My two years spent serving a wonderful, small congregation in Gary, IN, were instructive in a number of ways. The entire situation was rife with opportunities for my assumptions and stereotypes to be challenged. If I were to pinpoint the assumption that was most thoroughly debunked by experience, though, it would have to be my expectations around who in the congregation would make the most use of social media.
As the young, social-media savvy pastor in a congregation whose largest demographic was elderly individuals (predominantly African-American and more or less “mainline” Protestant), I assumed that successfully incorporating Facebook activities into the congregation’s life would require a great deal of effort on my part and the part of the other thirty-somethings in the congregation. When I set up the congregation’s Facebook account and began publicizing it to the members, it did indeed take several months for anyone besides me to make use of it.
However, once use of the page caught on, it was the 60-and-over members who began posting most frequently. Every congregation uses Facebook differently; at my congregation, it became primarily a venue for members to share links to other kinds of community and denominational initiatives with which they were involved. Because of the page’s being so populated by hyperlinks and community announcements, it became a snapshot of how “linked in” members were to other things happening in the community.
Also—and here perhaps the stereotype of “grandma who forwards a million cute emails” was in fact confirmed—the Facebook page became a jumping-off point for several members to share online spiritual memes, prayer graphics (e.g., variations on the “Footprints” poem), and religious news. Several of these postings came from members who, in person, were not particularly vocal about their devotional lives; thus, from a pastoral perspective, these postings, as trivial as they might initially appear, were actually valuable snapshots of what sort of theological messages appealed to those offering them up on the community’s virtual “wall.”
While I was pleasantly surprised by all of this, my experience likely would not have surprised those who have been following recent research about the surge of elderly individuals joining social media sites such as Facebook. As these sites are discovering, elderly individuals (particularly those who are retired and perhaps especially those who are “homebound” to any degree) are in some cases an ideal target audience for social media. In many cases these individuals have free time, require recreation that is relatively sedentary, and often have children and grandchildren who can teach them the basics of navigating the Internet.
One of the most pressing questions facing congregations and other spiritual care institutions is what to make of the fact that whole generations are now used to the idea that intimate, meaningful human connections can occur through online media. If we consider that this might become increasingly true not just for Millennials and teens, but for our parents and grandparents as well, then what avenues are ahead for the church’s ability to facilitate connection and combat loneliness among what is commonly a congregation’s largest demographic—the elderly?
The Rev. Dr. Robert Saler is a Research Fellow and administrator with the Center for Pastoral Excellence at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.
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