This week, we begin a six-week Lenten series, Prayer and social media.
“I have a friend who stopped posting Facebook statuses and reads them as her prayer journal instead … like that’s her prayer time as she reads X number of statuses,” says Susie Shaefer, a young Episcopal clergy woman. “I have another friend who starts all of her Facebook statuses with her prayer list, like ‘Elaine is praying for blah, blah, blah, period,’ and then her status update, ‘great morning at church. I can’t wait for the picnic’” (from “Webs of interconnectivity: Inhabiting the world ofThe Young Clergy Women Project,” New Media Project case study, 2012).
Christian prayer practices and beliefs vary widely from tradition to tradition, region to region, and, of course, person to person. From communal prayer in local worship to public prayer in the public square, from individual prayer before bedtime to family prayer before a meal, ‘prayer’ is defined differently in various contexts, and through many theological lenses. Harry Emerson Fosdick described prayer as, “neither chiefly begging for things, nor is it merely self-communion; it is that loftiest experience within the reach of any soul, communion with God” (The Meaning of Prayer, Fosdick, Association Press, 1920).
One’s beliefs about God do begin to come into focus as one thinks about what prayer is—Is God one who delivers requests? Is prayer meant to change us or does it impact God? What does it mean for God to answer prayers? What kind of God doesn’t relieve the suffering of a struggling soul on her knees in prayer? How do the promises of God in scripture engage the supplicant?
What then happens when we introduce entirely new communication media like social media into these questions? Is the range of Christian prayer discipline and belief wide enough to include those that occur mostly or solely online? Are social media the kind of media that can aide prayer, or do they hinder prayer? Even if we just considered Fosdick’s definition of prayer as communion with God, can it happen online? Can we commune with God in a digital format?
This blog series on Prayer and Social Media will consider some of these questions as the writers address the topic from their own various theological and ecclesiological perspectives. For example, next week Jim Rice will write from a Mennonite/Anabaptist perspective, and he will undoubtedly raise new questions for the following writers as he engages these questions.
Probably what you won’t find in this series is a list of websites that offer prayer resources. That’s a bit too much like taking an old resources and repackaging them for a new day, and that’s easy enough to search on your own. We want to get at something deeper—does prayer happen differently in a world shaped by social media? We may offer a list of websites and platforms that can help us think creatively about the intersection of prayer and social media. And maybe some good ideas about how to be prayerful while using social media. Susie Shaefer said she and her younger clergy colleagues want to know what to do to make their use of technology prayerful. That’s a great question.
I’ll close with another story from a New Media Project case study for our ponderings on prayer:
Nadia Bolz-Weber, pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, told about “the church starting a Google prayer group, so that members can log on and tell their ill companion she’s being prayed for. That way one can watch as a prayer chain forms visibly before her eyes. Bolz-Weber [reflected] that pastoral care is communal, not simply individual, and can come in short increments—in precisely the sort of attention-span-deprived bursts in which newer generations specialize. … The beneficiary of the Google thread laying out the community’s prayer commented this way: ‘Thanks for all your prayers and support. It’s my first experience with the support of a Christian community (well, any community for that matter) and its pretty … amazing’” (from “Case study report on Housefor All Sinners and Saints,” New Media Project, 2011).
Verity A. Jones is the executive director of the Center for Pastoral Excellence at Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, and project director of the New Media Project which is now part of this new Center.
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