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01 March 2010

An old message for a new world

An old message for a new world

Almost every day, some new digital tool offers us a new way to connect with each other. Anna Moyle, Nicole Holmes and Rich Cline explore the possibilities...

It's not easy keeping up with the breakneck speed of developing technology. Just when you have your head around Facebook, you notice that everyone's moved over to Twitter. And as your fingers finally get the hang of typing a message on a tiny mobile phone keyboard, you realise that everyone has switched to touch-screens.

For those of us who were born before all of these things became everyday realities, the flood of new terms and gadgets can seem overwhelming. But as each new innovation appears, Christians are seizing hold of the potential for ministry, communicating in bold new ways that, despite the technology involved, are more personal than ever before.

A cultural shift

"The biggest change has been the rise of social media, with Facebook and Twitter currently leading the pack, where for millions of people, part of their lives are now lived online," says Simon Jenkins, editor of Ship of Fools, which started as a magazine in 1977 and now exists as an online community for Christians who strive to be self-critical and honest about Christianity.

"Even bishops are blogging and tweeting, and the Church is now fully alive to the possibilities"

Simon has seen a great shift in the attitude of the Church towards new media. "There is now a general appreciation that, while we must always have critical faculties intact when it comes to new technology, we can't afford to reject technological innovation, as some did in the early days of the internet," he says, "But these days, even bishops are blogging and tweeting, and the Church is now fully alive to the possibilities not just of publishing on the net, but of genuinely engaging with people who are internet natives." 

Born from a Ship of Fools' experiment in 3D worship, St Pixels is now a stand-alone internet church with some 2,000 members, one in three of whom regard St Pixels as their major or only contact with formal Christianity.

"We want the Church to be at the forefront of change, not decades behind," says co-editor Stephen Goddard. "We hope that, through reading Ship of Fools, our readers will laugh deeper, study deeper, talk deeper, believe deeper - and then reach out, touch their computer monitor for a blessing and send us the entire content of their wallets."

He's joking, but only just: financing web-based ministries isn't easy, as internet users expect everything to be free of charge.

Make an impact

Tapping into the potential of the global Church was the main goal in setting up World Wide Open, a free online social networking tool that helps connect and empower Christians, churches and organisations to make an impact. "Many in the Church have seen how the internet can be used to help us communicate the Gospel," says Director Sam Melvin.

"There are a billion of us walking around the world, and God has given us the resources, knowledge and power to transform the world."

Through World Wide Open, Sam has come across some inventive new ministries, such as the youth workers in Texas who discovered a series of Bible studies posted online by a Young Life leader in Northern California. By downloading them, they had more time to spend with kids and less time preparing lessons.

And then there's These Numbers Have Faces, a charity that provides scholarships to youth in a township outside of Cape Town. "They were contacted through World Wide Open by another non-profit that happened to be providing tutors and mentors to the same group of students," says Sam. "They didn't know of each other's existence before meeting on World Wide Open and are now sharing and leveraging each other's connections and resources."

In addition to social networking, the internet offers several ways to communicate personally. University of Cambridge Chaplain Maggie Dawn says that web logs, or blogs, are a particularly relational form of writing. "It's present tense, written today about what I'm thinking about right now, and it connects with readers who also are picking it up as something that they relate to now," she says. "You end up feeling as if you're the vicar of your blog parish. People make return visits and they talk to each other in the comment section. That's why blogs can be capitalised on as a particular form of writing in the new media that works brilliantly within the kingdom of God."

Getting stories out

Then there's the micro-blogging site Twitter, which Paul Woolley, director of the theology think tank Theos, says is a great way to get stories out. "Twitter is a good way to get people to engage proactively and creatively with the work that you do," he says.

"Perhaps Twitter can become a kind of technological breath-prayer"

Last November, as Theos explored the issues surrounding the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, Paul asked fellow Twitter users to summarise Darwin's seminal On the Origin of Species in 140 characters or less. The winning tweet was submitted by Charles Foster: "He who dies, loses. He who reproduces, plays the game. He who produces gameplaying offspring who won't submerge parental genes, wins."

Meanwhile, author and speaker Gerard Kelly believes Twitter also has value as a spiritual discipline. Realising the speed at which the site was able to transmit information, Gerard decided to use it as a means of prayer and started Twitturgies. "In essence, I simply took Twitter's central question, 'What are you doing?', and translated it as, 'What are you praying?'"

The result is what he calls "a tweet for the soul: personal liturgies in 140 characters or less". Twitturgies now has about 1,500 followers.

"Perhaps Twitter can become a kind of technological breath-prayer," he says, "a Pray Without Ceasing application for any of us."

Of course, some Christians have taken a more cautionary approach to online community and networking. Shane Hipps, a pastor from Arizona and author of Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith, cautions that while digital media is very useful for creating meaningful connections or intellectual transformations, it cannot replace, and must work alongside, close physical community.

"The digital age tends to separate those who are close and bring together those who are at a distance," he says. "But human community is unavoidably physical. The reason you know this is that when somebody close to you dies, one person sends you an email and another person comes over to hand you a glass of water and a tissue and hug you. That's unavoidably physical; it's incredibly intense and very powerful."

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