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!

Growing disciples, digitally

The beginning of this week was spent in a Christian Conference frenzy at the Royal Albert Hall for HTB’s annual Leadership Conference. The stats are pretty impressive, present were over 4000 people from 900+ churches and 50+ countries – the RAH was full to bursting. The Queen had even allowed the Royal Box to be used – and HTB used it to seat homeless people and ex-offenders.

Needless to say, getting a large number of Christians of a more evangelical/trendy persuasion together in one room meant that there was a great deal of technology about. When the house lights went out, the hall was lit up by small rectangles and larger rectangles – iPhones and iPads, presumably used for note taking and tweeting (or, in the case of one of my colleagues, buying Olympics tickets). Oh, and Bible reading – at the moment when the room of 4000 was asked to turn to Hebrews 11 the Bible app promptly crashed.

That wasn’t the only way in which the iPads and iPhones impacted the wider world – Twitter went a bit nuts. The number of people tweeting about Tony Blair’s nuggets of wisdom during his interview on Monday morning caused the former PM to enter the world top 10 of trending topics on Twitter. Twitter (and the #htbleadershipconf hashtag) also meant that those not at the conference could engage with it – albeit via the sometimes unsatisfactory and unrepresentative medium of responding to soundbite quotes. My battery was drained by mid afternoon thanks to frenetic Twitter activity…

Nicky Gumbel interviewing Tony Blair (credit)

It therefore seemed appropriate (especially given my existing interest in the subject) that one of my seminar choices was a session on ‘Digital Disciples: How Social Media is Changing the Church’ with Al Gordon. I wasn’t entirely sure that I’d learn anything new – which isn’t me being big headed, more me being aware that I’ve thought a lot about this area already – but I was really impressed by the way in which the session explored social media in terms of its missional value, rather than simply being a marketing tool.

Al had two sets of three points [he’s two years ahead of me at the Vicar Factory and I can tell the preaching classes have made an impact…] which I thought were well worth sharing. Firstly:

  • Be invitational – ‘come and see’ is happening electronically, so be public in your faith and invite people into it.
  • Be incarnational – social media isn’t meant to replace our presence in offline community, it’s supposed to strengthen and transform our relationships.
  • Be inspirational – live your life online for God.

Then secondly, three specific ways in which we can do this:

  • Champion Connectivity – move from being a consumer to a contributor in the life of God and the church. We want to connect people with God to enable this process to take place. [An interesting question within this which I think Vicky Beeching’s explored is whether churches should enable/encourage/allow the congregation to tweet during services.]
  • Mobilise micro-narratives – in a post-modern world, meta-narratives are viewed with incredulity and our own stories have become more important. We have a powerful impact when we can mobilise the stories of the people in our churches. 90% of people trust a peer recommendation compared to 14% who trust advertising – how can we build on this?
  • Reshape relationships – get yourself online and reconnect with people, enabling them to follow you as you follow Christ.

It challenged me greatly and has even prompted some thoughts regarding my next sermon slot. Watch this space – St George’s might be getting something a little different next month…