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Home > Interpreter Magazine > Archives > 2009 Archives > November-December 2009 > The New Worship Question: To Tweet or Not To Tweet

United Methodist Church of Geneva worshipper Emily Johnson posts a Twitter update during a recent service. Photo by Tom Nicol
The New Worship Question:
To Tweet or Not To Tweet

By Kami L. Rice

The Rev. Matthew Johnson discovered Twitter a year ago at a conference. He marveled at the way the odd collection of questions and comments projected on a screen and referred to as a Twitter-feed turned "a rather large and passive event into an interactive and oddly relational experience."

In an e-mail interview, Johnson called the moment "revelatory." After downloading the Twitter application to his phone, the associate pastor at The United Methodist Church of Geneva (Ill.) "held the conversation in [his] hand while the lecture happened across the sanctuary, and imagined the room getting smaller and larger at the same time."

He thought Twitter might be just the tool for his church's alternative worship service. Intended to be very interactive, the service can be intimidating for people who do not like speaking in front of others. Perhaps, he thought, Twitter would help include introverts in the conversations.

The latest social networking application to grow from buzz to roaring phenomenon, Twitter is everywhere. Users share information in very short bursts, called tweets, of 140 characters or less. They open accounts in order to follow updates from other Twitterers and create a list of their own updates that can be viewed as a Web page by non-Twitter users. New Twitterers can learn the process simply -- and follow others whose tweets provide ongoing tips and instruction.

Churches joining the Twitter bandwagon first used it for quick announcements throughout the week. The possibility of incorporating Twitter into worship services jumped into the national consciousness in April with media coverage of the Good Friday Twitter experiment at Trinity Church in Manhattan, N.Y.

The Episcopal parish tweeted its Good Friday drama, telling the story in short-form, a line at a time. People around the world followed the tweets. In United Methodist circles, Trietsch Memorial United Methodist Church  in Flower Mound, Texas, attracted attention in June when the Rev. John Allen, Jr.,  preached a sermon series "The Theology of Twitter." He encouraged parishioners to send text messages during the service.

From sermons bits to prayers
In July, UMC Geneva began tweeting during the alternative service. Messages highlight bits from the sermon and other parts of the service. In November, Geneva will begin tweeting prayer petitions, displaying the requests on a screen as the time of prayer begins. Prayer requests are already printed in the bulletin. Twitter is a way to involve people "who don't use normal channels," Johnson says." It will also allow the congregation to "include prayers for those outside our walls into our worship," since anyone can submit requests via Twitter.

Trinity United Methodist Church in Lafayette, Ind., is tweeting its traditional and contemporary services and in June began streaming the services live on its Web site. The church also began scrolling tweets at the bottom of the screen that displays sermon notes during worship. People not in the church building can watch services online in real time and participate via tweeted responses. A lay leader screens the tweets.

"Twitter has been an integral part of our rethinking church," says Andrew Markle, who helped spearhead the experiment. He served as the communications secretary on the church's Administrative Council until he moved this fall. The church is already seeing growth "based on subtle changes in how we present our technology in the services. It's made it more entertaining but also more worshipful." Using Twitter helps parishioners connect messages to everyday issues.

Twitter messages typed during worship at Trinity Lafeyette United Methodist Church are projected on-screen in the course of the service. Photo by Marilyn S. Kimsey
Young adults not of one mind
In only four months, attendance at Trinity's contemporary worship service grew from about 20 people to 50-60 attendees each week. Markle says new people have learned about the service via Twitter. "Twitter is what really started the more interactive experience in the church, and I think that's what people are looking for."

Not everyone, even among young adults, wants to incorporate Twitter into worship services.

Joy Fauntleroy, 30, attends Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, Fla. She says it is fine to use Twitter for announcements but would probably stop attending a service that scrolled tweets on a screen during the sermon. "I think it's a distraction, and I think it's disrespectful," she says. She was attracted to Hyde Park's traditional service because it is more traditional. "Sometimes you just don't want that Blackberry in front of you. There's a time and a place," she says.

Aaron Klinefelter, director of the Wesley Foundation at Northern Kentucky University, avidly embraces new technology and sometimes tweets during services. However, he says, "None of the students I work with are on Twitter." He suggests that Twitter is more of a post-college, 30-something medium. He knows students who exclusively use text messaging via their phones for electronic communication.

