using twitter at church

Karen linked, on twitter, to this NYT article – Lead Us to Tweet, and Forgive the Trespassers and thought I might be interested. The article poses the question “How can social media tools like twitter impact religious ceremonies for the better?”

Various Christians have weighed in on this debate. One somewhat famous pastor has signed up for twitter. Instead of attempting to promote himself, his church, or upcoming events, John Piper’s tweets attempt to communicate small excerpts from the bible in 140 characters.

Churches like Mars Hill in Seattle use twitter to keep their members and visitors informed as to what is happening. They have even used it during the worship services, and been covered by TIME magazine as a result.

Going further back in time (over a month now), we see Josh Harris giving a list of reasons against using twitter in church. I don’t often agree with this particular pastor, but in this case, I think he’s on the right track.

As the debate has broadened, we see people engaging in two sides of the argument:

  1. should the people who are sitting in the pews be distracting themselves from paying attention to their surrounds, and the service they’re in to compose short messages for a broad audience?
  2. assuming that they should, can we then rig up a screen or something that allows everyone to benefit from what’s going on by showing all the relevant tweets in the one place?

The term for all the tweets relating to a public event is called the “backchannel”. The main channel is what is happening on stage, and the backchannel takes what might otherwise be muttered asides from one person to another, and displays it in a way that all attendees (and indeed anyone who cares to look) might benefit.

Is it possible to create a backchannel at church? Certainly. Agree on a hash tag (a short, unique word or abbreviation that is preceded by a # character) and create a search for that tag. Display that hashtag, or the search results, and you’re ready to go.

Is it helpful? Here is where, I believe, the wheels start to fall off. The aim of gathering for a religious service is quite different to the aim of gathering for a conference. People who are engaged in the twitter backchannel not only lose some level of their engagement with what is going on at the front of stage, but also lose some of their engagement with those around them.

Some of the serendipitous communication that goes on at church is only possible when everyone is engaged in the task at hand – the worship of God, if you like. Some tasks involve your full concentration, and that every distraction you pile on will reduce your effectiveness at the task. To pay full attention to what is being said in a church service is difficult enough without the added cognitive load of compiling short summaries of what is being said, and – worse yet – trying to parse what others are saying, and tie those together.

In a conference situation, having a public backchannel can be quite helpful. For instance, you can determine – without interrupting the speaker – whether the question you would like to ask is one that others are also thinking about. You can get the details of a missed link that you failed to write down from a previous slide. You can even learn more about other people who are attending an event by seeing who else is tweeting about it.

All of these activities, though, would better be accomplished after the main church meeting is over. At least in my own opinion.

Twitter and other social media services have much to offer to wider church life, but I don’t think they have a place in the worship service itself.

What do you think? Distraction, or valuable backchannel?

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  1. Oh, I definitely think that would be so distracting during the sermon! During the question time, it might be useful though. I thought it was clever how, at Engage, we were encouraged to SMS in our questions for the speaker. We couldn’t see other people’s questions, but it was a good opportunity to ask certain hard questions anonymously.

  2. Yeah, I certainly wouldn’t want people twittering during the service. But if there was a question time, then that would be a different matter.

    Actually, just as interesting a question would be – how do you get a question time going at church? Would you have any questions for your minister after one of their sermons?

    More personally, on the occasions when I preach – would I be comfortable with a question time after the sermon? Hmm . . . going away to ponder.

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