An Ecclesiology of Twitter

Here’s a thought experiment for you: Imagine that the next time you’re in church, you take out your iPhone and start twittering. You tweet the part of the hymn that most impacts you. You tweet your expectations and hopes for the sermon. You tweet some various points of the sermon. You tweet some ways you will apply the sermon. Then you tweet the benediction. Now, imagine that everyone around you is doing the same thing. Don’t you feel like you’re having real fellowship? Isn’t this a great example of true community?

Okay, maybe this was a bad idea.

In “A Theology of Twitter,” I defended Twitter as an aid in personal fellowship, but I have a knee-jerk reaction to those pastors who are encouraging their congregation not only to embrace twitter in their daily lives, but to use it in the midst of the weekly church meeting. The question is, why don’t I appreciate this sort of adaptation of technology for church-related uses?

The truth is, when I’m sitting in church myself, I don’t feel as badly about it. Sometimes, when my mind wanders, I start thinking of really good status updates. I start to consider if it’s really such a bad thing to Twitter in church. After all, like church, the point of Twitter is community. Where’s the conflict?

The conflict comes in when we consider that two vastly different types of communities often conflict with one another, especially when they occupy the same time-frame. The time I spend twittering and thinking about twittering is time I’m not focusing primarily on my local congregation. There are actual, living people in my church that I want to commune with, not only through the conversation and interaction that takes place after church, but also through the corporate singing and sermon intake that takes place during church.

Scripture provides plenty of instances of early church meetings. There is plenty in Scripture to go on when it comes to what the local church service ought to look like. One of the things that most characterizes those meetings is it is primarily a communal experience. Believers set aside this time to encourage one another through fellowship, corporate singing, prayer, and mere physical and mental presence. Any primarily individualistic activity tends to conflict with the concept of a biblical church service.

If there are any questions about whether or not Twitter is too individualistic for corporate worship, consider how you feel when you’re at lunch or dinner with someone, in mid-conversation, and they take out their phone and start checking twitter or twittering themselves. Besides being rude, it is communicating a certain value or priority. “This is more important than you right now.” Further, we feel slightly alienated because we are not able to take part in what is on the screen. That person alone is the one who is involved in that activity at that moment.

Even if we all agreed to bring our iPhones to church and read one another’s status messages during the service, what would be the point? To add our own two cents to the proclamation of the Word, a scriptural mandate that has gone unchanged for centuries? Then again, maybe you feel as if you have something to share that could impact people in a way greater than the sermon: something powerful or personal, a better illustration or application of the point.

And maybe that’s the problem. This culture tells us that we should be primarily concerned with contribution, democracy, and interactivity. The truth is, the biblical concept of the Sunday morning sermon is focused less on those ideals and more on testing ourselves against the truth of scripture, examining ourselves, and considering how we might encourage other church members in the truth being preached. These are all intensely focused activities that cannot be summed up in 140 characters, nor can they be adequately pursued while we seek to come up with the right words to share with our “followers.”

Twitter and Facebook, on the other hand, feed our cultural obsession with sharing ourselves. This is not such a bad thing most of the time. Certain churches with tech-minded congregations could get a ton of benefit from encouraging the use of Twitter and Facebook outside of their services throughout the week. But when we’re in the midst of corporate worship, it’s little more than a distraction.

Here’s one more thought experiment for you: Imagine that the next time you’re in church, you leave your iPhone in your pocket, because everyone you need to hear from or talk to in that moment is in the room. When a section of a hymn impacts you, you sing with fervor and thankfulness, and listen for solidarity in the voices of others. You think of what your expectations and hopes are for the sermon, and you pray that God will make them so. You allow the sermon and scripture to search you, a passive prologue to a more active response, which comes when you are forced to acknowledge some applications you would never share with anyone on the internet. You think and pray about these things and make a plan to ask your friend sitting next to you to hold you accountable. Then you listen as the benediction reassures you with a promise of God’s constant presence in your life. Now, imagine everyone else is doing the same thing. Don’t you feel like you’re having real fellowship? Isn’t this a great example of true community?

