Pastor says church ‘ultimate social network’
Holly Wright texts during worship at Trietsch Memorial United Methodist Church
as her husband, Rob, watches. UMNS photos by Reed Galin.
By Reed Galin*
June 25, 2009 | FLOWER MOUND, Texas (UMNS)
Tiny digital screens blink in the muted light of Trietsch Memorial United Methodist Church, randomly scattered like dozens of stars at dusk.
Texting is an unexpected sight at a Sunday service, but the Rev. John Allen thinks it is past time to change “the way we’ve always done business.”
In jeans and a golf shirt, holding his cell phone overhead, Allen paces across the pulpit. He encourages congregants to text someone with whom they are out of touch, or just to let someone who isn’t there know what’s going on in church this morning.
Teens in back rows text en masse, fingers flying across tiny keyboards. Closer to the front, scattered adults of various ages hunt and peck in the dark.
“The first question was what does Twitter have to do with The Bible, and that came from young and old, “ says Allen as he delivers the last of a series of sermons designated “The Theology of Twitter.” “I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the church as the ultimate social network, in which we all can be more effectively connected through sites like Twitter and Facebook,” using home computers linked to instant, shared messaging, and cell phones- no matter where people are.
Allen is troubled by the fragmentation of modern life and the challenges of creating a cohesive church community. He took action after an acquaintance went to the emergency room late at night and messaged his Facebook friends about the situation. The friends quickly responded with offers to stay with the man’s children and help in other ways.
The pastor wanted to spread that spirit and easy access to personal resources throughout his congregation, and began discussing it on Sundays.
“The church is struggling to keep up. We don’t live in a world in which we get our news once a day through the newspaper, it’s a 24-7 real time world… yet the church operates like we can still send out a monthly newspaper and meet just once a week and keep up with people’s lives. We can’t. We don’t live in that world any more.”
From the pulpit, Allen says his ‘Theology of Twitter’ isn’t about technology but about the eternal, unchanging focus of the church. “You can be the voice of God,” he preaches, still holding up his phone. “Think of that person who needs encouragement. Maybe they’re out of work… or something’s going on with their kids… text them now and say, ‘I’m praying for you and I will never give up on you because God never gives up on us.’”
It shocked choir member Chris Smith the first time Allen called out the phones in church. Smith realized he hadn’t communicated with his sister for too long, and texted her from the pew. That led to a long phone conversation in the parking lot after the service. Now, with help from his teen daughter setting up a Facebook account on his computer, Smith is linked into a growing network of people acting on Allen’s message of a more connected church community.
Allen knows there are members who don’t crave more technology in their lives. He conducts different Sunday services for the Trietsch membership of 4,500 with varying degrees of conservative tradition and emphasis on the social networking phenomena.
Still, he says, it’s very apparent from the response from most members that there is much to be gained from getting people linked in on social networks. He’s sending out Facebook and Twitter messages every day, sometimes from his own new Web-enabled phone.
Sitting in his office checking recent Facebook conversation, Allen observes that these tools are integrated into every area of society now, including government and conservative businesses. He sees other churches standing still while attendance declines, too resistant to change because, Allen says, “We’re scared. We are scared that … the holy moments are more wrapped up in the rituals than they are with truly connecting with God and each other.”
As he finishes the thought, Allen’s Facebook picture glows on the computer over his shoulder.
Another message scrolls onto the screen.
*Galin is a freelance writer and producer based in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.