The world of online social networking is vast and ever changing. Online communities exist in every shape and form, for every group, sub-group, and counter-sub-group that one can think of. Church leaders today find themselves wondering how this world of Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, blogs, etc., could ever be relevant to their ministry, much less even qualify as “community”.
This conversation eventually becomes a discussion of authenticity versus accountability in ministry. Most pastors will tell you that in order for spiritual growth to occur, a measure of accountability must exist. Opponents of using social networking tools for ministry claim that the lack of accountability in online interaction is detrimental – that the ability to contribute and discuss anonymously subverts the spiritual growth process.
Individuals can easily lie, be abrasive, and even abusive with little or no repercussion. People can hide from the truth that is their own personal mess.
On the other hand, proponents for online community argue that anonymity brings with it an openness that otherwise would not exist. Someone can participate in a conversation or interaction and unashamedly ask questions that would never be asked in a physical setting. Questions on topics like sex and marriage may be difficult to ask a pastor or counselor directly, but when this interaction occurs online, the cloak of anonymity allows a certain freedom from the perception of judgment.
My personal opinion falls in the latter argument. More often than not, I see participants in online communities willing to bare their souls in ways they never would, were they standing in front of another human being. For example, recently one of my favorite bloggers, Carlos Whitaker ( www.ragamuffinsoul.com ) posted a snapshot of himself in a moment of sorrow – he was grieving over the loss of a dear friend and shared this intimate moment with the world. Anne Jackson ( flowerdust.net ) regularly shares her struggles with depression, a condition that most people are ashamed to admit they suffer from.
Now for the kicker.
Both of these bloggers are staff members of large influential churches in their respective cities. They choose to share with the world their struggles as well as their triumphs, and as a result, thousands of people read and discuss what they have to say every day.
Why would someone wish to take such intimate moments and share them with the world? The answer is simple. Relatability.
Isn’t that the core of ministry?
It all really comes down to our ability as humans to connect with each other at a relational level, whether we do this through personal interaction or by carrying on a discussion in the comments of a blog post, in a thread of a forum, on a Facebook wall, or by Twittering our thoughts out loud for all to hear. We’re really looking for someone to connect with us on our level- someone to understand where we’re coming from. To be honest, sometimes accountability can be an inappropriate yardstick for measuring spiritual growth. Sometimes “accountability” is a facade for intolerance.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we should do away with accountability. I’m merely saying that as ministers, our job is to recognize that accountability is not exclusive, that it is one component of a toolbox that helps us and others understand our purpose and relationship with our Creator. The bottom line is that as ministers, our call is to be inclusive – to always take it to the next step. From relatability to relationship. From relationship to reformation. From reformation to restoration through prayer, counsel, the application of God’s word, and the tangible workings of God’s spirit. From restoration to replication, and so on.
And all of this can be done online.
Sure there will be those who are malicious in their online interaction, but it is likely that the state of their spiritual condition would not translate to a productive personal encounter, either. Experience also shows that these online provocateurs make up a very small percentage of community participants.
So how do we take advantage of these tools to do ministry? First, we must understand that our goal is to connect with people. Second we must learn the tools. Sign up for a Facebook account, get a Twitter account and see what all the fuss is about. Start a blog and tell the world what you think and what you are doing. Comment on other blogs and join the conversation. Lastly, be authentic. Only through the truth of authenticity can relationships form. Social networking is merely a toolkit for building these relationships and thus growing the larger community.
We must engage in the art of conversation in whatever form it may be, and let God do the changing.