I’m sitting in my office on a Monday morning. Last night before bed I posted in the ELCA Clergy Facebook Group* the struggles I have with the upcoming Sunday’s assigned readings for worship, and have a couple dozen responses to my post, many of which are helpful. Yesterday’s sermon is posted on YouTube. As I post the YouTube link on my blog, I am amazed by the number of hits I got on a year old post after my head injury simply by reposting it on Facebook. I just read a Twitter message from a college student in Pennsylvania, who took a beautiful picture of campus and shared it with me. Pandora is playing Arcade Fire in the background. A few years ago I would not have done any of these things. I joined Facebook in 2007. Like many I am not a native to social media but learned it by simply walking (clicking) into a whole new world and meeting some helpful guides along the way. Now that is a world many of us live in, work in, collaborate in, and even learn in…often.
I am holding a real book in my hands: Clint Schnekloth, Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014. Clint is a friend and classmate from seminary who serves as pastor in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He started the ELCA Clergy Facebook Group in June, 2011. It currently has over 5000 participants who regularly contribute to the group; checking, posting, reacting, and thinking together on a number of topics (Mediating Faith, 81, 83). When I was a new pastor in 2002, much of the experience and how I went about ministry was shaped by periods spent alone. I still spent plenty of time with others, but the formative piece took place in isolation: my study, writing, problem solving and failures. Today, seminarians are part of the ELCA Clergy Facebook Group. For better or worse many will never know such solitude. One click puts anyone in touch with anyone else, wherever they are. I used to look forward to the few times a year I could spend with friends because I lived a separate life from them. I still look forward to seeing them, but I’m in touch with them several times a week on a private group where we can support, challenge, raise questions and joke around. It is like we are virtually hanging out in a coffee shop. Which reminds me; later today I’m going to the actual coffee shop.
This shift in the way we live and interact is the backdrop for Clint’s book. He seeks to find the contrast and congruence between media and message. How does the way we share the message then shape the message, and what then does this message become? With so many technological advancements in social media in the last few years, we have changed the way we live; and the way our lives are shaped by others has also shifted. Welcome to the new frontier.
To ground his discussion of media, message and the opportunities for engagement as new forms emerge, Clint shares his experience in real time ministry – his shift in preparation and delivery of sermons; his skepticism and then engagement with the ancient practice of the catechumenate (a welcome process where newcomers build community through Bible study, prayer, worship and active service); and his change of perspective from book based learning shared by the experts, to a shared experience, where participants engage one another as equal shareholders by learning together.
Clint then launches into the new frontier by commenting on the blurred lines between the online world where people interact, gain experience, and form community, and the physical places where people do the same. Is it real or virtual – to interact with youth through the means of an online game because they will open up and be themselves in that venue, than to meet with them in an office where they clam up? Is a ministry conference with youth workers in a hotel any different than an online game where one collects experiences, navigates time and a map, with the hope of achieving points/pointers to use back home? And what about Facebook (or other social media forms)? How are those mediums more or less church? Clint reflects on the Facebook ELCA Clergy Group:
“The group, because it is broad-based, begins to think of itself as a church of the whole rather than simply one parochial part of it. It is a group of a thousand weak links, inasmuch as every member of the group is a member of the group but may not have a stronger connection (strong links might include, in this context, serving churches geographically close to each other, or the link between a pastor and her bishop, or an assistant pastor and his or her senior pastor, and so on.) By hosting many weak links, the network as a whole is strong, and this strength is also that which benefits the group and energizes it. So the type of network the group is affects precisely how the group forms…The group serves as an online catechumenate for clergy…media effects matter for precisely what kind of faith is being formed and how.” (Mediating Faith, 90-91.)
Media and message become almost indistinguishable. Both message and medium form a symbiotic relationship dependent and informative to the other. To have a ministerium in the ELCA at all without the Facebook Group would seem not only counterproductive but also counterintuitive to the practices formed in the relationships made in that group. I currently have over a thousand friends on Facebook. My guess is somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of those connections were networked through the ELCA Clergy Group. I’ve attended conferences where people I have not met in person call out to me as if an old friend; because of that network. Those who use Linked-In, Twitter, Instagram and other social media both personally and professionally know how valuable those connections can be.
Does the message change with the medium? No one stands outside their own network. Yet we can discern how to best utilize our network (or a series of overlapping networks) to discern God’s movement, presence, and guidance together. The Trinitarian message of connectivity through Father, Son and Holy Spirit creates and utilizes those connections to convey relationship. The redemptive promises of God in Christ we once heard and pondered in modern isolation and individualism are now met in a collaborative faith community. Isn’t that a great image for what the church can be?
Clint offers a quasi thesis: “Christ works through faith formation technologies. God is in the gears. Social Media is spiritual” (Mediating Faith, 101), but he is not about to prescribe precise action steps to make it happen – that would be to imitate the book/expert model he is moving beyond. Instead, he offers that all media – the social connections we make online, his book and the resources he pulled together to write it, and even this review, as further comments on the thread of cooperative discernment of God at work among us. We must all participate, comment, react, experiment, fail, and learn, together to gain a better picture of the even unfolding promises of God.
Mediating Faith is a thought provoking book worth reading. I click “like” and “share” and invite you into further conversation as we continue to emerge on the new frontier. Drop Clint a line and tell him what you think.** As for this week’s Bible readings…there is still time for some good input from others.
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)
* “As of 2012, there were 3,950,924 baptized members in the ELCA. There were 9,533 congregations organized in 65 synods in nine geographic regions.” (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Online Available: http://www.elca.org/News-and-Events/ELCA-Facts#sthash.nbVFWXjt.dpuf)
** Clint blogs at http://lutheranconfessions.blogspot.com His homepage is: http://www.clintschnekloth.com