The Thessalonians & Social Media

Last Friday (the stunningly beautiful day in Westminster), I was at Church House Westminster for a gathering of church types who have some level of experience/expertise in the field of social media. I’m not entirely sure how I managed to find myself within such a group, given that, unlike my neighbour to one side, I’ve not written a PhD on church websites; or have a Twitter following of nearly 34,000 like the person on my left. However, having now been to two of these meetings, I can say that I’m glad to be there and hope that I manage to contribute something of worth.

[At my first meeting, I distinguished myself for seconding a proposed Easter hashtag on the basis that it was a Take That song. I then leapt to the defence of Take That fans everywhere, insisting that it wasn’t just middle aged women who had a thing for Gary Barlow…]

One of my contributions last week was in response to a question on how we, particularly as Christians, can remain authentic in our online presences. Should we have multiple presences? [A question posed by Vicky Beeching last week, in response to which Rosemary Lain-Priestly has blogged brilliantly.] Is it enough to simply tweet platitudes? [Short answer: no.] Does being ‘authentic’ mean sharing every last detail? [In my opinion: definitely not!] How do those of us in positions of responsibility maintain suitable boundaries? Should everything we post online effectively be evangelistic?

Holy Bible FacebookLiking the Bible helps… (Credit.)

It was as part of a conversation on this last question that I got involved, sharing a tiny bit of a sermon I’d preached over a year ago on the Thessalonians and social media. A couple of people asked me if I’d ever blogged it – and I realised I hadn’t. [I preached it 24 hours before flying to Texas, I guess that probably put it out of my mind. That, and I don’t think I’ve ever blogged a sermon!] Part of the sermon was based on some thoughts I’d shared here on digital discipleship, but that was it. So here, for those who asked, are some of my thoughts (only the ones about social media – the rest was on contextual mission!) on 1 Thessalonians 1. Some of it is a direct copy & paste job from the sermon, so it’s tone isn’t quite blog-like, but you should get the idea…

The first letter to the Thessalonians is effectively a progress report from Paul on how the church had developed since his last visit – and it’s a good one. This small group of Christians was already having a massive impact, as verse 8 tells us:

“The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia – your faith in God has become known everywhere.”

Paul didn’t need to ask how the Thessalonians were doing, because he was hearing stories about them from all over the place. In verse 7, the word ‘model’ is used, but it could be better translated from the Greek as ‘imprint’, kind of like stamping your seal into melted wax, or embossing something. The Thessalonians weren’t just acting in a certain way, they were impacting upon the people around them – they were imprinting the gospel upon their lives. Which basically, is where the connection with social media comes in.

The Thessalonians had a massive impact upon Christian communities that were forming fairly close to where they were, geographically. It wasn’t too hard for news of their conversion and their faithfulness to spread to Macedonia and Archaia, but bear in mind that the ideas they were sharing – of Christ and the gospel – were still almost brand new and totally alien to the culture in which they lived. Sharing was a risk, but they did it. For the Thessalonians the mission field was nearby provinces, I’d like to suggest that today, for many of us, it’s the online world of social media. The Thessalonians were counter-cultural in the way in which they turned from pagan idols to God, it’s not difficult to see how raising God above society’s idols of today would be counter-cultural in our own society.

In the UK, there are 7 million regular church goers, yet there are 30 million regular users of Facebook. The possibilities of reaching friends, friends of friends and total strangers via share on Facebook, retweets on Twitter and attention grabbing blogposts are almost endless. When you share something on Facebook or Twitter it’s not just your circle of friends who can see it, it can go viral – as we’ve seen when people’s use of social media has gone wrong. Yes, we need to be careful, but this is also a powerful tool that can be used to do a lot of good.

I’ve been thinking about how we can do both our imitating and our modelling in the world of social networking for a little while now. I love social media – I write a blog, I tweet, I love Facebook a little less, but I can deny that it’s incredibly useful to life. But it’s very easy to make your online life a lot more sanitised than your real, offline life. That photo you’ve detagged? The tweet you posted in error and deleted? The erudite blogposts you spend days composing? Again, when I say ‘you’, I obviously mean ‘me’ – I’ve definitely done all of those things.

What followed were the digital discipleship tips I’d already blogged about – the last of which was ‘be inspirational’. It’s that last point which I think particularly relates to Paul’s commendation to the Thessalonians for the way in which they had imitated Christ and the apostles, and how they were now modelling this for others. The Thessalonians shared their news joyfully, inspiring others – how could you do the same?

