Eugene Cho

first church of twitter [part 2]

Twitter Church of TwitterYesterday, I asked you for your opinions about “twittering” during an actual church service.  And wow, it generated some incredible dialogue.  I was almost inspired to do that tweetup or whatever you call it and sing kum ba yah together.  Again, I’m a fan of Twitter but like many things, feel like we need to consider some boundaries such as its usage during and through church. I don’t have much more to add but wanted to share some of the stimulating comments for your consideration and engagement. If you’ve got the time, read through all the comments from the post.  

I’m thinking that soon, some “innovative church” is going to be the first to start the “First Church of Twitter” and then go Multi Site Video Twitter Venues.  It’s possible because anything’s possible…

Here’s some sample comments:

One of the most stimulating comments I’ve ever read from Daniel Azuma about Facebook, Twitter and ecosystems:

Okay, I’m going to have to go on a rant here.

Pastor Eugene: you made a comment on Twitter vs Facebook that seems directed squarely at people like me (who come in and out of Facebook with some trepidation but avoid Twitter like the plague), and I think I need to address it.

Facebook is a highly complex platform-oriented ecosystem that functions as a technological enabler. By that I mean it provides a plethora of basic tools that can be extended and combined in a large variety of ways. More importantly, because of the open platform for application development, it can be, and already has been, extended in unlimited ways directed not by the nature of the technology but by the nature of the community that interacts with it.

Twitter is a highly specific, opinionated service that directs its use based on the limitations of the technology. Where do you think the 140 character limit comes from? It comes from text messaging, the most limited form of communication ever devised by man, the ultimate end of a long history of systematic castration of human communication by technology. The Twitter experience therefore devolves into a flat and highly constrained shadow of interaction, and it takes human community down with it. A short while ago you yourself posted a link to a video that illustrates the point much more beautifully than I ever could here.

My point is this. If the goal is community, then services like Facebook and Twitter incite a conflict between the nature of community and the nature of the (technological) medium. If the medium is restrictive (like Twitter), then it tends to redefine community in its own image. Technology is in effect more powerful than community. If the medium is more complex and extensible, then it tends to fade more into the background and allows community to direct the technology in its own image. Community thus has more of the upper hand. That latter I think is what we want. In fact, when we say things like “it’s about how we use it” then we are assuming the latter.

Twitter is almost the purest example of the former in existence. It is such an important and powerful player in the industry precisely because it has been redefining communication in its own image. And that is precisely why it is problematic for our purposes. Facebook itself has the same issue to a lesser extent, and ultimately I’m not really defending it here. But at least it gives community more breathing room, and we have seen much more interesting social phenomena arise from it than from Twitter.

Put another way, I would say more real and rich communication takes place during two minutes of holding hands with someone you love and saying nothing, than during two days of Facebooking or two years of Twittering. Why is that? It’s all about the medium. Each medium interacts with and directs communication in its own way, but some are more restrictive than others and some are more human than others. It is important to be able to tell the difference beforehand. Because once you’re in it, your thinking becomes accustomed to the restrictions around you and you can no longer see beyond the walls of your shack.

Now to bring this back to Twitter in the church: I find the idea absolutely appalling. Some of the reasons have been mentioned by other commenters. Andy shows us how it encourages distraction over engagement, scatteredness over presence. DK reminds us of our addiction to attention, and Twitter is all about an attention economy. Anne points out the same tired pattern of uncritically accepting and “christianizing” secular culture rather than working to bring about Kingdom culture. And Ian: amen brother.

Jack Danger, dang, I have a lot of respect for you and I know what you’re saying: the one-to-many sermon mechanism is an anachronism from an age in which few were literate and almost none theologically intelligent. The problem is real, but Twitter is far from a “great” solution. It fails because it goes to the other extreme, assuming that everyone is (equally) theologically intelligent. This is not the case. People are literate and opinionated, but it can be argued that spiritual maturity and theological intelligence are nevertheless currently at a low ebb. The one thing worse than a clueless preacher (and believe me, I’ve seen them) is a congregation of a hundred clueless preachers all speaking at the same time (and believe me, I’ve seen those too).