"If [using Twitter] comes out of the culture of a church, then I can see it as a helpful thing, but as a strategy for reaching college students and 20-somethings, I don't see it," Klinefelter says. "There are a lot of other things we could spend our time on." He thinks dividing into small groups for interaction during a worship service "will create much healthier communication that will connect on a deeper and broader level with more people than will throwing (words) up on a Twitter screen."

In contrast, Markle, who is on the board of directors for the Wesley Foundation at Purdue University, says that many Purdue students use Twitter. Markle disagrees with Klinefelter and thinks Twitter can be an effective way for churches to reach college students.

In Nashville, Tenn., Bellevue United Methodist Church member Nancy Hawthorne, 24, is not big on social networks for conversations and thinks the technology can be distracting. However, she also says it is good for people who appreciate those technologies to be able to use them in the church. Tweeting during worship may help people who are easily distracted to focus.

Focus thinking
Before launching the Twitter account for the church, Geneva's Johnson began tweeting from his personal account during worship to see how it affected his participation and general attentiveness. "I found myself actually paying closer attention to everything that was going on because I was waiting for something to happen or be said that was worth sharing or reflecting upon," he says.

Klinefelter has much the same experience when he tweets during services: "It's sort of like public note-taking. It's a way for me to process what I'm hearing for more people than just myself. For me, I find it beneficial." He recognizes, though, that a room full of people tweeting might feel odd for the pastor.

The Rev. Safiyah Fosua, director of invitational preaching ministries at the General Board of Discipleship in Nashville, Tenn., agrees that communication shifts challenge pastors. Many United Methodist pastors are older and have not yet recognized that technologies such as Twitter are not simply fads but represent cultural shifts in how people communicate and learn.

"All of our notions about teaching, learning and listening are being challenged right now," says Fosua. Long-held assumptions about learning and listening styles are being questioned.

Most pastors preaching and teaching in United Methodist churches today learned a style in which one addresses a mostly quiet congregation of listeners. Younger parishioners have experienced increasingly innovative and interactive learning. It is unnatural, she says, to ask those youth and young adults to have interactivity everywhere in their life except in church.

Fosua also urges pastors to exercise great discernment to understand who their church is. If a church resists innovation, she says, it is unhelpful to use the technology just because it is innovative. She recommends that pastors open Facebook accounts to explore social networking and preview Twitter. This exploration will help reluctant pastors discover that people are finding real meaning through online communication.

Markle says Trinity's pastor has embraced the scrolling tweets, and he is pleased that a 175-year-old congregation, with an average member age of 68, will do something new. Markle, 23, is surprised by how many 68-year-olds are using the Internet.

Aid discussion
Carrie Beth Atkinson, 34, a member of White Bluff United Methodist Church in Savannah, Ga., and her husband intentionally chose a church with a conservative worship style and a group of active older adults. Atkinson thinks Twitter responses projected during the sermon would be personally distracting but suspects she would enjoy tweets adding to the discussion during a seminar or conference.

And that's part of Johnson's vision for the Geneva church's tweeting: Engaging with people who are away from the worshipping community and with people who would never wander into the congregation through traditional doorways.

He has already seen Twitter generate online discussions with people who are not part of his congregation and with some who do not even profess a faith. He has also used Twitter to connect a grieving family on the East Coast with a support group courtesy of denominational networks.

"Twitter is great for a connectional church like ours," Johnson says.

--Kami L. Rice, freelance writer, Nashville, Tenn.


Check out the Twitter accounts associated with this story:

UMC of Geneva:

Matthew Johnson:

Trinity UMC:

Aaron Klinefelter:

Kami Rice:

Interpreter Magazine:

The Rev. Safiyah Fosua, director of invitational preaching ministries at the General Board of Discipleship, lists attributes that are important for pastors wishing to successfully incorporate Twitter responses projected onscreen during worship services. Pastors should be:

- Highly adaptive

- Not easily distracted

- Secure in their presentation style

- Not easily taken aback when people appear to be focused on something other than listening (Some people learn better when they listen actively.)

- Into quality rather than volume, since listeners may be selective in what they latch onto

- Not easily rattled by things that are new

- Secure enough as a preacher to let God work through whatever is tweeted even if it's not the main points of the sermon

- Carried on the same current the congregation is traveling on

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