I really want to challenge you all on this. If you’re not into social media, that’s ok – consider this a challenge to reach outside of your comfort zone. But if you are, then think about how you use it and your interactions with people there. If we are living lives that are incarnational – imitating Christ and the apostles and aiming to imprint the gospel upon others – what does this look like digitally and in the real world?

If we as Christians are being authentic in our social media presences, then the gospel ought to be ringing out of us in all that we do – whether that’s quoting something spiritually inspiring, behaving in a way that bemuses society, or live-tweeting the Great British Bake Off. The point is, present yourself as you really are – don’t have one account for your Christian followers and one where you share your secular interests. You are one, single person, with a wealth of passions – be honest and authentic in all of them!

Mission and Musicals

So, this happened:

Mormon joySummer frizz, right there. (In a moment of vanity I released my hair from its bun for the photo.) 

Rather optimistically, my July bucket list included mention of The Book of Mormon – a musical I’ve tried to see four times in the last couple of months, but as yet, had not managed to. (The soundtrack has been played so many times I’m pretty much word perfect.) The thing is, it’s the most popular musical in the West End. It’s instigated airline pricing (tickets go up in price as demand increases) and you need to book months and months in advance. A while ago, a friend offered me a spare ticket – the catch? Its £95 price tag.

However, it has brought with it from Broadway the tradition of holding a lottery prior to every performance, with the front row up for grabs for the very reasonable price of £20. [Keen readers and friends may remember that only Legally Blonde has done this in the West End. I got lucky with that show on my first attempt.] I’d entered the draw four times previously, to no avail (although the process is a fun one), but on my fifth attempt got lucky – very lucky.

For the uninitiated, The Book of Mormon was the work of the creators of South Park (and in turn, two of my favourite soundtracks – South Park: The Movie and Team America) and the co-writer/composer of Avenue Q. If you know anything about any of those TV programmes/movies/musicals, you’ll begin to understand what the nature of the show is. It is not an advert for the Mormon church, or really, any church that does what’s viewed by the secular world as ‘mission’. Two young Mormon men head out on their two year mission, finding themselves in a Ugandan village where no one cares about God or Mormonism…

The opening number of The Book of Mormon as the opening number at the 2012 Tony Awards

I loved it. The front row didn’t mean an obscured view or neck craning – it meant being so close to the cast that their sweat practically dripped on you. The staging wasn’t quite what I’d assumed from the soundtrack; the plot was slightly different than I’d figured out; the costumes and dancing were awesome; the missionaries were hot… I could go on. I knew (even though I couldn’t see them) that every member of the full house audience was having a whale of a time.

I loved it, and yet at times, I had a strange sense of misgiving. Should a trainee vicar really be enjoying a musical that pokes fun at religion? [Basically, yes. I’ve just written a piece on Threads about this.] What about people I have a lot of respect for who happen to be Mormon – like favourite blogger Courtney – would they be offended that I’d seen it and enjoyed it? [Interestingly, the Mormon church has used it as an opportunity to promote itself. Any interest in Mormons is good interest, apparently, and a campaign to ‘ask a Mormon’ appeared on the escalators of Piccadilly station when the show opened.] Then there was its depiction of Uganda which was inaccurate and stereotypical – shouldn’t the producers have known better? [Probably, but I guess it’s a plot device.]

But I came up with a theory. Yes, the show poked fun at Mormon missionary methods – ringing doorbells and speaking from the same script – but in doing this, it became a fascinating exploration of how to do mission contextually. In many ways, the things the missionaries get up to reminded me of Barbara Kingslover’s The Poisonwood Bible which tells the tale of a missionary family in 1960’s Congo doing things that would make modern day missiologists’ hair stand on end! Adapting to context? I don’t think so! There’s a brilliant scene just after the Elders reach Uganda, where they try to go door to door, ringing doorbells to speak to people – only to discover that Ugandan huts don’t have doorbells.

It’s only when Elder Cunningham begins to adapt the Book of Mormon to the villagers’ concerns that they start to come alongside the Mormons. They are threatened by a local war lord who wants all the women of the village circumcised; people believe sex with virgins will cure AIDS; and they are all threatened by disease – quite reasonably, the Ugandans ask what Joseph Smith has to say about all these things. Of course, FGM and AIDS aren’t mentioned in the scriptures, so Elder Cunningham (who’s a self-confessed fantasist) makes things up so that it does – throwing in some Star Trek and Star Wars references along the way. He lies, but in doing so, is actually beginning to contextualise the gospel he’s trying to share.

