Throughout the week, Stephanie Drury of Stuff Christian Culture Likes often retweets the best (worst?) of cringeworthy Christianese that she comes across. If you follow her, you know what I'm talking about. There's the date night tweet: "Date night with the hottest hubster on the planet: thank you Lord!". There's the Sunday morning tweet: "So blessed and inspired by the rockin' worship at @ontrendchurch today!!!" I made those up, obviously. But they could easily be real.
As should be the case, many Christians are taking to the digital sphere more than ever to talk about their beliefs, make new friends, and engage with people in different ways. Why? Why does anyone seek online community with people who share their interests and opinions? We learn from each other and help each other to grow. Then there's the other side of things: reaching out. Digital evangelism. "Doing church" online. Or even just living out your faith publicly, in an attempt to show others what being a Christian is like. It's been really interesting to observe and be a part of this - through events like the Christian New Media Conference, or by keeping up with research from CODEC, or reading #DigiDisciple posts over at the BIGBible Project, or reading the work of bloggers like Vicky Beeching, who discusses digital media in many of her posts.
When it comes to church and social media, views are still pretty divided and emotions run high when certain things are discussed. Live-tweeting a sermon or church event, using a phone or tablet to take notes or look up resources during a service? Not a problem as far as I'm concerned, but I came across a post on a forum this week where many people considered that sort of thing to be the height of rudeness and "disrespect". Some months ago, when a post was made on my own church's Facebook page canvassing opinions on livetweeting Sunday mornings, people were either very enthusiastic or completely disapproving. Many Christians make a point of giving up social media, either indefinitely or for a shorter period of time such as Lent. It's often seen as something that's "unhelpful" and detracts from the importance of "real" relationships.
To me, seeing online relationships as "less real" or less "authentic" or "helpful" compared to relationships with people we didn't meet through the internet is outright wrong. I don't really feel I can sugarcoat that. As an introvert, I'm not sure whether I'm more likely to think that, but I'm also someone who has got to know a lot of wonderful people through blogs, message boards and social media. I can't imagine seeing all of that as the enemy, something to be given up or deleted purely for the reason that it might detract from so-called "real" community. I was definitely in agreement with Vicky when she wrote a post earlier this year about why she disagrees with "giving up social media for Lent".
"I feel that the internet is a crucial place to be – a genuine space for community, relationship and mission. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Let’s learn discipline and boundaries and become people who can occupy the online space well and healthily," she said.
Occupying the online space well is a key issue here. The digital world doesn't have to be less "authentic" than the offline world. It can, however, take on that feel. People say things online that they wouldn't dare to say to someone's face. They create internet personas through social media and blogging, and it doesn't always go down too well. Some of the people who come in for the most criticism are the bloggers who are viewed as focused on creating an image of perfection, or are considered "fake". We want people to be "real".
One thing I think we should feel challenged about, as Christians who "do" digital media, is keeping it real. I talked about trite Christianese tweets at the beginning of this post because they're now ubiquitous enough to be parodied, and they're an example of people "doing" digital media in an attempt to reach out, or be a good witness, or whatever you want to call it, but failing to keep it real. So your church has encouraged people to get involved in social media as a way of sharing their faith and being positive about Christianity? Get involved. But keep it real. What do I mean?
1) Talk about stuff other than church
Yes. We know you go to church. But you also have a life outside of Sunday mornings, prayer meetings and other church events. Talk about it. If every single tweet, status update or post is related to something that happened at church, how awesome church is and how much you love it...well, great as that is, it gets a bit wearing. Believe it or not, you can have opinions about things without them having been mentioned at church that week. You can, believe it or not, talk about current events, or your hobbies, or even pander to all those people who really hate social media by talking about what you just ate for breakfast.
2) You can admit to having a bad day, or struggling with something
Okay, so it's probably not so good if things go the other way and every single online interaction is a whine. But it won't make you look bad. You don't have to pretend you're relentlessly upbeat and ecstatic about everything. When things aren't going so great, people won't judge you and your faith. Okay, some might do, but you should probably just ignore them. Most people will want to support you. Other people might see that you're going through something, that you're questioning something, and feel more of a connection than with someone who seems to have it all figured out. Don't feel you have to stay "on-message".
3) Interact with people in ways that don't seem like an advertisement
We know you love your church. But you know, moderation is the key here. People don't want to feel like they're being sold something when you live out your faith in front of them. They're consumers, but they're also wary of ploys, of feeling like they're being scammed. We shouldn't reduce Christianity to slick branding (regardless of what you think about "branding" Christianity, which is another can of worms and probably a whole series of posts). Stop feeling like you have to constantly advertise, and build relationships instead. Reply to people. Engage them in conversation about their newest blog post or a news story they've retweeted. Help them out if they have a problem (in a genuine and compassionate way).
4) You can just be you
You: the person you are "in real life". Don't use trite Christianese platitudes "in real life"? Don't do it on the internet. If my next Facebook status or tweet actually said "Date night with the hottest hubster on the planet: thank you Lord!" it might get plenty of "likes". I might also get a couple of confused messages from people wondering why I'd suddenly started using phrases like "hottest hubster on the planet", and whether I'd forgotten to precede said tweet with a SNARK KLAXON. Besides, we don't do a weekly "date night" (I know, I know, disowned by Christian Culture right there, marriage down the pan, etc etc) so my own husband would be pretty confused as well. You don't need an online persona in order to talk about your faith.
5) When it all goes overboard, it can - and will - alienate people
Here is a post on the Her.meneutics blog about the "worst ever Christian clichés". It sums up what I'm trying to say. US Christian culture is worse for this than UK Christian culture, it has to be said (sorry, friends across the pond. Maybe it's got something to do with our complete lack of well-known young preachers). So you can guarantee that plenty of your fellow Christians find it a bit too much. But outside of Christian culture altogether, no-one talks like this, ever. And reaching out to people is about reaching them where they're at, not bombarding them with phrases and terminology that can genuinely sound a bit bizarre if you didn't grow up in the church. Similarly, there's a lot to be said for not trying to be overly "trendy", if it's just not you. Just relax.
Image from here.