Okay, maybe this is a good idea.

About Richard Clark

Richard H. Clark is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture. He has a Master of Arts in Theology and the Arts from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He lives in Louisville, Ky. He is also the managing editor of Gamechurch and a freelance writer for Unwinnable, Paste, and other outlets.
E-mail: clarkrichardh [at] gmail [dot] com.
Twitter: @deadyetliving

  • http://www.benbartlett.blogspot.com Ben Bartlett

    I think Rich is dead-on here that Twitter’s very nature is in conflict with the nature of the church. The two are very different experiences and not designed to mix well, and I worry that acceptance of Twitter will therefore be detrimental to the church.

    One thing I would point out is that this article focuses on differences in local community and online community, as well as differences in cultural ideals vs. introspection and self-criticism. I agree, but I think the nature of the church itself is much more than that; it is primarily the gathering together of Christians to worship God.

    In other words, it is a God-centered experience whereas Twitter is structurally self-centered. Twitter is detrimental to the worship intent of the service because instead of God-centeredness, you are centered on your own opinions and responses. Instead of celebrating God’s character, you are communicating your own. Instead of speaking eternal truth about who God is, you are sharing momentary truths about your experience.

    Twitter and the church are at odds in way that is similar to how a debate in the Senate and a debate in a Fortune 500 company are completely different. They have different goals, structures, purposes, and considerations. The twain shall not meet without detriment to one or the other. We’d be failing in our duties as Christians if we allowed something like Twitter to take away from our experience of The Church.

  • Dave Dunham

    @ Rich – you focus much here on the fact that twittering during the service distracts us from engaging corporately in the singing, hearing of the sermon, etc. I wonder to what degree you would be willing to say the same of taking notes on the sermon and if not then how does that differs from jotting down a thought about the sermon on twitter?

    Also @ Ben – I wonder if Twitter is self-centered and can’t be
    God-centered does that make it sinful?

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    @Ben – absolutely right. Good clarification.

    @David – Yeah, you tipped my hand a bit. In general I try to refrain from note-taking as much as possible unless something just hits me that I really want to remember. BUT, it’s important to point out that note-taking can be an activity that doesn’t require constantly thinking about what others will think about your writings. I didn’t touch on it much in the article, but another problem with twitter is it causes you to spend the entire service thinking about how you’re going to talk about the service rather than how you’re going to respond to it personally.

    Also, I think Ben’s comment sheds a lot of light on what makes it different as well. To speak for Ben, I think we’re speaking primarily of Twitter in the context of corporate worship, so it’s not inherently sinful, especially in day to day life. Just in that context, when EVERYTHING in the service should point to God, not ourselves.

  • David Taylor

    When I do tweet from the pews, I am thinking less of someone elses reaction to my tweet, and more about the message I am hearing. I am not planning ahead, as much as reacting to the inspired word of God I have at hand.
    It also works as a note-taking activity for me,that I come back to, not justtoday, but weeks from now.

  • Dave Dunham

    I am not sure where I stand on the Twitter during church thing, but I think David’s point is at least equally valid as is Rich’s complaint.

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    @David, Dave: Except, how? How can you send a tweet into a public forum without thinking of those who will read it? At worst that’s bad writing, at best that’s dangerous. How can you come up with a succinct 140 character statement without planning the whole thing out in your mind, at the expense of the sermon?

    I mean, at this point I’m arguing with personal experience which is something about which I can only take your word. It is, to me though, a little akin to someone telling me they can read books better and faster while also listening to NPR. By which I mean, that just doesn’t seem likely for most people.

  • http://twitter.com/back4good Carina

    I think a big part of church is about engaging with what is going on, and it seems that social networks are increasingly a part of that process, especially for younger or tech-savvy parishioners. If tweeting a sermon helps people to develop community within their church body, or process what they’re hearing, it could be a positive thing. I attend a small-ish church where discussion is a big part of how we do church. At a larger church, tweeting is a way to accomplish that while maintaining a sense of order. Plus, the average person’s brain can process information much more quickly than the average mouth can speak. Channeling “distracted” energy into active engagement with the material at hand may actually be a way for some to stay focused on what’s going on, and get more out of the sermon.

