Building Relationships Online, Offline, or Both?

This is a piece that I wrote for The Congregational Resource Guide (CRG) Blog that was originally posted on January 2, 2012. 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.

A friend of mine recently asked me an important question regarding relationships in the context of our local congregations. He asked whether or not the focus of the individuals and leaders that collectively represent congregations shouldn’t be on building relationships offline before engaging social media to this end?

Setting aside the social media aspect for the moment, the question really boils down into two critical points for consideration. The first is finding a model that can best guide our relationships as individuals, leaders, and congregations. The second is to locate how we, as a community, can best embody this model.

For the Christian author and theologian Sallie McFague, these two points come together in her book Models of God in which she examines three models for God: God as mother, God as lover, and God as friend. Through these models, McFague explores God’s relationship with the world as creator, savior, and sustainer. The relationship of God as sustainer, as friend, is one in which we are invited into a collective relationship that is intended to be a partnership with God in caring for the needs of the world. McFague describes this model for friendship as inclusive, one that can be imagined as individuals standing “side by side, absorbed in some common interest.” God as friend and sustainer invites us to be in a community “which is a gathering of those committed to the vision of a healed, liberated world.” This is an important distinction from some of the more classical models of friendship which tend to be selective, exclusive, one-to-one and focused more on the needs of the individuals.

And how do we as a community fulfill this type of inclusive friendship? McFague suggests that it is when we openly invite others to join us at the table in the shared meal. Hospitality, in this meal, is not extended only to friends but to all. The shared meal is not unique to Christians as many religious traditions celebrate a shared meal: Muslim iftar, Hindu prashada, and Sikh langar to name a few. McFague suggests that through the shared meal we can begin to break down the fears we maintain of others, of the stranger. And furthermore that it is only by inviting the stranger into our community that we can truly begin to understand others and thus care for the needs of the world.

So back to my friend’s question, should this type of relationship precede our involvement with social media?

If you have been following along with me these past few months you will know that I’ve been thinking about social media as a framework, and as such there is no one size fits all approach. For this reason I feel that there is not a single answer to this question. However I’d like to suggest that we consider social media’s ability enhance our relationships. The type of friendship and relationship building suggested by McFague is applicable to all facets of life — both online or offline. Much like participating in the shared meal can enhance our relationships, social media is a means by which we can gather in community and extend our hospitality to others — including strangers. Social media does not replace our need to gather as a community, but in today’s context the opportunity exists to leverage social media to stand side by side with others, focused on a common vision to heal and liberate the world.

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.

Framing Relationships Online

This is a piece that I wrote for The Congregational Resource Guide (CRG) Blog that was originally posted on November 17, 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.

I have found it hard to miss the tension in the blogosphere as congregational leaders attempt to discern the pros and cons of social media. From what I’ve seen, there are some deep concerns that go right to the core of how social media are shaping us and our relationships.
socialnetworksTake, for example, the post by Laura Truax as she wrestled with the “foible” of un-friending former and current members of her congregation on Facebook. Her decision was driven by a desire to protect those individuals from the possibility of being witnesses to an emotionally charged online discussion over the topic of sexuality. Or a more recent piece by Gail Song Bantum, a pastor at a church in Seattle, that explores the issue of identity online, and if social media represents a true self or not. Her concerns appear to come out of her personal discernment process regarding how much social media should define our identity versus just being a tool or utility.

Have you noticed, or even felt, these emotions? Have you struggled with finding the “right” approach to engaging and maintaining relationships on social media? Or perhaps you have pondered the meaning of friendship online altogether? You are not alone.

Mark Vernon, a former priest in the Church of England, acknowledges the tension in our online relationships in his book The Meaning of Friendship. Vernon writes that “the anxiety stems from whether the virtual world is a good, safe and honest world in which to get to know and be known by another — or at least whether it is good, safe and honest enough.” Or, in other words, is social media a good framework for cultivating relationships?

To help unravel this question, Vernon turns to the philosopher Aristotle for some guidance. Aristotle concluded that there are really different categories of relationships that we might collectively refer to as friendship. In other words, Aristotle recognized that friendship is more of a framework rather than an absolute — there is no one size fits all.

In a prior post, I began to explore a framework of a different kind that also can inform our online relationships, and that is the emotional framework of trust. The trust framework puts an equal emphasis on both earning trust and giving trust, thus recognizing that trust requires a bilateral relationship between leader and follower.

I have to wonder how much of the tension around social media might be relieved if we acknowledge that it is a framework, and as such is a manifestation of the frameworks of friendship and trust. By doing so we allow ourselves to imagine it as a means by which we can enhance and extend our relationships across time and distance. Vernon concludes that this could serve to reduce “the fear that people are attempting to get to know each other via the one-dimensional medium of the screen, and are instead able to draw on what they know of their friends face-to-face.” And after all, isn’t that what friends are for?

There remains the broader question of how congregations engage in building relationships on social media, and this can undoubtedly benefit from this type of thinking — but that will have to be a topic for another day.