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Should busy pastors spend time and energy in the 'dumpster fire' of life in social media?

Should busy pastors spend time and energy in the 'dumpster fire' of life in social media?

If there are problems in the pews these days, most pastors will learn about them the way they learn about almost everything else -- their smartphones will blow up.

It may be a text messages, a blitz of tweets or an online post that ignites a long comments thread with the faithful trading theological jabs or making pious, passive-aggressive remarks about church life. Other messages will be specific and personal, often leaving pastors confused about the urgency of these terse signals.

"People can create online personalities that are simply not real. … A lot of what they say in social media has little to do with who they really are and all the fleshy, real stuff that's in their lives," said the Rev. John Jay Alvaro, of First Baptist Church in Pasadena, Calif.

Thus, Alvaro and the church's other clergy are committed to this strategy: Always move "one step closer" to human contact. "What we want is coffee cups and face-to-face meetings across a table. … You have to get past all the texts and emails and Facebook," he said.

In fact, Alvaro is convinced that online life has become so toxic that it's time for pastors to detox. Thus, he recently wrote an essay for Baptist News Global with this blunt headline: "Pastors and other church leaders: Give up social media. Not for Lent, but forever." His thesis is that the "dumpster fire" of social-media life is making it harder for pastors to love real people.

To quote one of Alvaro's Duke Divinity School mentors -- theologian Stanley Hauerwas -- today's plugged-in pastor has become "a quivering mass of availability."

"Any benefit you perceive social media is giving you pales when compared to the real losses of cultivating your online social presence," wrote Alvaro. "Or take it from the other direction. If everyone in your congregation got off Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc., your ministry and your pastoral life would improve immediately. Well, not immediately. First there would be withdrawal, anger and other addictive reactions. Drugs don't leave your system peacefully."

After evaluating his own experiences in ministry, and talks with other pastors, Alvaro thinks that many people don't understand that social media programs are designed to amplify messages -- especially "negative emotional content" -- so that they spread as far as possible, as fast as possible.

This commercial system is "built to make you angry or sad, but with the promise that good news is one more scroll away. It is a slot machine of empty promises," he wrote.

Yes, it's satire: How to Bee a perfect Christian in a world defined by niche culture

Yes, it's satire: How to Bee a perfect Christian in a world defined by niche culture

When newcomers arrive at a megachurch these days, they face an obstacle course of challenges -- from deciding how much to tip the parking-lot guy to tricking their normal children into looking like cherubs.

Finally, loaded with visitor swag -- donuts, coffee, official church water bottles, snappy Christian t-shirts, the pastor's new book -- they head into the flashing lights, dry-ice fog and pounding pop music inside the auditorium.

Now what? The bottom line: Look spiritual.

"On the powerful choruses, lift your hands high with abandon. On the subtler verses, tone it down a touch," advises the snarky narrator in the new book "How to Be a Perfect Christian," by the duo behind The Babylon Bee, a Christian satire website.

After the guitar solo, there will be a "bridge" that worshippers sing over and over and over: "Go for it with both hands and a feigned expression of emotion on your face. Sway side to side like a tree in the wind. If you open one eye at this point, you'll probably notice that people … are staring at you in awe that they're in the presence of one so holy."

The book's goal isn't to mock Christianity, but to help believers understand that many churches have evolved into self-help supermarkets defined by trends in mass culture, said Bee founder Adam Ford. Often, faith turns into another "niche" product.

"We push back against the commercialization and 'celebritization' of so many aspects of the church," noted Ford, who does email interviews since he struggles with anxiety attacks. "Get a famous pastor with a lot of Twitter followers, host the most carnival-like 'church services,' make sure everyone is as comfortable and entertained as possible, preach a Zig Ziglar-style message, and you'll get more people to come to your church. Like churches are circus franchises or something, with the ultimate goal being more butts in seats."

Ford wanted to become a pastor, but veered into the more private world of digital publishing (Adam4d.com). He founded the Bee in 2016 and recently sold the site, in part because of the hot spotlight caused by its success and a run-in with Facebook over content.

Colorado students network to unplug key social-media apps, and an archbishop notices

Colorado students network to unplug key social-media apps, and an archbishop notices

Anyone trying to reach Cason Kurowski and his family at night in their home outside Denver needs to remember one thing.

Unlike most high-school juniors, Kurowski doesn't keep his smartphone within an arm's length of his pillow. In fact, the whole family leaves mobile phones downstairs at night, including his parents.

"It's amazing how much it helps me get a better night's sleep, since my phone isn't going off all the time," he said, reached on his smartphone (#DUH) after classes at Heritage High School in Littleton, Colo.