    Carinas last blog post..back4good: Successfully overcoming the blank pages of my #arra #stimulus grant proposal. Seeking $ for rapid exit from shelters for single adults.

  • http://www.benbartlett.blogspot.com Ben Bartlett

    I think there’s a key distinction to be made between Twittering and note-taking.

    Things that are helpful to fulfilling the purpose of worshipping God correctly and well as a gathered church are certainly good things. In that sense, taking notes in some form to help retention or engagement with the text can be valuable.

    However, Twitter is not a note-taking system. It is primarily built for people to communicate personal thoughts and responses to friends, family, etc. If the church’s worship of God is praise of his character, prayers to him, and proclamation of his word, it seems that Twittering is attempting to meld two activities with inherently different purposes.

    One brings focus on the individual, one takes it off the individual and places it on God. One is focused on what the individual has to say about themselves, the other is focused on what the gathered church says to and about God and what he says to and about us. In other words, I think the worship service (God-focused) is the wrong place for interaction about how we feel about things (interpersonally focused).

    Granted, there may be extreme cases where someone comes up with a way of Tweeting that fits the right parameters. But the majority use of Twitter is a self-focused proclamation of personal perspective to other people, whereas the worship service is about communication between the gathered church and God. They may sound compatible, but again I think their purposes are disharmonious enough to bring serious detriment to worship if Tweeting were introduced.

    And, frankly, it also introduces serious temptation to be entirely distracted from the worship service. Is the constant presense of that temptation really something we need to allow and even encourage?

  • http://www.jakerasmussen.com Jake Rasmussen

    Good article for sure. The church I am connected with uses Twitter as a resource. It is a saying around us, “Twitter doesn’t create community as much as it fosters it.”

    Epic Church has a Twitter @epicchurch and during our Gatherings at http://www.epicchurchonline.org/epiclive we use Scribble Live, http://www.scribblelive.com to host a live blogging event. People add #epicchurch to their Twitters and walla, they are added to the conversation.

    Epic Church is passionate about turning the monologue into a dialogue. We have found “true” teaching happen more effectively when the cycle of learning takes place. A great read is, “Why Nobody Learns Much of Anything at Church: And How to Fix It” (http://www.amazon.com/Nobody-Learns-Much-Anything-Church/dp/1559459026)

    All Pastors know that the sermon is not the most effective way to bring about life-change, yet we don’t do much to change it. Epic Church uses Twitter and the texting (http://www.mobimark.com) in of questions to help bridge the “monologue” gap.

    Thanks again for your thoughts and time dedicated to writing this article. I hope it helps us really think though using this technology in our settings.

    -Jake Rasmussen

  • Pingback: To Twitter in church, or not? « Marketing Communications

  • http://reflectingtheglory.wordpress.com Rob Davis

    Hey Richard…

    Scripture provides plenty of instances of early church meetings. There is plenty in Scripture to go on when it comes to what the local church service ought to look like. One of the things that most characterizes those meetings is it is primarily a communal experience. Believers set aside this time to encourage one another through fellowship, corporate singing, prayer, and mere physical and mental presence. Any primarily individualistic activity tends to conflict with the concept of a biblical church service.

    I would say (at least) two things here:

    1. I think it’s very hard to make a case between “what happened in first century churches” and what happens today in traditional “worship services.” There are some vague descriptions, but our understanding of what those ideas mean today is very different than what they would’ve meant back then.

    2. This creates a difficulty in resolving your last statement. I agree, to a point. Any individualistic activity conflicts with the biblical concept of church. But, most of our church services actually conflict with the biblical idea of community. Relationship happens through dialogue, through conversations, not through simply mentally taking information in. I, personally, don’t have a problem accepting this – I think the way we (Americans) “do church” today is primarily about information dump and singing songs. But, we also gather throughout the week in homes and that’s where real community can only happen.

