Graham Ford: Tweet-ological discourse

How do Christian leaders make sense of the technologies coming at us in waves? Like Karl Barth would do: by attending to what kind of people these new media turn us into.

What would Barth tweet?

If Karl Barth rightly claimed that all theological discourse is repetition, then I'd suggest that his Twitter page would be a beautiful, rehashed failure. As the vanguard of the social networking world, Twitter thrives on novelty. As one of the twentieth century’s few great theologians, Barth strove for depth. “The Church Dogmatics” simply would not work in 140 character bites. And yet the rapidly changing nature of communication, virtual and otherwise, requires church and institutional leaders to know what words to speak and how.

Over the past few months the meme of twitter, blogging proper, new media and theology has popped up in an increasing number of places both online and in print. Halden Doerge at “Inhabitatio Dei” and Ben Myers of “Faith and Theology” have both recently addressed what it means to practice theology and do church in an increasingly online world. Halden reflected on the temptations and ethics of blogging, while Ben developed a paper and blog entries on theology and the self in cyberspace. On the pastoral side of things Carol Howard Merritt at “Tribal Church” reported back about her experience in leading a webinar on social media, while Bruce Reyes-Chow, moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and himself a prolific tweeter and blogger, cataloged new opportunities and challenges that social media provide for clergy. “The New York Times” dutifully got in on the act deploying their best vague spiritual vocabulary in an article describing the impact of Twitter in faith communities. “The Christian Century” also weighed in, surveying the effect of handling information overload.

Where do these technology musings leave us? Reflections on the meaning of social media is certainly not new, especially among traditional news outlets which are increasingly threatened by "new media.” And given that mainline denominations routinely lag behind the technological curve, we should not be surprised to see only now an increasing level of conversation on the impact of the online world for church life. One constant in these conversations is an underlying anxiety: What are the rules in this brave new world?

As noted by many of the commentators linked above, questions about the church and new technology should not be framed in "either/or statements" but rather as “both/ands.” The question is not whether church leaders should use technology but whether they will do so creatively, effectively and faithfully. To that end, as Ben Myers suggests, an important framing question should be "What type of people does this form?" If Christian communities are serious about making disciples of Jesus, they should be most concerned about the effect of social media on the body. This concern should both recognize possible dangers (the potential for displacing face-to-face communication) along with new opportunities (Reading scripture and doing theology collaboratively).

It is this opportunity for collaboration that should most excite church leaders in the search for solid ground in the shifting sands of social media. While blogs do sometimes encourage ephemeral thoughts, they also invite feedback and on-going conversation. While Twitter catalogs numerous banalities, it also encourages distant friends to abide with each other, exposes developing theological musings to critique, and engages a wide circle of readers in the ongoing questions of church leadership. While new media is not a solution to what ails the church, it is a helpful tool in finding our way together.

Although Barth was never exposed to the curious phenomenon of Twitter, it should be recognized that his emphasis on reading the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other provided a theological approach to the standard technology of his time. Perhaps we can do the same in ours.

Graham Ford is a pastoral resident at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church (USA) in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.