Saturday, August 22, 2009

Using Social Media to Build Community, Part I

22 August 2009

The Moderator of my Presbyterian denomination recently posted a blog entry called "Top Ten Reasons Church and Pastors Resist Social Media".  His thoughts, and comments left by others on his blog page, are thought provoking.  There is an image of "social media" as being a world where disconnected, alienated, lonely people fail to participate in their local communities.  Instead, this view holds, they do nothing but stare at a computer screen all day and do not interact with other humans.  Is this a valid stereotype?  

What is social media, and is it a good or bad thing?  A pastor of one mega-church,  Brady Boyd of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, thinks organizations that fail to utilize social media are making a big mistake.  He says: "Churches have to stay current. We're in the communications business. ... We have to stay informed and we have to realize that most of the world is rapidly advancing in their ability to communicate."  According to the article from which this quote was taken, Boyd thinks that keeping up with new technology in communication is so important that he arranges monthly briefings on it. 

This photo was taken inside the media room of a church I attended in China

I grew up in the days when social media consisted of neighborhood children participating in a TV show produced locally in a studio on Saturday mornings. The latest technology consisted of carbon paper, mimeograph machines, and telephone party lines.   Things shifted a bit over time.  As a young lawyer, when I requested a computer on my desk, other young lawyers in my office warned me that was a bad idea.  They thought that if I typed my own material, I risked being viewed as secretary and not taken seriously in my career.  These concerns were not unfounded.  In the old world order, women were secretaries and only secretaries typed anything.  The secretaries were not happy with me, either, because they saw me as infringing on their turf.  But the earth was moving; an even more drastic change was on the way. 

The "Age of Information" dawned, and with it a whole new level of access to information previously available only in a few places.  Gone were the days of having to go the library and looking through encyclopedias for information.  I remember being astounded to purchase an entire set of encyclopedias on a CD ROM, and then there came the Internet, where I could do a search for anything -- ANYTHING! 

I also well remember how my first LISTSERV subscription opened up a new world of friendships.  I had always been a bit of an eccentric among my local peers.  Internet focus groups enabled me to discover others with similar interests in places as far flung as Washington State, Australia, and Japan.  With these people, I was able to learn, share insights, stories and thoughts, or receive advice about, things my local friends may have thought I was crazy for asking about. 

The availability of information on the Internet did not cause me to abandon my local friends, however!  We are, after all, em-bodied beings.  Internet friendships will never replace our local connections.  We live here and now; we eat and sleep and laugh and cry and hug, and we need connections with people in our home communities.  I treasure my family and local connections.  Those threads and fibers -- my connections to my friends and family -- weave me into the fabric of humanity.  If you are reading this and you feel you have no friends or family in your local community, then that is a wake up call that you need to get out and meet real people and make those connections!  Find activities or causes in your local community that you are passionate about, and pursue those.  You will find others in your local environment that you will build community with. 

I personally think this tension between living in the physical here and now, versus being concerned with ideas and concepts, goes a long way back.  I also think it underlies a lot of the concern people have about social media displacing more valuable and real face to face relationships. 

The Bible tells a story about the tension between the practical and the ideal.  Mary and Martha, two sisters, were friends of Jesus.  When Jesus came to visit them, many guests came to their home to hear him speak.  Mary was so passionate about listening to Jesus that she ignored the physical reality that she had guests who needed care in her home.  Martha, left to do all the cooking and cleaning, was resentful.  Martha asked Jesus to instruct Mary to help her. 


mary and martha by Green

Mary and Martha, painting by

Nathan Green, found at

I wonder if people concerned about social media are, in a sense, like Martha.  I suspect they are concerned that cultivation of relationships based primarily around "ideas" will come at the expense of tending to "things".  Important things, like caring for people who physically exist in close proximity to us and with whom we need to be in community.  These community connections really do matter in the real world -- We need to care for and build up those in our physical and geographically proximate community.  Even if they are different from us, even if they don't share our identical values, and even if we meet those people somewhat by accident. 

The Martha's of the world, perhaps, fear that if we all disappear into our virtual reality worlds of social media, there will be nothing left of the geographically local community.  And maybe with good reason.  In the book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, author Robert Putnam documents a shocking decline in participation by Americans in community activities.  Participation in almost every community indicator is down, whether it's voting, public meetings, family picnics, or bowling leagues (which inspired the name for the book).  Church attendance mirrors this larger trend; it is down by 25% - 50% from the 1950's. 

I appreciate the Marthas of the world.  Without them, we would all be hungry.  We'd never have clean clothes.  It really can happen!  Families in the USA have shifted even their eating habits, using kits and prefab ingredients rather than food prepared from scratch.  This summer, I was shocked at how few adult volunteers there were to run our church's vacation Bible school.  The Martha's of the world are frightened that we might leave them to toil alone.  They're afraid our society, already a paper shell like a Chinese takeout box, may collapse from its own weight when everyone is doing takeout and no one is cooking anymore. 

Nevertheless, in spite of these types of concerns, Jesus told Martha, "Martha, Martha, thou art careful,  [anxious] and troubled about many things.  But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her."  

There will always be challenges involving new technologies.  The question is not whether the technology itself is bad, but rather how will it be used.  The atomic bomb made it possible to kill and destroy on a scale theretofore unimaginable.  But that doesn't mean the atomic bomb necessarily would be used that way.  Tools of technology are still within our control, and it is our responsibility to sort out how to use them wisely.  Today nuclear power accounts for about 20% of the electricity used in the USA.  The potential uses of nuclear power are for good or for evil, and it is up to us to use it wisely.  The same can be said about social media. 

This post CONTINUES.  For discussion of how to use social media, click here: Peaceworks: Using Social Media to Build Local Community, Part II

mary at jesus feet

This painting is by Henryk Siemiradzki (1886) and is found at

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