    So, we have to probe questions like “what is the church” and “what is the purpose of a service/meeting”?

    (BTW, I rarely if at all respond on other people’s blogs…but you tweeted me, so I figured I owed you a response)

    Rob Daviss last blog post..Some thoughts from Tim Chester on “sermons”

  • http://www.teamcrossworld.com/blog crossn81

    I ‘live tweet’ our services each week from a church account. I have gone back and forth about the value of this, especially since our church is small and only part of it is truly tech savvy. I personally only tweet statements or ideas that a) jump out at me as important or b) highlight a core belief of the church (at least in my opinion).

    I also take notes throughout the message and often blog a response to it or a summary of it later.

    All of these tasks help me to process the message and even the music to a deeper degree. I don’t think anyone can honestly say that something like Twitter is always good or always bad. It seems both sides have valid points and arguments, but it seems that part of the intent of church is to foster change or an internal dialogue in someone’s heart and mind. If that person is willing to publicly share that thought via Twitter or Facebook or some other medium, shouldn’t we be willing to encourage and engage in that?

    crossn81s last blog post..CSA #4

  • David Dunham

    I think Rob has raised an important question that needs to be answered in order to further discuss the appropriateness of something like Tweeting in church. “What is the church?” and “What is the purpose of a service/meeting?”

  • http://www.benbartlett.blogspot.com Ben Bartlett

    Here’s the thing. There are a lot of things the church is supposed to do. It is to worship God, proclaim his Word, spread the gospel, mutually encourage and admonish each other, etc. Older men and women are to mentor younger men and women.

    Pragmatically, these things can’t all be done on a Sunday morning. So there is a natural division of the responsibilities of the church.

    Historically, the church has set aside Sunday morning for fulfilling the worship aspect of the church, celebrating the worth of God in song and prayer and the proclamation of his Word. Other requirements for the church are fulfilled elsewhere.

    The reason Twitter presents a problem is that it is oriented toward interpersonal relationships. The church sets aside a specific time for God-centered worship, and Twittering is simply a different type of activity.

    In the same way that we don’t carry on mentoring relationships in the middle of the worship service, I don’t think we should be “building relationships” through Twitter during the worship service. I think there are plenty of other times to be carrying out that aspect of church life.

  • Dave Dunham

    @ Ben – Now that seems like a more pointed response, better than anything else said so far, I might say. Yet at the same time I want to respond, aren’t we at some level still doing all those things, Ben. Isn’t the corporate setting still offering oppurtunity to worship, proclaim, mutually encourage and admonish, and mentor? I mean part of the reason we corporately sing songs is to encourage one another, not simply for ourselves. It sounds sort of like what you’re saying is the corporate worship services is really about the individuals relationship to God when Biblically speaking that seems totally the opposite of what Paul says in Corinthians. I am not trying to pick at you, I am just not sure how I feel about this subject and I want further discussion. Most of the guys who I’ve talked with about it who disagree seem to only be saying, “I am a regulative princple guy” and nothing more! Which is hardly an intelligent answer. So help me understand better what you’re saying.

  • http://www.benbartlett.blogspot.com Ben Bartlett

    David,

    I think you make a good point. Certainly the church worship service is not merely individuals worshiping God at the same time.

    However, the question is not whether the community CAN BE mutually encouraging DURING worship… because I would say that of course it can.

    Instead, the question is whether the MEDIUM of Twitter is supportive of the PRIMARY purpose of the worship service, which is to worship God. And I think that this is precisely the problem… Tweeting tends to take attention off the service and unto your own thoughts, tends to bring focus off of God and on to personal reactions, tends to present the temptation of social networks without strengthening focus on worship.

    So I would say Twitter is at best a medium whose very nature is detrimental to the primary focus and purpose of the worship service, even if it does encourage social networks, and at worst a severe temptation to mentally check out of church completely. Given those odds, I’d encourage against Twitter in worship every time.

    Ben Bartletts last blog post..People and Sadness

  • Pingback: An Ecclesiology of Twitter : The Daily Scroll


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X