Finding Our Voice: A Q&A with John Voelz on Social Media and Ministry

Pastor, author and social media veteran John Voelz talks with Patheos about his new book on social networking and ministry, tweeting in church, cyerconfessionals, and creative new ways his community is using technology to be Jesus in the world.

What inspired you to write Follow You Follow Me and, by extension, Tweet You Tweet Me?

I had heard a handful of stories where church employers were not allowing their staff to participate in social networking during the workday because it was distracting them. That felt a little strange to me. I get it, but it seemed like a harsh reaction. I was more interested in the intersection of ministry and social networking, asking new questions, finding new solutions, examining pros and cons, encouraging a new way of doing things, understanding a new crossroad.

Twitter had just hit the scene and I was at a conference mediating a seminar. I put a Twitter feed on the screen and invited everyone to participate in an ongoing conversation. Then we tried it in church. No one had done this kind of thing yet so it drew a lot of attention from the media and publishers. I decided it would be helpful to talk about my journey a bit in order to help others learn from my observations, mistakes, and wins as an early adopter.

Who do you hope reads this book?

Naysayers. Those who live in a black and white world with the intersection of technology and ministry. Those who are curious. Those who haven’t tapped the potential of social networking. Those who are fearful of it. Neo-Luddites. Those who are looking at new ways to converse and be Jesus in the world. Pastors who lead by example. Opinion leaders. My mom (because I gave her a free book).

Was your church’s transformation into a “wired church” a conscious strategy for outreach or did it just evolve as society became more entangled in social networking?

I heard Len Sweet about 15 years ago say “the best way to hit a moving target is to get in front of it.” That rang true for me. Our church has been “wired” for a long time. I remember moving our communication from snail mail to email in the 90′s when everyone was still getting used to the idea of having a computer in their home and learning about the internet. Some folks on our teams were furious. But, we had a sense of what was coming. Before the internet, we were having phone conversations with missionaries during church services via a speaker phone and encouraging participation. We have always thought it is part of our job to teach people about new communication so they aren’t fearful of it.

How did the Twitter Church come about?

That conference I mentioned earlier was the impetus. When I saw how men and women were interacting via Twitter, I noticed that the people who never said a word out loud were finding their voice. It wasn’t that they were totally anonymous, but they didn’t have to be singled out like they would have had they raised their hand in that public space. I noticed the ongoing conversation after the seminar was different as well. People felt closer faster. Now, there are some dangers with that as well. There is a false sense of knowing with social networking that can be dangerous if it isn’t acknowledged. But these are the things we are learning to deal with as we move forward. There is always fallout with new technology. Twitter church was a series of experiments that became part of our culture. Now it doesn’t seem that outrageous. Back then, we took some bullets. We are all better for it.

Could you discuss cyberconfessionals?

Cyberconfessionals were booths that looked like voting booths. We built them around the perimeter of our auditorium. Each had a computer behind the curtain. People were encouraged to confess anonymously to the anonymous person on the other end of the chats we had set up. Confessor #1 was linked with Confessee #1 and so on. I recruited people all over the world to listen to the confessions and pray for people. Pastors, counselors, and lay-leaders with listening ears took confessions, identified with people, prayed for them, and encouraged them to talk to their pastors when it seemed appropriate. There is something freeing about coming clean and it’s often hard to start that conversation. The cyberness of the confessions were an easy starting point. We had a flood of people follow-through with counseling and steps for restoration because of the cyber entry point.

How about prayer chains?

I’m for them.

I have an ongoing struggle with prayer. I have been a pastor for 20 years and I wish I understood it more. When I get an email to pray for someone I don’t know, I barely know what to do with it. It’s hard for me to believe God is more impressed by the prayers of 1,000 barely-connected people than He is by the prayers of a family around the dinner table. Still, there is a belief that when someone is sick we should get that prayer request out to as many as possible because the more people praying the better. I don’t really understand that. On the other hand, if I’m sick I want the whole world praying for me. Ha.

I don’t think the volume (decibel level) or volume (quantity) of prayer is what God is interested in as much as the community aspect of an ongoing conversation with His people. He wants you and I to pray because of the commonality and the unity that takes place. He wants us to understand our dependence on Him. I don’t believe God is counting prayers or pray-ers waiting to unleash His power. But, still, He tells us to pray. Without ceasing. Often. With others. With Elders. With our husbands wives. With our children. With our congregations. In concert. So, I do. In many ways. Through the internet, over the phone, face-to-face, in our church services, etc.

