They don’t know the music, they don’t have the time, and they have absolutely no desire to get up out of their chairs and shuffle their feet in this strange and awkward new way.
But Bruce Reyes-Chow, moderator of the 218th General Assembly and the pastor of a young, multicultural congregation in San Francisco, is trying to guide the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) into new ways of thinking — to show a mostly white denomination that’s disproportionately old why social media matters (to younger generations and to some Presbyterians too), and how they can be an important tool for congregations and middle governing bodies.
So the theme of the recent Moderator’s Conference, which brought presbytery and synod moderators from across the country for training and idea-sharing Nov. 20-22, had to do with the convergence between technology and church life. Because of his grandfather’s death, Reyes-Chow was not able to attend, although he visited via Skype (a way of making phone calls over the Internet, with video).
This confab over technology also hit — not surprisingly, it’s as though they were tempting fate — some jarring technological potholes, with dropped wireless signals and a sometimes fractious live feed.
But the organizers did get on-the-ground church folks talking about why it matters for Presbyterians to pay attention to social media and how it can be used, even if they don’t gravitate towards it naturally. Shared ideas ranged from Facebook Bible studies, so people don’t have to all be in the same room at the same time to participate, to presbytery committees holding conference-call discussions in geographically-dispersed areas.
Part of the argument for using social media is, quite bluntly, the world is moving that way. Many younger adults are already there — fluent and comfortable — and expect others to speak the language too.
“People are no longer coming to our churches just because the door is open,” said Byron Wade, vice-moderator of the 218th General Assembly and pastor of Davie Street Church in Raleigh, N.C. The Internet and social media are powerful ways of reaching people, “and if we ignore that in any way, we are missing out on a gold mine, a golden opportunity to let people know” who Presbyterians are “and who is Jesus Christ.”
Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist of religion at Princeton University and director of its Center for the Study of Religion, compares in his latest book, After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Something are Shaping the Future of American Religion, the church-going habits of young adults in the 1970s with young adults now. What he finds, according to Carol Howard Merritt, is that “there are six million people missing” — six million fewer young adults in churches now.
Merritt, a blogger and 30-something associate pastor of Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., is also a writer who has looked carefully at young adults and religion. She is cohost with Reyes-Chow of the God Complex radio show on the Internet; and author of Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation.
“Six million people missing,” Merritt said to those attending the conference – trying to explain why it matters that denominations try to understand what’s distinctive about younger generations and how they connect with one another. “They’ve wandered away from our pews, they’ve too often wandered away from our pulpits,” are missing from boards, sessions, and presbyteries.
Merritt spoke of the way that world events, politics, entertainment, and the economy can shape a generation — building her case with examples from the crowd.
A woman in her 70s described the influences of World War II and of growing up as the daughter of teachers in the Deep South. Blacks had to pay a poll tax and pass a literacy exam in order to vote. “People were getting lynched,” she said. “I was afraid for my parents to go out and register people to vote.”
A woman in her 60s described her sense from a young age that she was meant to be a pastor, but how “I got really sidetracked” because there were so few women in ministry, so few role models. Despite her strong sense of call, she didn’t go to seminary until in her 40s.
And a man in his 30s talked of the influence of the early video games — “you didn’t go outside anymore” to play — and of the Challenger shuttle explosion and the fall of the Berlin Wall. “The influential things became more cultural,” more tied to the influence of celebrities and music, he said. Asked about the attitudes of his generation towards those in authority and institutions, he described “a growing sense of ‘you don’t have much to tell me.’”
A grey-haired woman walked up to the microphone and said simply: “The pill.” Merritt described some of the pressures on young adults today, including rising student debt; an economy in which people switch jobs every few years and often live far from their families; the expense of housing.
“Here we are, this generation that is fundamentally disconnected,” she said. Yet “many of us long very much for connection.”
No thanks, Twitter
The conference leaders asked folks in the audience who don’t use Twitter or other forms of social media to give some of the reasons why they don’t.
Among their answers:
I don’t see any reason to use it.
