Thursday, January 26, 2012

"Take It and Tweet It:" Keith Anderson on Digital Ministry

It wasn’t quite St. Augustine’s famous “take it and read it” conversion moment in his Confessions. But hearing Rev. Keith Anderson on social media and pastoral practice at the Rocky Mountain Synod’s Theological Convocation was a kind of metanoia for me. Because now I’m officially a believer in the Gospel of “digital ministry.”

Like the erstwhile bishop of Hippo, I’ve long been a skeptic about the salvation promised by the story social media tells. Looking around the conference room at dozens pastors seemingly unable to listen to such a compelling presenter without burying their heads in their iPhones every five minutes only provided grist for the mills. I’ve always felt (feared?) that facebook and friends were peddling gateway drugs, the use of which would precipitate a rapid decline into gnosticism and narcissism.

(Also, I’m insanely jealous that while my friends’ phones can talk to them, half the time, I can barely get the keyboard to text on my now “ancient” En-V3 mobile.)

But just as St. Ambrose unlocked the creative potential of new readings of Scripture for Augustine, Keith presented us with a radically different vision of digital media as vehicle for digital ministry.

Reminding us that “people are not looking for information, but relationship,” and that “your website/sermon blog/facebook profile-you-never-use cannot LOVE somebody,” Keith flipped the script on a broadcast mentality of social media, challenging us to consider the question: “how do we LOVE PEOPLE via social media? How do we extend grace, and share Christ’s GOSPEL through social media?”

Now that’s a query Augustine would relish - challenging disordered desires around our false “enjoyment” of media, towards consideration of the “use” - in love - to which we put it.

And that’s what I took away from Keith’s presentations. Not social media as a way to extend ourselves into broader digital markets or profer the worst projections of our egos.

But digital ministry as a gift and a tool, for extending, in Keith’s words, “spiritual care, formation, prayer, evangelism, and other manifestations of grace into online spaces...where more and more people gather to nurture, explore, and share their faith today.”

As vicar of House for All Sinners and Saints, a community that is heralded as an exemplar of digital ministry, I’m amazed its taken me this long to see the light. Partly, I just needed someone to teach me how to organize my facebook news feed, learn how to tweet, and help me see the difference between wasting time, and truly using it.

HFASS self-identifies as a church comprised largely of “post-modern, urban, young adults” - which means that most of us practically grew up as cyborgs, or, as I learned (making me feel quite old), “digital natives.” So really, the question has never been “if” people congregate in digital spaces. Rather, given the fact of their online location, its “how” grace and the Gospel will find them there.

I think the author of the Confessions would also further delight in the confessional tint of Keith’s teaching. Sharing our own lives, while first taking the time and care to notice the ways in which others are sharing theirs, can be narcissism. But it can also be the catalyst for something incarnational, as Keith noted:

By bringing the fullness of our lives to be bear in ministry and social media, we bear witness to the fullness of life in God. After all, the Real Presence here is God’s, and it is through our real and authentic presence in social media that we most clearly and effectively point to God.

In many ways, social media raises the spectre of the oft-dodged question of the “pastor as exemplar.” In the past, the minister shouldered the impossible burden of serving as pillar of moral virtue for his community. As has tragically been the case, public virtue often masked a plethora of private lusts.

But digital ministry invites pastors to share a wider glimpse of their lives with their parishioners. The onus is not on being a superman. The invitation is to be more fully a human being. And in the process, pastors and lay people alike have the opportunity to show how faith shapes our whole lives - in the community, family, in the study, and not just in places designated as “church.” Pastors are challenged to be, not merely moral, but authentic, asking how our lives and practices, and not merely our words, constitute a witness to the Gospel.

Digital ministry can be demonic. Or, it can be another way people experience the Good News of Immanuel, God with us - through the attentive, loving presence of someone willing to enact Christ’s concrete presence in a disembodied realm.

And that’s really what it came down to in the end, and where it began for me. Digital ministry is a no-strings attached enterprise. “The return on our investment in social media,” Keith proclaimed, “is not to gain new members or pledges; its to set people free in the Gospel. That’s my job as a pastor.”

That’s the voice of the child in the garden, calling, “take it and tweet it.” That’s something worth re-tweeting.

(As part of trying on digital ministry, I hope to blog more about specific practices Keith suggested, as well as to continue to reflect on digital ministry in my own community. You can follow Keith Anderson on twitter at @prkanderson and on his blog.)

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