Wait, there's more. Back in September, Kurowski and some friends made strategic -- some would say radical -- tech changes after the news of two teen suicides, in two days, at area schools. Some students in this circle were friends with a Heritage student who committed suicide last year.

After several planning sessions, they launched OfflineOctober.com and urged friends to delete four specific apps -- Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter -- from their phones for a month. The goal, Kurowski explained, was to stop "hiding behind screens. … We wanted to try spending more time face to face, instead of just looking at phones."

The project grew through word of mouth, calls, emails, texts and, ironically, social media. Local news coverage helped spread this slogan: "Don't post a story. Live one." Students started planning informal gatherings to cook, play games, go hiking or just hang out.

At some point, their work caught the eye of someone whose support could help take the movement to another level -- the leader of the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver.

The online Catholic bishop pays a visit to 'Court of the Gentiles' at Facebook

The online Catholic bishop pays a visit to 'Court of the Gentiles' at Facebook

In Jerusalem's ancient temple of King Herod, there was an outer courtyard in which Greeks, Romans and non-Jews could gather to pray, pose questions and debate with any religious authorities willing to do so.

Whether modern clergy want to admit it or not, Facebook has turned into a "Court of the Gentiles" for two billion-plus users, said Bishop Robert Barron of the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, speaking recently at Facebook headquarters near San Jose, Calif. Social media is where people air their doubts and convictions, hatreds and hopes.

Religion is often a bone of contention on Facebook, said Baron, an auxiliary bishop known for years of work online and in mass media. However, these digital faith fights rarely offer constructive arguments that produce clarity and understanding, as opposed to anger and confusion.

What the Internet needs is better arguments about religion, he said, in a talk that featured numerous lessons from St. Thomas Aquinas, but only one allusion to President Donald Trump.

"Some people say, 'Why are you encouraging people to have arguments?' By 'argument,' I mean something very positive," he said, in a talk that, logically enough, has been posted on Facebook. "If you go on much of social media -- I've been doing this now for much of the past 10 years, doing evangelization through the Internet -- you'll see a lot of energy around religious issues. There'll be a lot of words exchanged, often very angry ones -- a lot of energy, but very little real argument about matters religious. …

"That's a serious problem, because if we don't know how to argue about religion, all we're going to do is fight about religion."

Many Facebook combatants act like they can force other people into agreement, he said. Others "throw up their hands" and assume it's impossible to make progress when dealing with religion. True arguments take place in the middle, among people who believe faith and reason can work together.

Churches late to Facebook party?

A mere three years ago, Diana Davis published a hands-on book for church leaders entitled "Fresh Ideas For Women's Ministry." When flipping through its pages, she said, one of the first things she notices is a missing word -- Facebook. She needs to rewrite the whole book to cover this reality gap.

"That obvious, isn't it? It's so obvious that we ought to be using Facebook to tell more women about our Bible studies and prayer groups and retreats and things like that," said Davis, who has been married to a Southern Baptist pastor and administrator for nearly four decades, working in Texas and Indiana.

This connection is certainly obvious in America's megachurch subculture and the digital-media pros and market-research consultants who serve it. Davis, however, has focused most of her attention as a speaker and writer on churches that occupy corners in ordinary neighborhoods, not the giant sanctuaries that resemble shopping malls.

Lots of churches, she noted, don't even have solid websites. Facebook? Isn't it that computer thing all the teens use to waste time?

"Many small churches, or even our medium-sized churches, have nothing -- nothing," she said. "There are people who still do not realize that if you're not online, or if you are not on Facebook, you do not exist for lots of people today. Your church simply does not exist."

The disconnected leaders of these churches should start doing the math, she argued, in a Baptist Press essay offering advice to those who have remained unplugged from Facebook.

First, pastors should request "a show of hands to find out how many church members use Facebook," she said. "The average Facebook user has 130 registered 'friends,' so if just 20 church members use Facebook, that's potentially 2,600 people who could read posts about your church. One hundred members with Facebook could touch 13,000. ... Convinced?"

Once they recognize the potential, religious leaders must learn how to handle life in the parallel universe of social networking. Here are some key rules drawn from work Davis has done with church leaders who have taken their knocks.

* It's crucial to understand the differences between websites, which users enter on their own seeking information, and Facebook pages, which -- through "friends" links -- can send semi-invited messages into someone's personal "News Feed."

"With Facebook," she explained, "you're sending messages to your members, but you're also sending messages to their friends and then, potentially, to their friends and on and on. So it's more aggressive, in a way. You're on offense, not defense."