Supporters of social technology would say that the system works anyway because it induces a meritocracy, where the “best” information (e.g. the “best” tweets) tend to rise to the top. Alas, that’s merely wishful thinking, for three reasons. First, who is qualified to judge what is “best”? If the pastor is, as you suggest, not wise and informed, then it becomes a free-for-all of incompetent judges judging incompetent material. Second, especially with something like Twitter that encourages large volumes of shallow information, the task of sorting through the mass of data becomes overwhelming. Third, and perhaps most importantly, as much as we intellectually want a meritocracy to work, our culture nevertheless despises the concept. Our culture thinks that meritocracy == elitism. It thinks so for a simple reason. Meritocracy means that *I* may not be (and in fact probably am not) one of the skilled and privileged few. Therefore, in a culture like ours where *I* is of ultimate importance, meritocracy is the most dangerous of systems.

Joseph complains that we’re overthinking. I respectfully but firmly disagree. Our problem is not that we overthink but that we don’t think at all. Churches are embracing things like this because they’re trendy and popular, leading quickly and easily to large and happy congregations. But does that mean that such things are *right*? Churches have bought into a culture that values trendiness over criticality. That’s not the mark of a healthy culture, and it certainly is not a mark of Christianity.

The nature of Twitter is that it is a flat broadcast medium, a means of limited outgoing expression. In tech-speak, it is not full-duplex. That is, it does not encourage two-way interaction; it has a strong one-way bias. Is that what church is evolving into? Just another means of libertine self-expression? Millions of churchgoers tweeting, but who’s listening?

Here’s one from Andy M:

I’m sure that there are creative ways that it could be used, but here is my opinion off the top of my head.

Imagine that you and a friend are deep in conversation, and then their phone rings, and they quickly answer it, and then for the next 5 minutes they carry on a complete conversation with whoever called, with you just standing there uncomfortable and not sure what to do.

Personally I think it isn’t just rude to be so easily distracted, but it shows a persons priorities, and where you fall within them. We desperately need to get back to face to face encounters with people. Electronic communication is not the same as talking with someone face to face and being fully present with them.

When God told Moses to climb Mt. Sinai there is an odd piece of scripture that essentially says, “climb up the mountain, and then be on the mountain.” There has been discussions about whether this was a typo or what, but there is this idea that God knows that when Moses finished climbing up the mountain, his human inclination would be to begin thinking about his climb down, rather than to focus solely on being on the mountain with God.

We need to learn to be fully present wherever we are. If we are with our family, then we need to be focused, mind body and soul, on our family. If we are in church then we need to “be” at church, if we are at work then we need to “be” at work.

I’m not saying that facebook, twitter, whatever cannot be useful and if used creatively maybe can be helpful with a service. But I personally don’t see how. And I also think that people overall are losing their ability to interact with other people face to face.

It is kind of like how a child, while they may love to watch Santa Claus, the easter bunny, disney characters, whatever, when they encounter someone dressed up as those characters the kid freaks out and starts crying, but put them back in front of the TV and they will gleefully continue to watch those same characters.

And one last one from Jack Danger Canty:

I think this could be a great solution to an as-yet-unsolved problem. The structure of Christian sermons is that there’s one person in front dispensing information to a large group of people who are only slightly less informed than the speaker is – and often more informed. For my part I’ve sat through so many sermons where I disagreed, had background info the pastor didn’t, had personal experience the pastor didn’t etc, and there was no way to express that. That’s no recipe for church intimacy.

It’s my opinion that this 1-to-many sermon structure is fundamentally broken in an age of literacy. I think silent conversations among the congregation is a helpful way to encourage engagement without drowning out the person who’s delivering prepared remarks. I think if most pastors knew how informed and opinionated and interesting the spiritual lives of each of their congregants is they’d find a way to turn the standard “passive lecture” format into a conversation. Twitter is just one way to do that.


