By Elizabeth Drescher
This week, the Pew Internet & American Life Project released a report, “Social Networking Sites and Our Lives,” based on a survey of the social networking practices of Americans. The most pronounced finding across all social networking social networking sites was that active social networking participation does not, as is commonly opined, result in social isolation or a lack of relational intimacy. Further, social networking participation tends to enrich rather than diminish participation in face-to-face relationships. What does this mean for churches? As I mulled this a bit through the week, I couldn’t help but think of the digital ministry of the Rev. Bruce Robison, of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh, PA.
I profiled Robison in my new book, Tweet If You ♥ Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation. Below is an excerpt from the book that highlights Robison’s minimalist, yet high impact social media practice. My take is that mainline ministry leaders like Robison have begun to capture some of the potential of new digital media platforms to enrich church communities by engaging believers and seekers in the midst of their everyday lives. As the most recent Pew report shows, regular integrating digital engagement with less frequent face-to-face encounters enriches relationships, nurtures community, and, it would seem, contributes to sustaining the Church as a meaningful—and multi-platform—site for social and spiritual connection.
I imagine Bruce Robison on one of those old-timey bikes—the kind with a basket on the front and a bell that goes brrrr-ring, brrrr-ring, brrrr-ring. In my mind’s eye, he’s dressed like a nineteenth-century parson just come from morning prayer, black cassock waving behind him as he wheels over cobblestone streets to visit Mrs. Dunby, who has been uncharacteristically absent the last three mornings. It could be her arthritis acting up, he thinks. Or, perhaps it’s the cold going around that’s punctuated the homily with sniffles and coughs the past couple weeks. Whatever, it’s not like Lily Dunby to miss Morning Prayer, so the Rev. Robison pedals toward the park, waving to the gaggle of old guys drinking coffee and gossiping at a table outside the local cafe.
When this scene plays out in my head, it is always autumn in the neighborhood where the thick-stoned St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church serves as a reminder of the more upscale history of Pittsburgh’s Highland Park neighborhood, dotted as it once was with the small estates of the Carnegie-Frick-Mellon set. I see gold and scarlet leaves floating from the trees as families stroll down the avenue after Sunday services. For a very long time, though, the neighborhood’s been on somewhat harder times, a victim of the collapse of the steel industry in the seventies and one downturn after another in the years since then. It’s still a lovely neighborhood, but it’s more urban now, a little grittier, more working class with an artsy, yuppie edge.
Still, Robison brought the Herbert-esque fantasy to mind himself as we talked about his use of social media in his ministry. ‘You know, the church used to be the center of a town or a village,” Robison said. “A priest helped to keep people connected with each other in that community in very practical ways that went beyond the Sunday service. The priest was an active presence in the community, not someone just ‘over there,’ in that building we go to on Sunday.”
For Robison, blogging and being active on Facebook enables him to be that presence in a world where changed patterns of work, family, and faith in neighborhoods like Highland Park—not to mention the periodic blizzard—often amplify separateness over connection. Robison, like so many other clergy and lay leaders, posts his sermons and offers other commentary on a blog, a practice he sees as valuable in particular for the many older adults in the congregation. But his day-to-day engagements take a more minimalist form by way of Facebook.
Unlike other leaders who use Facebook in the context of their ministry, Robison is the soul of brevity in his own posts. Between periodic updates on the Steelers and the long-suffering Pirates, he posts things like, “@ our diocesan clergy conference…” or “Great morning at St. Andrew’s…” more than he offers reflection, opinion, or information. True, there are periodic announcements of church events and a note once in a while on something he’s recently read. But the real energy of Robison’s engagement on Facebook is elsewhere. He is, I would suggest, one of the Great Listeners of the Digital Reformation, the evidence of which is not his laconic status updates and posts but the number of times his wall reads “Bruce commented on [someone’s] status” or “Bruce wrote on [someone’s] wall.”
More than almost anyone in my Facebook world, Robison seems to take particular care not just to draw people into conversations he initiates on his Facebook page, but to visit the pages of people in his network and participate in their conversations or comment on the things they’ve seen as sufficiently interesting to post on their walls. It all matters to him. “I just can’t see everyone as much as I would want to,” Robison explains. “But I can pay attention to what they’re posting on Facebook, so I have at least some sense of what’s happing in people’s lives.”
He takes particular care to connect to young adults in his congregation as they head off to college. “You know, lots of these kids grow up in the church. They were acolytes. They were active in youth group,” says Robison. He continues,
Then they go off to college, and we only see them on breaks. Maybe. It used to be the case that they would often just fade away from the church. Or, maybe the church faded away from them. Now I can be more aware of what’s happening while they’re at school. And, because so many people in the congregation are also on Facebook, we can all continue to be a community for them when they are home for Christmas or over the summer. We don’t have to say much for them to know we’re still here, that they continue to be important to us.
In his Facebook interactions, then, Robison offers a balance of listening and attentiveness that is particularly meaningful in the Digital Reformation. His is a digital ministry of presence that blends something of the pastoral practice idealized in George Herbert’s The Country Parson with the wisdom practice exemplified by the desert Abbas and Ammas, early Christian monks who took refuge in the deserts outside of Egypt, Syria, Persia (present-day Iran), and present-day Turkey in the third and fourth century. These desert Mothers (Ammas) and Fathers (Abbas) were renown for the depth of spiritual wisdom they doled out to disciples and more casual seekers in memorable morsels that could be shared with others. The Ammas and Abbas are ancient tweet-masters who remind us that, as theologian and blogger Susan Thistlethwaite has insisted, “Just because something is short, doesn’t mean it has to be stupid.”
Consciously or not, Robison and a developing contingent of mainline digital ministry companions follow in the footsteps of the Abbas and Ammas. Early pilgrims of the Digital Reformation, they seemed to have intuited what the Pew Internet & American Life study shows: people crave connection. They want to be seen and known. It turns out that it often takes very little effort, very few words to develop and sustain such connections. As E.M. Forster put it so well, “Only connect! … Live in fragments no longer.”
Elizabeth Drescher, PhD, is a religion writer and professor of religious studies and pastoral ministries at Santa Clara University. Her research and writing focus on the spiritual lives of ordinary believers today and in the past. She is the author of Tweet If You ♥ Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation (Morehouse, 2011). This summer, with Lutheran pastor and blogger Keith Anderson, she will begin work on a hands-on guide for leaders in the Digital Reformation, Click2Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012). Her Web site is elizabethdrescher.net.