Social Networks and the Church
A feature I wrote for the Ontario edition of Christian Week last December:
“I heard all the warnings from my friends,” says Bruxy Cavey, teaching pastor at The Meeting House, a large church in Oakville. “I was told it’s a time waster.” But Cavey signed up for Facebook anyway, in part to promote his book The End of Religion. Now, Cavey has over 1,500 Facebook friends. One of his Facebook groups has become too successful. “I have a plan,” he writes, “which involves shrinking this group to less than 1,000 people,” which will remove restrictions placed on larger groups.
This is Facebook, one of many social network utilities. Others include MySpace, LinkedIn, Bebo, and even MyChurch. They are online communities for people who share interests or activities, allowing them to interact with friends. They are becoming popular, and not only with younger people. They are also being used within churches and Christian ministries.
“It’s an extra option,” Cavey explains. “It is another way to connect.” Through Facebook, people can ask questions, express opinions, share media, and invite others to events. “There are people who are struggling, who may lack community,” says Cavey. “It may serve a purpose for them.”
These sites allow users to follow how their friends are doing, even if they are not in regular contact. A person who attends the church I pastor has just updated her status, saying that she is “content and at peace and hasn’t felt this way in years.” A university student is currently in Prince Edward Island, but I can view her profile, look at pictures of recent activities, and even read messages that others have left for her.
There are few secrets. Users can also view incriminating photos and read lurid comments. They can also discover that they are being talked about. In a church in Cambridge, the pastor recently asked parents and youth to stay after the service. He had read some of their posts, and requested that they be careful as they discuss the church online.
Some are concerned about who has access to all of this information. By using Facebook, you agree to grant “irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license…to use, copy, publicly perform, publicly display, reformat, translate, excerpt (in whole or in part) and distribute such User Content for any purpose.” Bill Kinnon, a Christian blogger in Toronto, writes, “While you are busy ‘sharing information online’, Facebook is tracking you, your information and your habits. The Book of Faces is becoming one gigantic database of likes, dislikes, wants, hopes and dreams. All with easy electronic access to 41 million registered users.”
Despite the risks, some 200,000 people sign up daily for Facebook alone. Toronto is the largest network with some 550,000 people – more members than the Chicago and New York networks combined. Anyone can set up a page or start a group on these sites, and many of these groups are about churches and spirituality. Some, like Cavey, want to use these sites, but with purpose.
“I love the questions from people wrestling with things,” says Cavey. “I don’t respond to everything. I limit my responses to goofy things. But when there’s a purpose, I get right on it. I can make all the time in the world for people who are growing.” Cavey has found that people are sometimes more comfortable discussing issues online than in person.
“Paul said in 1 Thessalonians that face to face is better. He wanted to visit, but Satan prevented him so he wrote a letter. Face to face is always better – but the church has a rich history of finding other ways when this isn’t possible.” These sites provide one more way for this to happen.
Sidebar – Social Network Terms
Facebook – A social network, originally for university students but now open to anyone; currently the most visited website in Canada.
MySpace – An older social network, still larger and more visited than Facebook worldwide, but possibly losing momentum.
Status – A single line broadcasted to all one’s friends about one’s mood or activities.
Poke – A way to interact on Facebook. Friends receive a message that someone has poked them. Facebook says, “We encourage you to come up with your own meanings.”
Profile – A section containing one’s information for others to see.
Wall – A forum for friends to post comments.