The Church on Facebook
Thanks to the Internet, people of faith can be there for each other in new ways
By Lenora Rand
"Oreon told me she’s praying for you,” my husband, Gary, said in between bites. He and I were having dinner one night when I was in the throes of a particularly stressful time at work. “Why is Oreon praying for me?” I asked. I hadn’t had more than a passing hello with Oreon, a staff member at our church, in weeks.
“She saw your Facebook status message,” Gary said.
“Oh,” I said, feeling my face go red and my blood pressure rise. I’d forgotten that I’d recently allowed Oreon to become a Facebook friend of mine. What had I written? Was it something I felt comfortable having a church staff member reading? I hadn’t said anything too horrible, like I wanted to throw something (or someone) out the window, had I?
Gary must have sensed my panic. “Oreon said it sounded like you were having a rough week. She told me she’s started using her Facebook news feed as her daily prayer list because she sees what’s going on with all these people in her life, and it reminds her to pray for them. And it helps her know what to pray for.”
“Wow! Cool,” I said, starting to relax — at least a little.
For those of you who haven’t yet experienced Facebook (and your numbers are dwindling by the second: Facebook reportedly has 350 million active users), nearly every action you take on this social media site — from uploading new photos of your cat to changing the description of your love life from “Single” to “In a Relationship” — goes into a news feed that streams out to all your Facebook friends. The basic Facebook feature is the status update, a short little snippet you write in answer to the question posed at the top of your Facebook page: “What’s on your mind?”
In return, you receive information about all your Facebook friends and what they are up to. Classmates are reunited, death notices are posted, and families are keeping in touch. Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg told The New York Times that the news feed function has been central to Facebook’s success.
Being on Oreon’s prayer list because of some passing thought I’d shared online got me thinking about how social media sites like Facebook and Twitter — through which users post 140-character messages — are changing how we “do church.” Already, Facebook has provided a new way to promote a church and keep members of the congregation informed about events.
The jury is still out on how useful and important Twitter will become as a social media site, but many church-related groups have already discovered ways to tap into the power of tweets (the name for Twitter messages). One of those ways is to sign up at prayerontwitter.net to receive tweet prayers on the hour — taken from the Book of Common Prayer and other sources — to remind you to “pray without ceasing.”
Whether a church meets in a steepled brick edifice, a small house in the suburbs, or the basement of the downtown YMCA makes little difference, most people would say.
“Church isn’t where you meet,” writes worship leader and author Bridget Willard. “Church isn’t a building. Church is what you do. Church is who you are.”
The popularity of social media sites seems to testify to the fact that people still need a community — not once a week or once a month or at Easter and Christmas, but daily. And that is exactly what Facebook is all about: reflection and confession, support and community. Tidbits of honesty and introspection, confessions of hurt, need, and sin, appear on your Facebook account every day — along with party invitations, photos of your friends and their families, quizzes and games, genealogy applications, and more.
For example, a friend from church recently posted just two words on her Facebook page: “Cambodia… again?” and I knew immediately that she needed my prayers again. This friend has been going through a long interview process for a job that would take her halfway around the world. I heard about this situation from her briefly at coffee hour months ago. And through her ongoing posts on Facebook I was able to follow her ups and downs as she went through the process. I was able to be there with her — not physically, but virtually and emotionally.
Something about that simple question Facebook poses to its users every day — “What’s on your mind?” — invites reflection and response. For some it calls forth truth at a profound level. I have read admissions of envy and rage, of inadequacy and fear, of disappointment with self, and frustration with life. Sometimes the admissions are sent to you stripped down and raw; one Facebook friend recently admitted that she “woke up kind of heartbroken.” But quite often the admissions are mixed in and softened with humor; another friend wrote, “Wrestling the demons of too much to do and too little time. The demons fight dirty.” With whatever tone they are served up, the truths about our lives that we often mask with polite smiles and the superficial “I’m fine, how are you?” are leaking out in this online world.
Would my friends have ever shared these thoughts in person? Perhaps, if we ever had enough time and found ourselves in the right situation — which we never seem to do. Yet Facebook allows us to remain intimate and honest, to know each other and be known by each other, even if that isn’t happening in the brick-and-mortar world.
Blogger Leisa Reichelt has named this experience ambient intimacy, which she says is about “being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible.” This ambient intimacy helps us become a community of caring and support.
A few months ago, I wrote on my Facebook status update, “Lenora Rand is in a car rescuing her oldest daughter from a bad night.” Within minutes, words of encouragement and sympathy were posted in response from a number of fellow Facebook users. Another friend of mine, Rich, wrote that he had “survived his ‘coffin’ MRI experience.” I used to work closely with Rich but now see him infrequently, so when I read this news I immediately sent him a supportive comment and made a note to give him a call to find out what necessitated an MRI. If it weren’t for Facebook, I doubt that I would have known anything about it. Rich wouldn’t have called or sent an e-mail, but he did mention the MRI on his status update, and as a consequence he received an outpouring of support.
I recently ran across a video of Jeff Pulver, a self-described futurist and entrepreneur, speaking at a Tel Aviv social media gathering. In the video, he describes his experience with Twitter with the kind of passion you could imagine being voiced by people in the early Church:
“Over the past couple years I’ve been on Twitter at different points in my life with different things personally happening to me … and what I discovered is love. I discovered that when experiences, both bad and good, are shared on Twitter, people you don’t even know who are just ‘following’ you will reach out to say something and provide comfort. I’m actually a very shy person, or at least I used to be, and I grew up in a world where I was invisible and very lonely. But by reaching out and connecting with people via social media, there’s an empowerment which is very hard to explain.”
Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter are not without their critics, of course. Like many good things, from food to work to watching sports on TV, these sites can become addictive. Of greater concern is that they can become a substitute for face-to-face contact. As the argument goes, if people are getting their needs met in the virtual world, what do they need the real world for? Or to bring it closer to home, if we are finding a way to reflect and confess, care for one another, and experience community without ever walking through the doors of a church building, what do we need the “real” church for?
We need the real church in order to gather with our community for worship and praise, to sing together, to offer corporate prayers, to pass the peace with a handshake or hug, to have hands of blessing laid on us, to have the Sign of the Cross made with oil on our foreheads, to share bread and wine shoulder to shoulder with our fellow sinners and saints. I need to see the sun shooting through the stained glass Good Shepherd window that graces the back of my church’s sanctuary, and to be reminded of the faith and sacrifice of the immigrants who, a hundred years ago, built this sanctuary for themselves and for those of us who would come after them. We all need the physical manifestations of the Body of Christ.
These days, however, given the busyness of our lives and the distances separating us from each other and from our church buildings, the virtual Church has become a meaningful place where we can connect and confess, learn about one another’s lives, laugh, cry, and pray for one another in very specific ways. Rather than fearing social media sites or using them simply to market church events, perhaps we need to become more like Oreon, who is learning to embrace the Church wherever she finds it. CD
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