Obviously, lying in order to make a message relevant isn’t right and that’s not what I’m suggesting mission ought to be. But, we do know that Jesus would – for example – have spoken out on how to prevent dysentery, had he known how and had it been a major issue in 1st century Palestine. [For all I know, it might have been!] Basically, if we’re to learn one important theological lesson from this musical, it’s that we should approach mission not like clean-cut, try-hard Elder Price, but like short, fat and geeky Elder Cunningham – only with less of the fantastical fusion of scripture with sci-fi. [Oh, and there are always theological lessons to be learnt from musicals, seriously.]

Ultimately, we just need to truly believe…

You *need* to watch this – you’ll laugh, I promise. (Again, from the Tonys, this time in 2011.)

Fulfilling a stereotype?

One of the most shocking things I heard this morning came when leading members of Ogongora church were introducing themselves to us. More than once they shared that the children had been scared of us when we’d arrived the day before because we were white, but that today they realised that we were friendly so they were keen to say hello. [Which explained the very enthusiastic crowd of children who greeted me as soon as I stepped down from the truck.]

I arrived in Uganda very conscious that I was a ‘muzungu’ (the generic term for ‘white person’) and that as such, I carried a lot of extra baggage – colonial history, assumptions about aid and charity, not to mention simply being one of a very obvious minority. With blonde hair and blue eyes, I don’t look anything but European and there’s no point trying to hide it.

I’ve been in the same situation elsewhere in the world – in Palestine (where I scored extra points while haggling for being British, not American) and in Tonga (where I was regarded as a papalangi until I produced my trump card of having been born in its capital – at which point all Tongans congratulate me on being Tongan) – but nowhere has it had the connotations it has here.

My adult life has largely been spent understanding why ‘the west’ and ‘Europe’ and ‘whites’ have this reputation. Firstly, studying a MA in Imperial & Commonwealth History, specifically the relationship mission had with the empire. Then, working for two different Christian mission organisations, where I tried to persuade British Christians not to look for the stereotypes from overseas mission – I despaired when, time and again, requests were made for photos of ‘black babies’.

So I came on this trip determined not to be a stereotype. To remember the lessons I’d learned about cross-cultural engagement. To learn from the communities we visited, rather than believing that I had anything to teach them. To write and take photos that would help people back in Britain understand that the work Tearfund is doing is the antithesis of traditional, old skool conceptions of what ‘mission’ looks like.

Discovering that the children had been afraid of us was a major blow to this ambition. Even outside the village, we were regarded as near celebrities – muzungu are a rare sight in rural areas and time and again we were greeted by waving children stood at the side of the road as our van passed. In our eyes, many of the people we’re meeting in Ogongora are the celebrities – after all, we’ve watched videos of many of them over the last few months!

This afternoon, I felt that I’d become even more stereotypical. This photo explains why:

Liz & baby

That’s Pastor Peter’s 6 month old son. He reached out to me when I went over to say hello, so I gave him a cuddle. But, as I looked over and noticed Bex and Dave taking photos (that’s Dave’s image above), I felt like I was a throwback to the 19th century – a well meaning white female missionary cuddling an African baby.

Then, I added to the stereotype by becoming a bountiful visitor when we got back to the church building. The older children had returned from school and I handed out bottles of bubbles and balloons for them to play with. Chaos ensued. I knew it was an ok thing to do (Holly from Tearfund had mentioned the bubbles she’d brought on here visit here and I thought they’d be an easy thing to pack.) but that didn’t stop me from feeling like it was a token gesture.

Balloons through the window

All the same, it made for some great fun with the kids and an amazing array of photos just before we returned to the guest house for the evening. Those, and a selection of others from the trip so far are now up on Flickr (my aim is to add a certain number each day as a flavour of what we’re up to and then complete the set once I’m at home and with wifi).

Bubbles!

Fun with digital cameras & children...

POST EDIT:

Overnight, I kept thinking about this post. I was worried I may have sounded too negative – but was relieved to get online this morning and discover that others have had similar experiences. It had also struck me that being ‘scared’ of those that are different from us is not uncommon in the UK either – I suspect the Daily Mail features articles that encourage such feelings on pretty much a daily basis. It’s natural, but it’s overcoming that fear that’s important. Similarly, it’s ok when we happen to unintentionally fulfil stereotypes, as long as we recognise the stereotypes and are able to reflect on what we really want to be doing.

This live-blogging a trip business is tricky at times – in an ideal world I’d love more time to reflect, but it’s the raw reactions that are also important. Thanks for your patience!