Cell to soul

Call me a dinosaur. While I don't blink an eye anymore at sanctuary screens and televisions in the parish house, I'm still not convinced that cell phones and computers in the sanctuary aren't a huge distraction, another manifestation of our ADHD society gone techno-nuts.

Even I have to admit, though, that it's clear on the surface why some congregations are allowing tweeting and texting from the pew. They want to reach potential new members, spread their messages, and stay in contact with members who might not get to church, synagogue or mosque for services.

As New York Times writer Paul Vitello wrote in an article posted this past weekend, we're still in the early days of experimenting with the mixture of ancient faith and new media. The actual effect, as his opening paragraphs demonstrate, can be hilariously (or heretically) unpredictable. Broadly scanning multiple denominations and congregations, Vitello ably describes some of the challenges facing religious groups as they try to integrate street technologies into sanctuary praise. They range from privacy concerns to unpredictability, to the possibility of obscene language and insults. Vitello describes some of the questions now being debated online and in person:

In online debates and private discussions, leaders of all faiths have been weighing pros and cons and diagramming the boundaries of acceptable interactions: Should the congregation have a Facebook page, or should it be the imam's or priest's? Should there be limited access? Censoring? Is it appropriate for a clergy member to "friend" a minor?

Some recoil at the informality and unpredictability of the crowds marshaled by social media, and at their seeming immunity -- even hostility -- to the authority of established institutions. More deeply, some in the clergy see a basic tension between the anonymous world of online life and the meaning of religious community.

Immediately after this paragraph, Vitello follows with a really incisive quote from Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik, who comments that in Judaism, "God resides in the community." That's not solely a practical concern. That's a theological one.

Some of these other faith leaders must be asking profound questions also. How does the use of new social media impact the core of the message? Can you really reconnect with your faith via Twitter? How do you know if anyone is listening and if their practice or faith has been changed?

Including some of the answers to these questions -- or even finding out if anyone is asking them would have given the article a mooring, instead of leaving readers with the impression that religious leaders are making it up as they go. Which may be in fact, the case.

In an article posted last week on the Jacksonville.com website, Jeff Brumley writes about the same topic, but focuses more on how new media affects worship -- and whether incorporating it works as a marketing tool. Although Brumley only has a few quotes focused on the theological issues, I thought this one from rabbi Hayim Herring summed up the dilemma that many congregations seem to be finding themselves in.

It's also too early to declare if the practice even works, said Rabbi Hayim Herring, executive director of a Minnesota-based consulting group that helps synagogues reach out to unaffiliated Jews.

But Herring said he encourages some congregations -- at least those whose observance doesn't preclude the use of electronic devices on the sabbath -- to at least consider how the process could "expand their reach."

"Because we don't know where social media is taking us it is worthwhile to try some limited experiments," Herring said.

Not only do they not know if it works, but what "works" for one religious group might not work for another. Journalists covering these stories might want to ask faith leaders: what is the ultimate purpose of endorsing the use of social media in your pews?

How do you measure success? The answers might be different among religious leaders, but they would be illuminating.

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