There was an interesting post on the Methodist communication blog (here) the other day by the General Secretary of UM Communications, Larry Hollon. It was in Q&A format, though since he is listed as author I assume it was not really an interview. (If I am wrong, please correct me and I will update.)
I note that Rev. Hollon endorses taking new steps to “re-engage with the younger generation.” He notes, quite correctly, that there is much competition in the communication world for the attention of young folk. He says that, in the short term anyway, we should engage in social media to reach these folk. I couldn’t agree more. I am not sure, however, that we mean the same thing when he and I say “short term.”
I agree that personal, physical interaction is the best way to bring folks to Christ, but I suspect that the nature of on-line social networking will change to such a degree that it won’t be an issue of whether we use that as a stop-gap way to reach young folk until we get them in the door of the church. I think we will find that there will be a more advanced version of social networking that will replace the current one. This one may offer more interaction than previous versions and perhaps both do a better job of meeting needs and prove a bigger challenge to those who would pry its users from it and into the doors of a physical church. This may need to be a longer term solution than Rev. Hollon beleives.
I also suspect that as people become more used to social media, it will seem more common place, and many folks will crave the human touch that we, as yet, cannot experience by any means than being in actual presence with one another. Yet, social networking does offer ways to interact with folk that may not be reached at all. It is not true that the good is the enemy of the best. The enemy of the best would either be the worst or “nothing.” When discussing alternative ways of dealing with people, we often act as if the choice is between the best (such as people attending Sunday school, joining small groups and participating in corporate worship) and the good (such as people meeting online, discussing their faith in chat rooms and worshiping alone in their house or through interactive Internet.) I believe, from discussing things with quite a few friends from a group to which I belong and who primarily interact with church through the Internet, that the real choice is often between the best and nothing. These men and women will not set foot through a church doorway, (and having heard their stories I tend to understand why,) and it will be the Internet or nothing. Before they were online it was nothing.
I have had several discussions with pastors who I suspect would not agree with UM Com’s views, as they believe that “in-the-door” is the only way. I cannot tell if Rev Hollon is just being cautious or if he believes that the only use of social networking is a tool to reach kids and then let more traditional means take over. What he does not comment on is the fact that trends (see Pew research) are also moving in a direction of increased use of these networks by older age groups and by businesses. These media, or the ones that replace them, will likely be as prevalent as the telephone, television and e-mail are today. While, as I said, it may be that when such things become more common place folks will crave the closeness of human beings, they may use the Net to arrange those connections.
I also expect that many will see the on-line relationships as very real. I don’t see myself in that category, at least not to the extent others might, but neither do I agree with those that think God is too small to work through the Internet. The soldier on the other side of the world, the agoraphobic or bed-ridden person who relates through the Internet, the person living in a snowbound town or a country where they have no worship place; I tend to believe that the Holy Spirit will intervene and bring them closer together. And if for them, why not for others?
The Tonsured One