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12 Responses

  1. queermergent says:

    Ok, i have not read through the comments YET on the previous post about twitter. i am flabbergasted and overwhelmed by Daniel Azuma’s views of Twitter. i find his technical take on twitter to be unclear and over my head. He says, ‘Put another way, I would say more real and rich communication takes place during two minutes of holding hands with someone you love and saying nothing, than during two days of Facebooking or two years of Twittering. Why is that? It’s all about the medium. Each medium interacts with and directs communication in its own way, but some are more restrictive than others and some are more human than others.’ i disagree. i have very rich relationships on both Facebook and Twitter. If he does not experience this, then that is his experience. But to paint broad strokes and generlise these mediums of communication for everyone else is so extreme in my opinion. My friends and i pray for each other, talk about life, share deep things. Yes, it is fun and we tweet and retweet things people say or links they send to interesting things. It is a place to pass info and be informed. Some of them i even connect with via skype. It is community, at least for me and my friends. It’s real life for me!

    We are living in a postmodern time. i took grad classes where even Len Sweet encouraged us to live surf the web when something was said that pinged our interest. It was very organic. i know school is different from church, but i think church needs to be more organic. i don’t think it is us buying into culture’s whims. It’s life and it’s organic and it happens. What’s wrong with tweeting something the speaker/pastor says to the world? If someone is bored, that is just honestly where they are at, When i have been bored i check out and doodle on paper or write ideas down that come to me for blog posts or whatever. i think WE box G-D in to think we need to get everything in a certain way. G-D moves and works in mysterious ways. Is it more about the pastor’s ego? i just think we need to relax about this and appreciate the technology being able to connect people around the world that would not otherwise be able to connect. i am not denying we need face-to-face community as well. i certainly have both and appreciate both.

    OK, i have ranted long enough.

    Thanks, Eugene, for another thoughtful post!

    Warmest Regards,
    Existential Punk

  2. D C Cramer says:

    Our church has developed a solution to both problems discussed above: (a) the problem of one-way communication via the pastor to the congregation and (b) the problem of impersonal twitter-speak. The solution?

    During his (prepared) sermon, our pastor actually asks questions to the congregation, who in turn actually offer their input (vocally). Our pastor still prepares the message for the week, does his studying, etc., but he plans time in his message to interact with the congregation to make sure that they are understanding the message, applying it personally, or even questioning or challenging it based on their own experiences. Is this solution so novel that we feel we must instead choose between (a) or (b)?

  3. Rebecca says:

    I love Daniel’s take on the limitations of twitter. I think a lot of the issue is that these types of technologies, while purporting to enhance communication with others, actually become very narcissistic. Twitter in particular functions mostly as a way to talk about yourself. And while reading others’ tweets can keep you up to date on their lives, it is more voyeuristic than conversational.

    I love Andy’s reference to Moses needing to “be on the mountain”. Too often we are not present with each other, even when we are occupying the same room.
    Communication major types can talk about our tendency to not listen to the person speaking but instead be constantly formulating our own response. And in-sermon tweeting is an extreme example of not practicing active listening. How can I listen deeply and intently to a sermon if I am constantly coming up with my twittered response to it? Maybe if we spent more time reflecting on the sermon afterwards, if we took the time to discuss it over dinner with a friend or spouse, if we meditated on the word throughout the week and then twittered or facebooked or blogged our reflections, that would be a better use of our time.

  4. Kate Setzer Kamphausen says:

    Two minutes holding hands ABSOLUTELY trumps two years on Twitter. What Twitter/Facebook permits is communication with ppl who are so far away from me in distance that I can’t hold hands with them, or in philosophy that I’d be afraid to hold hands for very long, or in life experience/life situation that I’d have nothing to say after the two minutes elapsed. You see: Twitter/Facebook fills gaps that face-to-face communication is leaving.

    It’s the same reason I text with my nine-year-old niece. To touch base, when I can’t see her, due to conflict of vastly different schedules, living far away, thinking all the time about things she has no point of reference for. It’s not a hug, but it’s a lot better than nothing.

  5. steve says:

    I particularly enjoy Jack Danger’s observations, although I’m not sure that Twitter is the best way to deal with the questions he raises. I’ve definitely been on the receiving end of sermons where my heart and soul begged for a venue in which to participate in the conversation.

