Minding the Mission by Being Relational on Social Media

This is a piece that I wrote for The Congregational Resource Guide (CRG) Blog that was originally posted on December 14, 2011. The CRG recently announced that it will be closing and that some of its materials will be managed by either The Alban Institute or The Indianapolis Center for Congregations. Given the uncertainty of how or when the CRG content will be online again, I am reposting this piece here on my personal blog.

The very first social statement adopted by the newly formed Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in 1991 was The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective. The statement “sets forth affirmations and commitments to guide this church’s participation in society” by making three statements of commitment. The commitments dedicate the church to being an active participant in society through individual members, the broader institutions of the church, and to continually remain in dialog about relevant issues that impact the broader social context. In short, these commitments require the church to be in an engaged relationship with society.

But it is in the context of local congregations that these broad statements come into direct contact with our communities. What happens many times is that the missional nature of religion competes with the practical business of maintaining a congregation. In the book Open Source Church: Making Room for the Wisdom of All, author Landon Whitsitt presents a depiction of how this plays out. As needs arise, congregants with specific business and leadership skills are tapped to apply these same skills to a congregation. In time, Whitsitt observes, the daily life of congregations becomes less missional and more about finding the right operational approach. To put it another way, congregations become so focused on the transactions and policies of their daily business that they lose sight of their call to be in relationship with society.

This tension in congregations has existed before now, but in many ways it is being reshaped with the emergence of social media. It seems to me that many congregations and religious leaders are struggling as they attempt to find the right way to engage social media. I have observed the increasing number of lists that contain tips and “How To’s” aimed at raising a congregation’s social media profile. These articles typically embody a very businesslike, return on investment approach to social media. At the same time I have read the unmistakable lament among some religious leaders that social media is at the very least complicit in the breakdown of society’s attention span for all things important, including religion. These leaders tend to approach social media as a necessary evil in order to ensure that their message is heard by the flocks of distracted disciples.

Both approaches tend to miss the point that what we have in front of us is a huge opportunity to fulfill the mission. Social media is a framework within which we can enhance and extend our relationships with individuals that we know directly, as well as with broader groups of individuals in society. Even if we are never to meet all the individuals in our social media network face-to-face, the opportunity to connect and converse is unparalleled as compared to any other time in history.

In the Buddhist tradition, the pursuit of knowledge can many times take the form of question and answer. The goal, however, is not necessarily to know the right answer to the question, but rather what matters is the thought process by which one arrives at the answer. In like manner, I tend to think that there is not a single right way to use social media, but rather I am interested in the process of connecting and engaging through social media. Sure there are some mechanics involved as it is technology, but let’s not lose sight of the mission — being in an engaged relationship with society.

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