So what happens when John Stuart posts his daily devotions on his blog, “Heaven’s Highway”?
People write to him from India, Saudi Arabia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Folks from his congregation say things like, “That’s not what I believe,” or “I never thought about that,” and conversations begin.
And, as an added bonus, a teacher from a local high school is having students download his sermon podcasts. The students are preparing for an upcoming production of the musical “Brigadoon,” and their teacher wants them to get it right.
“They’re copying my accent,” Stuart, pastor of Erin Church in Knoxville and a native of Scotland, said with pleasure.
There is no blueprint to Web 2.0, but the simple truth is this. Presbyterians — like lots of other folks — are using Web-based technology more and more. They find it freeing, a doorway to discipleship, a way to creatively meld words and music and images and ideas.
At last summer’s Youth Triennium, for example, people connected through the Triennium’s Web site, but also through Facebook.com, where more than 900 people have joined one Triennium group, posting hundreds of photos and continuing to build connections long after the lights went down. At least one Triennium small group has created its own Facebook page. And anyone can dance along with the “I’m a Believer” or “Ant Party” energizers from Triennium on YouTube.
An eclectic group — pastors, elders, parents, people going on mission trips, seminary students, and more — post regularly on the Presbyterian Bloggers Web site, offering weekly devotions and a Wednesday “hump day prayer.”
Those kind of group-blog sites are increasingly common. The RevGalBlogPals site, for example, links blogs from women pastors and church professionals, who hold online “tailgating parties” to work on sermons, talk about spiritual books, share lectionary readings, and the ins-and-outs of their lives.
More and more, bloggers are engaging with each other, inking back and forth, commenting, making connections. Some folks play with synchroblogging, in which a number of bloggers take on the same topic at the same time, for example, “What would Jesus do with the church?”
All over the web, Presbyterian musicians sing, people talk about heaven and hell, congregations post worship music and sermons and prayer requests. At the MySpace page for “Conan the Presbyterian” — he’s John Vest, an associate pastor for youth ministry for Fourth Church in Chicago — one young friend wrote: “It’s about time you joined MySpace. Welcome to the 21st century.”
Vest actually doesn’t use MySpace much anymore; among teenagers, he finds more energy on Facebook, and says, “Students will respond to a post on Facebook much faster than they’ll respond to an e-mail or definitely a phone call. It’s a great way to keep in touch with kids.”
He posts invitations to events, photographs, and links to popular culture — hyperlinking to songs or TV shows or movie clips.
And “for a church like ours in an urban setting, where I’m dealing with dozens of schools, this is a great way to create community that transcends all of that,” Vest said. “Their relationship with each other is only when they’re here on Sunday. We can expand that through the whole week” with Facebook.
Robert Austell, pastor of Good Shepherd Church in Charlotte, posts audio feeds of his sermons on the church Web site, writes a blog and has set up pages on MySpace and Facebook, where he posts recordings of some of his music. “It’s been a good networking tool,” Austell says of Facebook, allowing him to keep in touch with Presbyterian colleagues he might otherwise run into at meetings only occasionally.
It’s all about interactivity — a free-flow of energy and communication.
“The traditional way of doing church or even traditional Web sites is that people have to come back to me for us to build a relationship,” Austell said. But Web 2.0 offers “so much potential for connecting with people,” Austell said — because the ongoing connections are built into the framework for people who opt in.
B. J. Woodworth, lead pastor of the Open Door Church in Pittsburgh, began writing his blog about two and a half years ago, when people from his congregation — many in their 20s and 30s — said they wanted to hear from him more often.
So Woodworth started blogging, about conversations in the Presbyterian and emergent church world, about the music he listens to and books he reads, about theology and prayer and “10 reasons why beer is better than religion.” (No. 6: When you have a beer, you don’t knock on people’s doors trying to give it away.)
“The response has been great,” Woodworth said in an interview. “I try to sit down once a week and write something,” although there have been busy seasons when he blogs less. “It’s like a public journal. I found that in particular, my congregation appreciates the authenticity, the honesty, the transparency.”
Through the blog, Woodworth tries to connect people to other lines of thinking — by linking, for example, to poetry blogs or to a blog that his brother-in-law, Matt, wrote when going through chemotherapy. When Matt died of colon cancer, Woodworth’s sister continued the blog for a time, writing about how, as a widow in her early 30s with three young children, faith was helping her through grief.
Woodworth said he still refers people to the blog who are confronting illness and loss and death — although Matt is gone, his wisdom lives on.
And now the Open Door congregation is having conversations about having a church blog — something interactive where anyone from the congregation could post. People could comment on themes from that week’s sermon or share stories of how God is working in their lives. “It really is a way of flattening leadership in the church,” Woodworth said.
There are cautions, though. Some people get overwhelmed by the glut of information — the last thing they want or need is more to keep up with, more messages pouring in. Some web content is great and some is not. And not everyone is familiar with podcasts or RSS feeds or the latest new thing.
At the Open Door church, in an urban neighborhood of Pittsburgh, “the digital divide has become an increasingly important conversation for us, because many urban poor or working poor … don’t have the faintest idea” about web technology, Woodworth said. “They don’t have Internet access, they don’t have e-mail. As the Lord enables us to reach out to the community around us and we become more representative of our community and our neighborhood, things need to change.”
But change is an inherent part of life on the web.
Stuart, the pastor from Knoxville, started off a few years ago sending a devotional by e-mail to the elders from his church. Others from the congregation heard about the devotionals, and people started passing them around. So Stuart started posting the devotionals on the Web — in both text and podcast form — and writing a blog encompassing prayers, artwork, online studies and current issues.
Lately, for instance, Stuart has written about a second-century Christian named Tertullian — hoping to learn from the way Tertullian confronted heresy some lessons for the church today in a secular culture.
He writes from his office first thing every morning, which is “a good discipline for me,” Stuart said. It sharpens his thinking on theology.
And through the feedback he receives, by now, from all over the world, “you get to see the creativity of God, and how the Holy Spirit is working all over the place,” Stuart said. “The Internet gets a bad name, but I love reading these things, because I realize God is much bigger than I think.”