August 28, 2015

Matthew Nickoloff: Take It and Tweet It

If St. Augustine were alive today, you could follow him on Twitter @BishopofHippo.

It wasn’t quite St. Augustine’s famous “take it and read it” conversion moment in his “Confessions.” But hearing the Rev. Keith Anderson discuss social media and pastoral practice at the Rocky Mountain Synod’s Theological Convocation was a kind of repentance for me.

Because now, I’m officially a believer in the gospel of “digital ministry.”

I’ve long been a skeptic of the salvation promised by the story social media tells. Looking around the conference room at dozens of pastors unable to listen to such a compelling presenter without burying their heads in their iPhones every five minutes only provided grist for the mills. I’ve always felt (feared?) that Facebook and “friends” were gateway drugs, the use of which would precipitate a rapid decline into gnosticism and narcissism.

But just as St. Ambrose unlocked the creative potential of new readings of Scripture for Augustine, Keith presented us with a radically different vision of digital media as a vehicle for digital ministry.

Keith reminded us that “people are not looking for information, but relationship,” and that “your website/sermon blog/Facebook profile -- that you never use! -- cannot love somebody.” He flipped the script on a broadcast mentality of social media, challenging us to consider the question: “How do we love people via social media? How do we extend grace and share Christ’s gospel through it?”

Now that’s a query Augustine would relish: challenging our disordered desire for the false “enjoyment” of media by considering the “use” -- in love -- to which we might put it.

Here’s the Augustinian point I took from Keith’s talk: Social media isn’t a way to extend ourselves into broader digital markets or proffer the worst projections of our egos, but is a gift and a tool for extending, in Keith’s words, “spiritual care, formation, prayer, evangelism, and other manifestations of grace into online spaces...where more and more people gather to nurture, explore, and share their faith today.”

As vicar at House for All Sinners and Saints, a community heralded as an exemplar of digital ministry, I’m amazed it’s taken me this long to see the light. HFASS self-identifies as a church comprised largely of “post-modern, urban, young adults,” which means that most of us practically grew up as cyborgs, or, as I learned (making me feel quite old), “digital natives.” So really, the question has never been “if” people congregate in digital spaces, but, given the fact of their online location, it’s a question of “how” grace and the gospel will find them there.

And one way grace can find them there is through our own pastoral presence. As Keith said: “By bringing the fullness of our lives to bear in ministry and social media, we bear witness to the fullness of life in God. After all, the real presence here is God’s, and it is through our real and authentic presence in social media that we most clearly and effectively point to God.” Keith’s point has a confessional tint that would delight the author of the “Confessions.”

Digital ministry also invites pastors to share a wider glimpse of their lives with their parishioners. The onus is not on being an exemplar of moral virtue; the invitation is to be a more fully human, social being. In the process, pastors and lay people alike have the opportunity to show how faith shapes our whole lives -- in the community, family, in the study, and not just in places designated as “church.” Pastors are challenged to be, not merely moral, but authentic, asking how our lives and practices, and not merely our words, constitute a witness to the gospel.

Digital ministry is another way people experience the good news of Immanuel, God with us -- through the attentive, loving presence of someone willing to enact Christ’s concrete presence in a disembodied realm.

Or as Keith proclaimed: “The return on our investment in social media is not to gain new members or pledges; it’s to set people free in the gospel. That’s my job as a pastor.”

That’s the voice of the child in Augustine’s garden, calling, “Take it and tweet it.”

That’s something worth re-tweeting.

This post, by Matthew Nickoloff, pastor, South Wedge Mission, Rochester, New York, was first published in Faith & Leadership and is reposted with permission.

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