Social media is more than a tool

August 16, 2011

The biggest question about
social media and the church is not how the church can harness the power of
social media for good ends while safeguarding against bad ones (useful as such
discussions may be). It's how social media is changing what it means to be
church. The rise of social media brings up ecclesiological issues that
challenge the very assumption that it is a tool for a separate entity called
the church to control in any particular way.

Two recent posts shed light on
this point. Over at the New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary, Jim
Rice brings up Avery Dulles's influential book Models of the Church, which proposes
five basic paradigms--overlapping, not mutually exclusive--for understanding
the church. Rice suggests that social media might point to a sixth:

We now have vivid examples of the "universal body
of Christ" that never before existed. These instantaneous global interactions
made possible by new media offer analogies of God's transcendence and immanence
that have the potential to lead to profound new insights and understandings
about the very nature of God and God's realm on earth. . . . While the evermore
interconnected nature of our world doesn't change the nature of God, it
provides new models that can enrich our understanding.

Here
on the Century site, CCblogger K. M. Camper highlights the new social website Shop My Church,
a directory of churches that offers information compiled not from official
documents or statements from church leaders but from testimonials by individual
churchgoers. The resulting online tool reflects a religious marketplace in
which the authority to speak for a church has been flattened considerably:

Shop My Church, as a social media tool, shifts power away from
the officially sanctioned leaders of the church to the laity to not only
promote their churches but also to represent them. Lay people have always had
an important role in spreading the word about their churches, but in the past
they've had limited access to methods of mass public broadcasting. But today,
anyone can have a Facebook, Twitter, or WordPress account, giving them the
potential to reach a large number of people. Savvy church leaders are looking
to these new media tools to help grow their churches, but they can't do it
alone. It's doubtful, however, that congregants will allow themselves to be the
mouthpieces of their leaders, and leaders should take notice.

Camper
aptly compares the cultural shifts underway to the much-documented relationship
between the printing press and the Protestant Reformation. Printing wasn't just
a new and useful tool for spreading the word. It massively democratized the
world of ideas and letters, enacting--not just promoting--a theological shift
in religious authority. In retrospect, it's impossible to say that print was or
is merely a passive tool to be used for good or for ill. In limited but very
real ways, print has changed what it means to be a person.

While it remains to
be seen whether social media's impact will be as profound, it's important to
examine it at the most basic, theological levels. The
New Media Project at Union--headed up by Verity Jones, former editor of the
excellent and sadly defunct Disciples
World
magazine--is focused on
just these sorts of questions. If you're interested in social media and
theology, you should be keeping up with this project.