What Twitter can teach the church

"You should try Twitter, Elizabeth; it would be a good networking tool for the church." For months those words uttered by a communications specialist friend of mine fell on deaf ears. My distant impression of Twitter was having an unlimited platform to say: "I had a peanut butter sandwich for lunch," and I didn't see any value in that.

By Elizabeth Evans Hagan

"You should try Twitter, Elizabeth; it would be a good networking tool for the church."

For months those words uttered by a communications specialist friend of mine fell on deaf ears. My distant impression of Twitter was having an unlimited platform to say: "I had a peanut butter sandwich for lunch," and I didn't see any value in that.

Besides, why in the world would I want one more thing to keep up with in my already overcrowded pastoral schedule and media-stimulated life? Isn't maintaining a Facebook page, blog and the regular deluge of e-mails enough to do?

Never wanting to be behind on something new, I finally gave in and after a short tutorial was up and tweeting for the first time in the spring of 2009.

Over the past couple of years through Twitter, I've become friends with new colleagues that I still haven't met face-to-face but count as great encouragers in my ministry. I've recruited new church members who found me on this site and later began attending weekly worship. And additionally, a bridge has emerged through Twitter for greater possibilities of sharing the weekly text of my sermons with folks who might never attend a local congregation.

Unlike Facebook, Twitter allows shared conversations without sharing any more information than you are comfortable with. Choosing to "follow" particular individuals or groups, you gain access to their updates, but they don't see yours unless they "follow" you as well. If you want more followers, it is good to follow others. If you want others to keep following you, it is good to tweet more than once a month. It is also wise to follow only people in whom you have an interest. Otherwise your home page will fill up with spam.

The key to Twitter is that you only have 140 characters at a time to say something. Whether sending a public message or a private one through the personal inbox function, all you have to speak is 140 letters, lines and spaces. If you go over this limit, your thoughts are not shared.

Beyond its effectiveness for outreach, I think the church has a lot to learn from Twitter as a newly minted word in our vocabulary.

First, say what we need to say and stop. The days of long typed memos addressed with a stamp on a letter in the mail are over. If we want to make connections with new colleagues or potential church members, we must speak concisely. It is easy to fall into the temptation -- especially in religious life – to think the prettier the words, the better. The truth is people stop reading or listening if their attention is not fully engaged from the start to the finish. 

Second, if we want to reach more people with our churches, then we must "follow" people outside our normal social circles. If we continue to interact solely with people with whom we naturally connect-- moms at our children's schools, other retirees at the community center or the neighbors on our streets – we miss out on amazing possibilities of relationships with people who would benefit from knowing all people of faith aren't Bible beating, know-it all, condemning types, and there might be a place for a seeker at our church.

Third, it's a necessity to stay connected to those on our membership rolls. Relationships, like Twitter followers, take time and effort to keep going. Just because someone joined the church several years ago doesn't mean that finish line has been reached; it has only just begun! It is easy for folks to feel "de-followed" when we miss important life events like births, deaths or anniversaries of deaths without some sort of contact with them. Communities must communicate together.

After all, the church, like any good means of technology, is never something to be mastered to use perfectly all at once but rather to grow into as we learn and practice it together. 

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.