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New Media Project New Media Project

The New Media Project is a research endeavor funded by the Lilly Endowment aimed at helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology.


Learning to value social media by using social media

March 13, 2012
By Jason Byassee

Best practices: During February, March, and April, 2012 the New Media Project bloggers are looking intentionally at new media “best practices.” Join the conversation: What are the new media best practices in your church or organization? What are some other examples of how communities engage in new media well?

“Thanks so much for your prayer,” she said tentatively but with kindness. It’d been her birthday the week before, and I’d written a prayer of thanksgiving on her Facebook page. “It really meant a lot to me. I’ve never had a birthday prayer on Facebook before,” she said. “But then again, I’ve never had a pastor on Facebook before either!”

I’ve thundered away on this page and elsewhere against digital culture. In one line the editors mercifully cut, I kvetched that social media becomes a way to ‘foist our ignorance on one another faster than ever before’ (thank God they didn’t let that one through). My sense is that social media offers the world more of us. Both human glory and human muck can be passed around the world faster and more thoughtlessly than ever. Read a little of Genesis. Do you really want more of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and his family faster?

But then I saw her joy. She was really honored that her pastor reached out to her on her birthday. I did so with a blessing—one offered in Christ’s name, asking for God’s renewed favor on her in this new year of her life. I did so publicly, so that all the world could see. And—this is key—I learned to do so through watching others on Facebook. I can’t remember what pastor I first saw write a prayer on a Facebook wall, but I saw that form of blessing in my own social network and offered it as a gift for hers. The next time I saw her, her face had brightened and her posture toward me had gone from politely distant to warmly grateful.

Need I even say none of this happens without Facebook? I didn’t remember her birthday—the site did. I didn’t think to monitor it for birthday notifications—I saw someone else who did. I didn’t even think to write a prayer. I used to write the obligatory “Happy birthday!!” that no one even notices before deleting amidst hundreds of email notifications. But I’m a pastor now. Who’s going to pray in public for someone if I don’t? She knew none of this was original to me and didn’t count it against me; if anything, she was all the more pleased.

And, finally, so what?

Who cares that one parishioner was slightly more friendly to me than she was previously? Isn’t part of the problem in the church that our life together feels like so many nice people doing nice things with other nice people? Why did the Son of God need to rise from the dead to make that work? Can you see why I have qualms with social media?!

Her appreciation means nothing by itself. Nor does visiting someone in a hospital. Or presenting the gospel to their children. Or preaching them a sermon. The only thing that counts is being immersed more deeply into God’s heart: serving, studying, bearing grace to others, loving God and neighbor. We ministers don’t get credit for more people thinking well of us. We give credit to God for growth in grace and discipleship. But this Facebook “touch,” like all those other ministry activities, is a matter of plowing, planting, defending, and nurturing crops on the way to a hoped-for harvest. Any one of those activities by itself may yield nothing. But one more act of watering, seeding, or praying for growth, makes a harvest more likely.

If the way her face shined for a public prayer of blessing in Jesus’ name is any indication, we may be waiting for a healthy crop.

Jason Byassee, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Senior Pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, NC and a Fellow in Theology and Leadership at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School.

The New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact

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