by Angela Busch, M.Div. Middler
Are you on Facebook? If so, you're one of 600 million virtual "friends" whose profiles, walls, pokes, photos, notes and friend requests have come to change everyday life for people across the world.
Is your church on Facebook? Your pastor? If you are a pastor, or studying to be a pastor, what's the best way to incorporate these new social networking tools into your ministry?
While the technology is still quite new—Facebook was started for Harvard students in 2003, was opened to other college students in 2004, high school in 2005, and finally to anyone over the age of 13 with a valid email address on Sept. 26, 2006—church leaders in the ELCA, many of them with connections to Luther Seminary, have begun to use Facebook in a variety of fruitful ways to enrich their ministries.
Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and technology guru Mary Hess said this is a welcome movement in the history of the church.
"It's the world we live in," Hess said, pointing to a set of YouTube videos that depict the social media revolution. "The statistics right now are such that if Facebook were a country it would be the third-largest country in the world ... if we confess that God created the world and that God continues to act and reveal Godself in creation, why wouldn't we want to be searching for that revelation in social media?"
Of course, the technology is not without its pitfalls. What should a pastor do if she sees one of her congregation members using illegal drugs in a Facebook photo? What should a congregation member do if his pastor sends him a friend request? Should pastors have "work" Facebook accounts and "personal" Facebook accounts? Should churches allow anyone to post on their pages?
"A lot of these fears are appropriate concerns to have," Hess admitted. "I think churches need to start, though, from the big theological questions. If we say that God is by definition relational in Trinity, and human beings are in the image of that God, then how does Facebook reflect that relationality? How does it shut down relationships and how does it extend relationships? ... It's important to be authentic and post things that are appropriately public ... I would never say that people's fears aren't legitimate. But especially as Christians we can never let fear rule us."
Church leaders don't have all the answers to the above questions. But the exciting thing is that churches, pastors and lay leaders all over the country and the world are using this new social media technology to spread the gospel, connect with new communities and reach people who might never join a small group or participate in worship, even while holding in mind those concerns about privacy and authentic relationship.
If Jesus had a Facebook status, what would it say? Maybe something like: "Jesus Christ's Spirit and mission are alive and active on Facebook today, thanks to leaders like those you'll meet in this story."