My pastoral care professor in seminary instructed us to meet each member in his or her home during our first year at a new church. It was sound advice at the time. But there has been a change, a deep and abiding shift my good professor could not foresee.
In a rapidly evolving culture, people are no longer home during office hours. The church can no longer expect moms to host Bible studies in their living rooms at 10:00 am every Tuesday. And if a pastor visits unannounced, he or she will probably be greeted on the front steps, and will remain there, standing, for the quick duration of the call. In just a few short years, pastoral visits have changed dramatically, along with all of our communication.
I remember when it started. Seventeen years ago, my husband was working at Sam’s Club, in the computer department. He came home one day talking about the “information superhighway” and how everyone would soon be doing their Christmas shopping from home.
“Really?” I asked, not quite believing it. “That’s so Jetsons.”
I soon went from not knowing what the Internet was to obtaining an email address. Still, during my first few years in the parish, my reliance on Internet communication was minimal—I began to use email and helped develop the church website.
Now, I depend so heavily on the Internet that I could not do my daily work without it. And things are expanding even more rapidly. Every church needs a website, and educational resources are increasingly coming in the form of blogs, podcasts, webinars, and social networking sites. I try to stay on top of such developments, yet these changes continue to happen so quickly that I often feel I’m many miles away from the cutting edge.
Today, communication between pastors and parishioners no longer occurs chieﬂy through spoken word—or even through letters and newsletters. More often, it takes place as people use computers to respond to one another. The forms of communication are evolving rapidly from emails, to text messaging, to social networking sites—and we are not sure what might be on the horizon.
It would be easy for seasoned church leaders to be irritated by these new developments. We could throw up our hands and assume all this is for the young; that it’s too complicated for most of us to comprehend. I’ve heard pastors protest, “Are we going to be spending so much time handcuffed to our computers that it keeps us from real ministry?”
Even though it feels like an either/or proposition—as if we must choose to spend time with either our church community or the computer—it is not. When I consider the carefully crafted emails about deep pastoral issues that appear in my inbox in the middle of the night, I know we cannot ignore the radical changes of the last ten years, nor can we disregard the evolutions in the years to come. Time on the computer is real ministry.
Let me acknowledge that, yes, I do mourn the fact that I spend more days in ministry looking at a flat, lifeless computer screen than I do at the beautiful complexities of the faces in my community. I realize how much I am missing. Yet the need to minister in our current reality is more compelling than nostalgia. Moreover, I’ve often been thankful a parishioner had a keyboard and screen to “talk” to late at night. At times the web becomes a needed lifeline for depressed or anxious friends.
As a pastor to college students, I watch the amazing speed at which undergraduates text-message each other. They don’t even need to look down as their nimble thumbs race over their tiny cell-phone keyboards. As I see young professionals tapping out messages on their iPhones during worship services, I’m reminded that I need to keep on top of the shifts. (My colleague, John Wimberly, and I often dream of more useful pews that have holders for coffee cups and PDAs.)
The shift—as impersonal as it sounds, and as removed as it is from our complicated and rich facial landscapes—can be strangely intimate. Last year, I presided over a wedding for two people who got to know each other over the Internet while working on a political campaign. Their minds met long before their bodies did.
I’m tangled up in a tight web of people right now. I have gotten to know them through emails, blogs, and social networking sites. I know what they ate for breakfast this morning and what’s going on in their lives from day to day. I could easily pick each of them out of a crowd because I have seen so many photos of them and their families—although I have never met them in the flesh.
This new form of intimacy has developed as the capacity and availability of the Internet has evolved. We are in the midst of a third wave of Internet communications. The ﬁrst was for military defense. The second included one-way websites, commerce, and email. The third wave (also called Web 2.0) is interactive. It allows the reader of a website to talk back, discuss, and question. It encourages ratings on purchased products. And, most importantly, this wave allows communities to form across continents, and even around the globe, as networks of people no longer have to be in geographic proximity to interact.
Of course, the idea of a virtual community leaves us with a lot of questions. Can we be the body of Christ without being physically present to one another? Can we love one another if we’ve never met? Can we appreciate the image of God through the Internet? Can people who listen to sermons on iPods while commuting to their various workplaces truly form a community that serves and cares for one another? Can a church be a church without celebrating the sacraments together?
Probably the answer to many of those questions is “No.” Yet something is happening, and I believe God’s Spirit is moving in these changes. We are reaching out to our city, our country, and our world in new ways.
Even though the Internet has unsavory aspects to it, the benefits far outweigh the risks. Computers are often the best way to contact new visitors, inform our groups, or send supportive messages. Facebook and Twitter have become important ways for congregations to stay in contact with people who move away from the local area or spend much of their time on the road.
The possibilities in this creative and exciting time may very well be endless, and it will be important for our denominations to realize and welcome many of the shifts that occur. As church leaders, we are venturing into an exciting new territory, with so many rewards and a few risks as well. As we begin to journey out, may we do so realizing the value of these forms of communication, not to replace but to enhance our face-to-face community.
Comment on this article on the Alban Roundtable blog
Adapted from Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation by Carol Howard Merritt, copyright © 2010 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Vital Ministry in a New Generation
by Carol Howard Merritt
Much has been written about the changing landscape the church finds itself in and even more about the church’s waning influence in our culture. From her vantage point as an under-40 pastor, Carol Howard Merritt, author of Tribal Church, moves away from the handwringing toward a discovery of what ministry in, with, and by a new generation might look like.
Ministering to the Missing Generation
by Carol Howard Merritt
Carol Howard Merritt suggests a different way for churches to approach young adults on their own terms. Outlining the financial, social, and familial situations that affect many young adults today, she describes how churches can provide a safe, supportive place for young adults to nurture relationships and foster spiritual growth.
Reaching Out in a Networked World:
Expressing Your Congregation’s Heart and Soul
by Lynne M. Baab
A congregation communicates its heart and soul through words, photos, actions, programs, architecture, decor, the arts, and countless other aspects of congregational life. In Reaching Out in a Networked World, communications expert and pastor Lynn Baab examines technologies such as websites, blogs, online communities, and desktop publishing. She demonstrates how a congregation can evaluate these tools and appropriately use them to communicate its heart and soul, to convey its identity and values both within and outside the congregation.
Strategic Leadership for a Change: Facing Our Losses, Finding Our Future
by Kenneth J. McFayden
Strategic Leadership for a Change provides congregational leaders with new insights and tools for understanding the relationships among change, attachment, loss, and grief. It also helps leaders facilitate the process of grieving, comprehend the centrality of vision, and demonstrate theological reflection in the midst of change, loss, grief, and attaching anew. All this occurs as the congregation aligns its vision with God’s and understands processes of change as processes of fulfillment.
Webinars with Joy Skjegstad
Grant Funding for Your Building Campaign
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
2:00 pm EST
Are there grants for your program to construct a new building or renovate the one you have? There may be, depending on what your project includes; so your decisions about the shape of your building project and the sources of funding need to go hand-in-hand. This webinar gives you the advice you need.
Grant Searches – Finding Funding Sources for Ministry
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
2:00 pm EST
How do you go about searching for grant funding sources for your ministry? This webinar introduces you to strategies and indexes, online resources, and other tips that can help in your search.