    That’s why I lead a community group at Quest in which we engage in what I call “peer mentoring” — which means that each of us are given permission to speak into the spiritual lives of the others. Our focus is on bringing our faith to bear in the everyday elements of our lives, and we each need all the encouragement and ideas and support and love from the group as a whole, rather from just one person with all the wisdom.

    I think this addresses the frustration that Jack Danger brings up, that sense of not having a venue in which to share his opinions, experiences, and knowledge, and in a way that does foster church intimacy. It breaks up the one-to-many dynamic that is the norm at church venues.

    I must second Jack’s assessment that we have no idea “how informed and opinionated and interesting the spiritual lives … each of their congregants” are, and therefore must disagree with Daniel’s characterization of most church attenders being “clueless” and spiritual maturity is “at a low ebb.”

    I’ve been in the trenches, I’ve been doing these groups for three years and seen firsthand the depth of spiritual living that people are doing, and the vast resources that they hold that no one is asking them to share. Daniel says that our culture despises a meritocracy, for weak reasons, but I would argue that Jesus wouldn’t be that comfortable with a meritocracy either, simply because by definition it places only a few at the top. The body of Christ is about everyone participating. We each have an effect, a role. We each are a witness to Christ in our lives and sometimes that is the only understanding of a Christian that a person will see. Why _not_ give people the encouragement to grow, learn, speak, take charge, feel secure in their spiritual progression, and raise everyone up to a higher level of maturity?

    Again, I don’t think that Twittering is going to accomplish this — I think it has to be a face to face thing, a speaking not into a internet void but a speaking into the lives of others. (Shameless plug: come by the Q Cafe on Mondays at 7 p.m. if you want to check out our group.) But the fact remains that the only way that we grow spiritually is to exercise our maturity, to practice at it. We need to be involved, not passive. I would rather see a hundred “inexpert practitioners” of the faith being active and engaged in sharing their hearts and selves than any team of five experts attempt to have the same effect for Jesus.

  6. Andy M says:

    Wow, I got quoted.

    There is something that I heard about the Jewish people that I loved, and my wife and I have begun trying to act it out in our own lives. In many eastern cultures, inviting someone to your house to eat was a significant event. It was more than just “come and eat with us”, it was “we want to be your friend” The significance has mostly been lost in the west, but I believe that face to face engagement with other people is essential and far stronger than any other form of communication.

    I used to be involved in online RPG gaming, and knew many people there who spent the majority of their social life online. My experience of and through them leads me to choose face to face relationships over online relationships every single time. There isn’t any real commitment online. It is much easier to type a message to someone who is in a crisis, than it is to hug that person and journey with them through their crisis. That is commitment. That shows that they actually care.

    @Kate, I agree about using things to keep in touch with others through the internet is a great tool, but what is the difference then if we just use e-mail? That is an honest question actually, because I have never understood the draw to use facebook/myspace/twitter type stuff. I use e-mail all the time and it works just fine for all the stuff I want to share with people.

    @DCC, I would be afraid that most pastors, seminary educated as they are, probably couldn’t handle that kind of situation. That being said, I like it. You don’t see too many pastors who would want to stray from the simplicity of one-way communication.

  7. eugenecho says:

    @steve: you’re right that clergy often underestimate their community per the quote:

    “how informed and opinionated and interesting the spiritual lives … each of their congregants”

    while you’re not saying this, what takes me back is when folks want the same platform or the highest platform available in the church. leading a cgroup is valuable, important, and critical ministry. the best example i can give is a person that was a gifted musician but wanted to lead worship and only in that capacity or he didn’t want to be involved in any way.

  8. ziwei says:

    Mass led twittering during a service just doesn’t seem to work. a few individuals sending occasional twitters during the sermon on their own initiative seems fine, but not when it’s organized into a formal program.

    as for church i think back to the early church and there were probably only few times when the sermon mode was used: like for example for Paul to tell everyone they didn’t need to be circumcized for salvation. but at the same time we do already have more personal proactive study and that is small group and bible study time. there are times when i just want to hear and learn. who knows, let’s not conclude anything yet

  9. steve says:

    @eugenecho: “best example i can give is a person that was a gifted musician but wanted to lead worship and only in that capacity or he didn’t want to be involved in any way.”