* Newcomers should proceed with caution in this casual, yet intense medium. Clergy, she said, "know they have to think before they speak. Now they're learning that they have to think before they click. ... For example, pastors are supposed to use the language well. But if you put something on Facebook that has two or three misspelled words in it people are going to think that you don't know what you're talking about."

* It's important to keep messages short, positive and audience appropriate. Facebook, she said, "is a good place to send out a prayer request, but it's not the place to share details of someone's surgery. This is not the place to talk about the fine details of your church's finances."

* Know that even simple amateur videos can help. For example, senior adults are more likely to feel comfortable visiting an exercise class if they can watch a short video showing others taking part. It helps to show newcomers what your flock is doing.

* Social networks cannot replace the human touch of true human networks. Facebook posts cannot replace a covered-dish supper, but they can help bring more dishes and people through the church door.

For example, as soon as news reports began about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Davis said her own church rushed out a message urging members and their friends to attend a prayer event. Then volunteers sent the message to other churches and their small-group networks. In short, the invitation "went viral" at the local level.

The result: Instant prayer service.

"That message went all over the place," she said. "We could have never done that by telephone -- that fast, to that many people outside our church. People came from everywhere. ...

"This is real. This is something that more churches just have to try."

A social media Reformation?

As every avid Twitter user knows, there are only 140 characters in a "tweet" and that includes the empty spaces. The bishops gathered at the ancient Council of Nicea didn't face that kind of communications challenge and, thus, produced an old-fashioned creed that in English is at least 1,161 characters long.

No wonder so many of the gray-haired administrators in black suits in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops struggle with life online. It's hard to take seriously the frivolous-sounding words -- "blog" and "tweet" leap to mind -- that define reality among the natives on what Pope Benedict XVI calls the "Digital Continent."

"In the past, the church would often build new parish structures, knowing that people would recognize the church architecture and start showing up. On the Digital Continent, 'If you build it, they will come' does not hold true," said Bishop Ronald Herzog of Alexandria, La., in a report from the body's communications committee.

"We digital immigrants need lessons on the digital culture, just as we expect missionaries to learn the cultures of the people they are evangelizing. We have to be enculturated. It's more than just learning how to create a Facebook account."

This is important news in an era in which recent research from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that the Catholic Church was retaining 68 percent of its members who, as children, were raised in the fold. While the church is making converts, those who have left Catholicism in recent years outnumber those who have joined by nearly a 4-to-1 ratio.

Almost half of those who left Catholicism and did not join another church exited before the age of 18, as did one-third of those who chose to join another church. Another 30 percent of young Catholics left the church by the age of 24. At that point, the departure rate slowed down.

Truth is, it is almost impossible to talk about the lives of teens and young adults without discussion the growing power of their social-media networks. For young people worldwide, social media and their mobile devices have become the "first point of reference" in daily life, warned Herzog.

"The implications of that for a church which is struggling to get those same young people to enter our churches on Sunday are staggering. If the church is not on their mobile device, it doesn't exist."

As recently as a similar report in 2007, it was clear the bishops were hesitant to discuss the digital world because they feared its power when used by the church's critics, said Rocco Palmo, who produces the influential "Whispers in the Loggia" weblog about Catholic news and trends.

The Herzog report was a step forward, primarily because the bishops seem to realize this is a subject that they cannot ignore. That's significant in an era in which many Vatican officials still cling to their fax machines and struggle to keep up with their email. During the recent Baltimore meetings, said Palmo, there were more iPads in the hands of younger bishops "than you would find at your local Apple store."

"In the old days, that stone church on the corner was a sign of the presence of God in your community. Well, that's what a church website is today," he said. If bishops and priests cannot grasp "that one-dimensional reality in our culture, how are they supposed to grasp the two-dimensional, interactive world of social media?"

The theoretical stakes are high, noted Herzog, but it has also become impossible to ignore the raw numbers. For example, if the 500 million active Facebook users became their own nation, it would be the world's third largest -- behind China and India.

The bottom line: Catholicism may be "facing as great a challenge as that of the Protestant Reformation," said the bishop.

"Anyone can create a blog. Everyone's opinion is valid. And if a question or contradiction is posted, the digital natives expect a response and something resembling a conversation," said Herzog. "We can choose not to enter into that cultural mindset, but we do so at great peril to the Church's credibility and approachability in the minds of the natives. ...

"This is a new form of pastoral ministry. It may not be the platform we were seeking, but it is an opportunity of such magnitude that we should consider carefully the consequences of disregarding it."