Interruption or invitation?: Social media and congregational worship

I’m considering submitting an abstract for a research paper to a conference on the influence of technology in worship (for more, look here). As I was working on the abstract and waiting to find out whether the due date on the website (January 15) or in a letter (February 15) is accurate, I realized that I need to invite your interaction before submitting this proposal.

You see, I’m thinking about thinking about social media and worship, both of which are intended to be interactive. And I realized an hour ago, that I better ask you all whether this makes sense from a  social media perspective before I commit to writing a paper about it.  So here’s my abstract as it stands now. Is this a set of research and reflection that you would like to reflect more about?


Interruption or invitation?: Social media and congregational worshipSending text messages during a corporate worship service seems irreverent. But what if the texter is actually sending 140 character summaries of the service to 500 people who follow his twitter feed, many of whom have no other connection to worship? For many church leaders, that question is nonsensical; what is a twitter feed?

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argued that the nature of television raised significant challenges for those seeking to use it for religious purposes. Religion was about mystery, television was about entertainment, and the better religious programming was as television, the worse it was at religion.

A new generation of communication technologies have emerged with a new set of values.  With very simple technology requirements and no cost to the producer, these tools are allowing individuals to produce content with greater ease. Working with values of community, interactivity, authenticity and immediacy, these Web 2.0 tools are disrupting thinking about news, entertainment, marketing, and community.

They also have tremendous potential in corporate worship settings:

  • With and other video streaming tools, it is possible to broadcast directly to the internet, and to record the broadcast. As a result, any church with a highspeed internet feed can allow parishioners to watch the service from anywhere in the world.
  • With twitter and other microblogging tools, people report on their current activities in 140 character messages. Some tweeters are reporting on the services they are attending.
  • With flickr and other photosharing tools and youtube and other videosharing tools, individuals can share pictures quickly with their faith community, pictures which can be incorporated into the congregational gatherings very simply.

As helpful as these technologies are, however, there are significant questions for study:

  • How distracting does using the technology become for those sitting around? For example, are non-tech people distracted by the sermon-tweeter?
  • Do people move beyond information into worship? Are you watching ustream for the participation in worshiping or the information gained?
  • Is a broader worship community developed or are we still in a period of novelty?
  • Do we need to figure out even better ways for the people “out there” (not in the physical space) to interact with the people in the physical space?
  • How can we most effectively move these technologies toward being just ways to communicate, rather than being distractions or objects of attention?

As these technologies become part of the lives of people in congregations, it is helpful to explain them, to consider the implications for community and faith, and to help congregations use them most effectively to extend invitations to those who live in the contemporary communicative context.


So what do you think? What can you suggest as additional research questions? Can you help me shape this abstract?


13 responses to “Interruption or invitation?: Social media and congregational worship

  1. As someone who is definitely not technologically cutting edge, I find the applications you mention fascinating and even I can see the potential for good.

    I think your questions are right on–it seems that they do a great job of grappling with the important implications, especially for church leaders and decision-makers who may not be highly tech savvy. Also, I think the answers to your questions would hold important keys for bridging the gap between old and new ways while at the same time helping people not to lose their focus. (This might be the new version of the contemporary v. traditional discussion.)

  2. Worship is never a spectator sport. In order for worship to occur, there has to be relationship. So in one way, the scenario is not valid.

    But in another, relating an experience I am having to someone who may not understand, and me using their langauge to do it is very valid.

    Also, worship in group context is supposed to be about community, and “joining into the general assembly of believers”, and I think this is important. But it does negate or devalue of the individual worshiper; it just tells me be practice both community and individual worship.

    Can people gather together in community via feed (stand together while sitting alone)? I think you have shown this via your blog.

    So all that being said, uh, I don’t know. I think you make some very valid points, and point out to me once again that relating to God is broader than a mindset or technology. I look forward to reading your thoughts.

  3. I agree with the “I don’t know”. One struggle some people have is sending texts to those who are int he same room, the same corporate worship service. Is this the same or different than whispering to the person next to you…or saying hello to the person next to you?

    Just today I prayed in an email, not to God, but in an email to someone else I talked with God on that peron’s behalf…just as I would do in real space.

    Conceptual challenges.

  4. Hmmm…to what extent is the texter/Tweeter-er’s understanding of the message compromised by his/her trying to distill it into 140 characters AS the message is being preached? Seems to me that sermons invite reflection and response, and this particular application cuts out the reflection time in favor of rapid reporting. Not sure that is effective use of media for anyone. Not to mention the distraction factor. But that is just one application–ustream seems more potentially valuable to me, although limited in creating a sense of community in worship.

  5. I think the biggest beneficiary of new technology could be the “shut-ins”… but they are not normally prone to adoption of technologies, new or old.

  6. ah, Paul. One of our viewers in the ustream experiment we started was a retired guy who needed to stay home with his wife… and watched. Others have been missionaries, people at the lake or on vacation, and our son watching while visiting his girlfriend. So we had a significant age range.

    Laurie, in part it depends on the preaching style. My inductive approach takes hours to understand. Tweets would be confusing beyond belief. However, a more deductive, outline-driven sermon could, conceivably, make sense, and could be summarized. However, that begins to raise the question back to the original discourse: is the preaching part of worship or is it information transfer…or is that a false distinction?

    And, I’m guessing, community depends on what you allow to happen. There are very many gatherings of people on Sunday mornings that are not community or interactive…at least not in ways that could be covered through texting.

  7. I spent a semester in Japan during college and attended a small non-denominational church there. A small group of us English speakers went there partly because they had a man, Mr. Yakiyama, who translated the sermon in realtime.

    He spoke quietly into a microphone that was attached to a low-power radio transmitter. We sat in the back, sharing a couple of Walkmans tuned to the correct frequency, one earphone apiece.

    We all understood some Japanese, but not enough to follow the sermon well, so the translation was really helpful. This was in the 90’s, so I can only imagine how that setup could be improved upon with today’s technology.

  8. These things are important in helping us connect to one another in a globalized scenario – like we are right now. 🙂 But there’s a down side to that. Because I am so connected there are far more ways for far more people to enter into my life. The technology widens the scope of my relationships but lessens the depth of them. Also, it means that I can have a steady stream of ’emergencies’ that keep popping up in my inbox or on my cell phone. Sometimes I just have to turn it all off to focus on the person I can see.

  9. Susanna – I love the way that this illustrates the point. technology is intended to be a tool, which extends capacity. Well said.

    Rick, yes, the circles are so challengingly large. I’m trying to understand what it means on a regular basis. And I’m struggling.

  10. hi John,
    I just had to say, some days Twitter reminds me of what I aim to do “praying without ceasing”. A continuous stream of conversation with God and a state of continuous partial attention with our creator!
    Tweeting in worship should serve to enhance that conversation, without distracting us from the most important communication (communion)we can have.

  11. sorry, *Jon

  12. what a wonderful image. Oh my. Thank you.

  13. Hey, I’m late to the party and I know that you already sent in your abstract, but I wanted to respond to a couple things.

    I don’t see that your tweets would be a “summary” of the sermon, but perhaps a reaction to something or a thought that would encourage others to think. In other words, I’m not distilling the message, I’m talking about it (just not to the person sitting next to me). That being said, I do think tweeting from the platform is too far (and you know who you are).

    Also, in response to Rick, I think internet interactions *can* deepen as well as widen. I’ve experienced both myself. I think perhaps that is according to how intentionally we use the tools. But, I agree, turn it off and focus on the person in front of you, it acknowledges their dignity.