The old-school prayer chain via telephone has now been replaced in most parts of the world. By the internet. Email lists and social networking blasts can reach further than Ma Bell. I don’t think it makes God more reachable or our prayers more effective. I do think it has wonderful implications when it comes to meeting needs faster and more efficiently. I also think it has done wonders to increase our kingdom mindset and realize our tiny franchise of the kingdom in our town belongs to something much bigger. God wants us to connect those dots.

Books take time to write and social networking seems to be ever changing. If you were to write the book right now, is there anything that you would add that was not available at the time? Is there anything Westwinds has started doing since you wrote this book?

I’m always afraid to answer a question like this because when I say the answer out loud a large group of people label us as crazy or missing the point or only interested in the “next thing” (those are the nice things they say). Ha. So. before I answer it let me say we are interested in people falling in love with Jesus. When we try things on for size, we’re not saying everyone should. We sometimes try things just to start conversation. Or, to get people to engage differently. For the sake of spiritual conversation and interaction with God and His people.

We are currently talking about the role of holograms and what that means for the future. We imagine a day coming where individuals will be able to tap into there own personal screen during corporate worship, pick background images, etc. We are trying to get ahead of the problems and questions we will face when that day comes. We are praying about how to harness that technology and think differently. We are talking about a silent worship concert in a park where everyone is equipped with iPads and headophones and we feed the signal. Could you imagine walking through a public space full of worshippers and all you can hear is the response? Laughter, singing, people dancing. Wouldn’t you want to know what is going on and how to be part of it? We are talking about starting our own talk show on local TV. And, I have just started writing a sermon series that will be published on Pinterest with images and limited text.

What conversations do you want this book to inspire?

I know this for sure, I don’t want to fight. I don’t want to make Twitter Church disciples. That’s not the mission. I want us to encourage one another to think differently about how to have spiritual conversation with others instead of poking holes in every new technology and spending so much time talking about why it doesn’t work or isn’t as good as. I want others to come up with better ideas. I want to know how others are using technology to be Jesus in their world.

Do you expect this book to change anyone’s mind?

It has to some degree. I have emails thanking me for that. That feels good. The idea that our language has changed and we better learn the new one has been inspiring to people. This book is highly missional. If we want to talk about Jesus with the world, we better speak their language. Sometimes we know this intuitively and it takes someone to spell it out for us. I think this book has connected the dots to some degree.  There is a lengthy section on evangelism do’s and don’ts that I have received great feedback on. And, many have commented on the helpful warnings they read about in regard to the dangers and potential for impropriety within social networks.

What surprised you in writing this book—or in the reactions thus far to your work?

The subtitle of the book is “Why Social Networking is Essential to Ministry.” Abingdon and I tossed that around for quite some time. The word “essential” has been a hard pill to swallow for some. But I stand by it. This book is not about the next coolest thing in technology. It is about language skills. Learning the language is essential. How it plays out for you in your individual ministry setting may be totally different than mine but you need to know the language. The church should have learned this lesson by now but we haven’t. The fact is, most of the bride is content talking among themselves at the proverbial church potluck. The church wants to protect herself. Youth groups are still arguing about youth pastors letting the “bad kids” in and how the “church kids” don’t feel as safe. Ugh.

What are a few words of caution you’d recommend to those diving into the world of social media to share their faith?

I cover this at length in the book but, in short, I believe that while evangelism can happen outside of relationship it most often doesn’t. We are not the sin police. We can’t get into silly debates that will never change someone’s mind. Far too often, the evangelism happening online reminds me of what we are warned about in Psalm 1 where it talks about “sitting in the seat of the mockers.” We are great at finger pointing, stirring up trouble, making a stand against things, etc. Yuck. Develop relationships. Let them know how much you care. Make them ask “Why does this person love me so much?” Don’t be the Christian that makes other Christians wish you didn’t speak for them.

Who are some of your favorite “online faith-sharers” currently? Who do you follow for inspiration and encouragement?

I’m always attracted to the people who are honest. Share their failings. Share their triumphs. Give us a peek into their fractured world that Jesus is healing. I am not attracted to those who constantly tweet “Wo to those who . . .” and I don’t think name calling is a fruitful way to share the hope of Jesus. I find encouragement with those who show their scars and point to Jesus as the mender of brokenness.

Often, the best book ideas come while you’re writing a book. Have you started the next one?

Yes. It’s called “Quirky Leadership” and it is due in April of 2013 with Abingdon. It’s about being the leader God has called you to be in the specifically quirky ways He has made you without apology. It’s a permission giving book to encourage leaders to dream differently in their community. You just reminded me I have some writing to do today. Thanks for the questions!

Visit the Patheos Book Club to read an excerpt from Volz’s book, and join the conversation about social media in the church.

About Deborah Arca

Deborah Arca is the Director of Content at Patheos.