I don’t have time.
I don’t know how.
I like my privacy.
“Because I don’t care what you’re making for dinner.”
A lot of people do think that way, Merritt acknowledged. But she looks at Twitter differently. She sees it as being closer to the conversations her family used to have on the front porch of her grandmother’s house when she was growing up.
“You may not be interested in what I’m having for breakfast, but that’s my story and I’m telling it,” Merritt said. And she’s listening too — to the bits and pieces of the stories and ideas that friends and colleagues share online. “There’s something about the mundane facts, the very boring things, that weave together and make something beautiful,” Merritt said. “That’s how I see Twitter. I see it as my friends from here and there, from all over the world, they’re just pounding out these sentences and as you begin to read them all together, it reminds me of my grandmother’s porch a little bit. There is that sense of connection,” sometimes with people she’s never met.
Melissa DeRosia, a pastor from Michigan, the moderator-elect of Lake Huron Presbytery and a member of the General Assembly Mission Council, spoke of the frustrations and isolation that sometimes come with being a young solo pastor in a rural area and the mother of two preschoolers.
“Quite often it’s a very lonely world to me,” DeRosia said. But she’s found other pastors on Twitter coping with the same issues — pastors who are willing to offer ideas for a sermon, for example, or guidance in trying to balance her busy personal and professional roles. “When I’m having a really bad day” and she tweets, “‘Please God, make them stop whining’ … there are always folks who respond back, ‘Melissa, I’m praying for you. Melissa, let me know if you need to talk.’”
They help her sort things out, 140 characters at a time.
Those at the conference also shared examples of what they’re already doing online — and ideas for doing more, or for avoiding problems. Among them:
• Prayer blogs. People from Merritt’s congregation provide prayers for a blog – some they’ve discovered in liturgies or elsewhere, some they’ve written themselves. The contemplative prayer group uses the blog as a resource, and “it’s become a tool for our congregation to pray together,” Merritt said.
• Teleconference session meetings. One man said elders of a certain age from his congregation don’t like to come out for night meetings or in bad weather. But when he started scheduling meetings by teleconference — using a free service — “I get 100 percent session attendance.”
• Online committee work. Some presbytery committees are using private online discussion groups to share documents and work online, which can be an efficient means of both sharing documents and involving multiple contributors on writing projects.
• Sermon podcasts. Merritt said her church has about 200 in worship on a typical Sunday, but 600 to 800 people listen to the sermons online. That’s a valuable tool in a commuter area or when people travel for work and can’t always be in church, she said. “Over and over again, we get heartfelt, fantastic e-mails thanking us for just putting our sermons up there.”
• Be careful what you post. Some warned of the need to get written permission from parents before posting photographs or other information online involving minors. And if posting a prayer list, be careful about including personal information that people might not want to be widely shared. For example, telling the world that an elderly woman is in the hospital might be an invitation, Merritt said, for thieves to come break into her house.
• Online reviews. Many congregations are accustomed to putting ads in local newspapers. But many younger adults either don’t read newspapers or do so only online, so they never see the ads. And many in considering churches will either check out the church’s Web site before visiting or read reviews on online sites such as Yelp or Google Maps. Working to get positive reviews of a congregation on such sites is both free and “very, very effective,” Merritt said.
• Web sites. Think of a congregation’s Web site as its front door, Merritt said. Is it welcoming and easy to navigate? If someone asks a question, will they ever get an answer? She also cautioned that how a congregation presents itself online should match the reality of what people actually find when they come to visit, so people don’t feel deceived.
• Emphasize social justice work. The Internet is full of energy and activism around social justice, so be sure to tell people about the work a congregation, presbytery, or synod is doing out in the world, she advised. Be creative — use video, blogs, Twitter, and YouTube to let people know what’s going on.
• Be conscious of the digital divide. Not everyone has access to computers; there can be real disparities based on age or socioeconomics. “It’s really a social justice issue,” Merritt said, to find ways to provide access to the Internet and computers for all who desire to log on.