    Wow, that would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

    My main driving passion is helping people to recognize and share their spiritual insights, in a context that will benefit others. We have a lot to learn from each other, and there is often not a good place in the church to share your own spiritual journey, at least not formally. I think this is where the desire to Twitter is stemming from.

  10. Kyong James Cho says:

    As someone who studies new media and religion, it doesn’t surprise me that early adaptors of technology are enthusiastic about incorporating new technological phenomena into church services.

    Far from continuing discussion that is usually dichotomized between those who think it is appalling and those who think it is useful, I want to address something similar to what Daniel said with regards to the actual medium (Twitter) changing the way that community is done. Daniel asserts that Twitter is a platform that does not encourage two way communication. I agree with Daniel and an old media scholar by the name of Marshall McLuhan that “the medium is the message”, but would disagree that Twitter is not conducive to two way communication. Twitter does not have a built-in mechanism in which you can directly narrowcast your comments to one particular person; yet, users have found a way around that by adding the ‘@’ symbol. The beauty of the Internet is that it is a versatile platform/medium/tool/landscape/metaphor in which multiple people can contribute in constructive ways in order to improve it. Many scholars talk about its versatility in this manner (for books about this that are accessible to lay people, see scholars like Jonathan Zittrain, Axel Bruns, and Clay Shirky).

    Twitter may not structurally be conducive to two-way communication, but the people have spoken and changed that. This applies in the Church context, as well. A couple of days ago I spoke with a Professor at the University of Arizona, who mentioned to me that there is a Church in which the Pastor projects the congregations’ Twitter feeds and response to them directly. This is an instance in which Twitter is used to allow interactivity between the pastor and the congregation.

    Rather than making a judgment call on this phenomenon, I want to offer a couple of issues that we can all constructively think about (I have not found all the answers to questions regarding new media and Christianity, either):

    The first issue is, with the adoption of the Internet, which tends to be more collaborative and less hierarchical, how does authority translate? For example, the pastor in said Church is responding directly to Twitter feeds that he projects in front of the congregation, which opens up a two-way communication street rather than closes it. Is the pastor’s authorial position compromised by such demonstrations? What is lost when all are a priesthood of believers with equal opportunity to input? What is gained by such a change?

    The second issue with Twitter and other technologies is related, and that is the issue of theology: once again, how can these new technologies shape the way we do theology? The printing press, which was a particularly innovative piece of technology back in the 16th century, aided the Protestant Reformation by allowing the mass production of Scripture in the vernacular language. That changed the face of Christendom entirely by changing theologies, church structure, and even doctrines.

    These are maybe some issues that we need to really think about.

  11. Andy M says:

    It could be argued that the invention of the printing press also had some significantly destructive side effects. Just imagine, for thousands of years the only way to mass communicate was to tell the stories face to face. To have face to face communication, whether it was one on one, or one to 3000 like in Acts.

    The medium itself generated relationships. There was no way of getting around it. But since the invention of the printing press, it could be said that civilization has worshipped at the alter of the printed word. But the printed word generates isolation. For the first time in history, someone can read their bibles all alone. This is brand new in terms of human history.

    I’m not against technology, but we must understand it’s inherent flaws that keep people from building relationships. I believe that while the internet is very useful, it also inherently keeps people apart from each other in significant ways.

    Just think, how many friends on facebook/twitter/whatever do you have? Now, specifically people who live more than 300 miles from you? How many people do you know on the internet that you have never met face to face?

    Now, how many people do you know who live on your street? In your apartment complex? In your church? I worked with a guy once that didn’t know but 2 other people at his church.

    Whether we like it or not, we tend to replace time we would have spent meeting people physically close to us, with time spent online. I am guilty of this as well. We need to learn to interact with the people closest to us.

  12. Vicki says:

    Hi Pastor Eugene,
    Just wondering if you saw John Piper’s comments on this issue:

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