A revolution in digital communication has hit many congregations. And, like many revolutions, we are finding that this one has its casualties. There is the pastor who gets an ornery email that feels like the last straw at the end of a long week, hits “reply all,” and then tells everyone just how her or she feels. There is the congregation that thinks that email would be a great way of reaching out to lots of Gen-Xers, and finds itself accused of spamming. There is the one vestry member who does not have email who does not appreciate being excluded from online deliberations. There is the online community that descends into a flame-out that somehow never would have happened if the same people had been meeting face-to-face or even on the telephone.

How should congregations respond? It is hard to make general prescriptions. The digital world changes quickly. Different congregations are in very different places in their digital journeys. One of the best things about how congregations are responding to the digital communications revolution is the diversity of unique responses to unique mission challenges. It would not be helpful for all congregations to move quickly to adopt uniform best-practice responses. Any advice must be offered as observations on a changing landscape made from one particular angle of vision.

Yet, we are far enough into the digital communication revolution in congregations that it is at least possible to make some generalizations about causalities, to give an initial inventory of some the issues congregations need to consider, and to point towards what some congregations have found to be helpful responses. We would also be very interested to hear other reports of creative, faithful responses to casualties of the digital revolution in congregations.

Common types of casualties in the digital revolution in congregations seem to fit into five groups:

1. When virtual communities turn vicious. It has become very easy to create free elists on Yahoo or Ecunet to facilitate communication on boards, teams, or committees. One common type of casualty arises when a group in a congregation takes the initiative to set up such a group and someone posts a strong opinion, or makes a personal attack. The speed at which such a conflict can escalate is amazing when people don’t need to wait until next month’s meeting to express themselves. While the “he said, she said” stage of analysis in a conflict is rarely illuminating, it is worthwhile to note that dissecting flame-outs after the fact often reveals that people perceive the borderline between frank exchange and flame to lie in very different places. So, one person can easily in this medium perceive that another has crossed the border into flame and thus feel themselves justified—if only momentarily—in fighting fire with fire.

2. All too easy digital communication. Every congregational leader has at some time or another left a meeting sorely tempted to let everyone know exactly how they felt. Unfortunately, electronic communication provides a number of ways to do this easily. It is important to note here that the problem is not wanting to vent or even venting. Letting off steam is a time-honored tradition. Writing out anger so one can see it is good. Anger can provide the energy to finally do something about an unacceptable situation. Yet, actually hitting that “send” button might not be wise. Alternatives might be to send yourself the email and read it in the morning. Or make an agreement with a colleague outside the congregation to read drafts of such emails, helping us to differentiate between useful initiative and folly. A ministerial spouse interviewed for this article suggests that spouses should not be asked to play this role.

3. That tricky “reply all” button. When using email to carry on congregational business by email, there is a dilemma concerning the “reply all” button. What should I do when I get an email that has been sent to a group but find myself feeling that I should respond only to the sender? It is probably hard here to make a general rule. Email is definitely a triangulation tool (instant messaging between pagers and cell phones in meetings have become triangulation tools also). Speaking about one person to another in a divisive way is made easier by the digital technologies but it is still bad. Thus, it might seem that the best practice when getting a message sent to a group would be to answer to the whole group. This keeps group discussion in the group. Yet, some people are rather indiscriminate about those they copy and send copies to people only connected in their own mind. In such a situation, “reply all” may well load the inbox of people already overloaded. If anything other than “delete” is appropriate this would like be “reply” rather than “reply all.” It can be hard to navigate the rocky shoals between the Scylla of “triangulation is bad” and the Charybdis of “bothering people is bad.”

4. When my outreach becomes your spam. Email is a great tool of outreach: It is cheap. It is fast. It allows people to respond quickly. And, amazingly, some people still read mass emails when they sort fourth class mail into the waste basket. Yet, spamming is illegal. And, when people get mass emails that seem to them like spam they are rarely in the mood to hear your arguments that your outreach is technically not spam.

5. The last person without email. Many congregations have reached a critical mass with email where entire committees or teams are on email. Email becomes a marvelous way to review notes before a meeting, poll a group between meetings, get answers to informational questions, and generally maintain momentum on work. But what do you do when not quite everyone has email? Often groups commit themselves to sending paper copies or phoning those who have not yet gone digital. In practice this is a difficult discipline to maintain and is not a substitute for the immediacy of email. One woman on my congregation’s board said it was like getting day old bread—nourishing perhaps but not quite the same. The other most obvious solution is to aid the straggler to make the digital leap.

How might congregations avoid these casualties? In a way the answers are simple. Part of the problems with digital communication arise because people allow themselves to use the new media as an occasion for forgetting old rules—“do onto others how you would have others do unto you” pretty much covers problems with flame-outs. Yet as generally applicable as these well-tried rules may be, often they fail to cover the specifics of netiquette, the rules of the road for the digital highway. And, while there are some very helpful netiquette guides for congregations, two cautions are in order. First is that, like the Internet, netiquette is evolving and there are legitimate reasons for norms to differ in different groups. Second, part of adapting something from one place needs to be the discussion in which the norms are understood. Realistically, there is no reason for the youth group to remember let alone follow a sheet of rules for digital communication unless those rules have become a behavioral covenant that they fully own and embrace (see Gil Rendle’s book, Behavioral Covenants).

This said, out of the some painful experiences have come some increasingly standard sets of netiquette rules that many congregations are using. In fact, after going through a period of elaboration, the general subject of netiquette is developing into specialized sets of rules. The subject of netiquette have become enough of an issue that businesses have formed to give guidance to corporations on the subject: www.epolicyinstitute.com and www.email-policy.com. While it is not yet time to declare any of these sets of rules to be best practices, they are a place to begin and to raise the relevant issues that congregations need to consider.


Featured Resources

AL288_SM40 Days and 40 Bytes: Making Computers Work for Your Congregation by Aaron Spiegel, Nancy Armstrong, and J. Brent Bill

“Today we are awash in computerized Bible games, pastoral care software, and church management systems with members’ personal information and giving records,” observe authors Spiegel, Armstrong, and Bill, but “too often we blindly accept and use technology without asking the big questions. Questions like, is it appropriate to our mission and ministry?” 40 Days and 40 Bytes will help your congregation explore technology so you can decide, from a ministry and culture standpoint, what you need to do. The goal: godly service—not technological glitz.

AL261_SM Silver Screen, Sacred Story: Using Multimedia in Worship by Michael Bausch

Our culture has undergone a major shift: younger generations have less and less interest in the printed word as they become predominantly image oriented. In response, as congregations increasingly learn to be more sophisticated in using newer electronic technologies, they are finding themselves at different places in the quest to understand, acquire, manage, and benefit from the technology boom. Worship leaders in congregations already using some electronic media are realizing that they could be doing more with it, and are seeking new ideas.aged, disillusioned, and perhaps even envious.