings available to limit some access). Through facebook, I am more often aware of the small celebrations, prayer requests and daily struggles of other members of the congregation, which strengthens my connection with them. Yesterday, for example, I ran into a member as I was leaving the church office… what could have been a polite “Hi, how are you, good thanks”, was instead a brief inquiry into my recent dental work. It may seem like a small difference, but the difference was I walked away knowing this person cared about me at least enough to read and remember what I’d written earlier.
In a staff meeting, a wise co-worker suggested that perhaps, if Jesus is knocking, it is not so that we ask him in so much as to invite us out into the world. Yes, social networks are self-selected network, but facebook still brings me out into the world. In ‘real life’, my world is pretty small. My friends, my family, and my co-workers are just about all members of the same denomination in the same small town. My world gets bigger online. On facebook I have friends from the past including some of other nationalities and faiths. One is a Methodist minister in South Africa, many are non-believers or of other faiths, and even more are believers who don’t attend any church.
Facebook also facilitates the subtle kind of outreach that tears down barriers. I admit, I’m not likely to bring up religion in normal conversation with a not-from-church friend… but on facebook it is somehow easier to mention what you are praying for or share a bible verse that speaks to you. I think it’s like Nancy says: “I address my imaginary audience, which laughs heartily at every quip and nods their heads in agreement at my various insights. I believe that my Facebook friends are in my corner. Thus, I am reasonably fearless in being myself.” Likewise, I am fearless that I might be overstepping one of the invisible boundaries I feel in ‘real life’ society, and I am hopeful when I do share something I found to be inspirational that one of my friends might find some value in it, and if others don’t, they still feel like a friend rather than a target.
Sweeney also quotes Matthew 18:20, “… where two or three are gathered…”, and seems to suggest that with facebook invitations “it’s probably only a matter of time before that happens.” I tend to see it more like Amber… “The Web is a place, like Toledo… It’s a place where we can share God’s love with others.“… and a place where we really do gather, and He really is among us.