Thursday, March 01, 2012

What would I like my bishop to know about social media?

Michael Rinehart, bishop of the Gulf Coast Synod of the ELCA, recently asked on the ELCA Clergy Facebook page, "What would you like your bishop to know about social media?" Bishop Rinehart also happens to have been my youth pastor when I was growing up in Davenport, Iowa.

My current bishop is Michael Girlinghouse, of the Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod, so this blog post could be addressed to him. I hope he enjoys some of what I write here.

But really, what I write below is what I would like everyone to know about social media, not just bishops. And of course, everyone, including my bishop, will already know quite a bit of what I write here. Nevertheless, Bishop Rinehart's question inspired me to "collect" these random thoughts in one place.

Media Ecology

1. The medium is the message. Really. And although this is the phrase popularized by the work of Marshall McLuhan (see especially his Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man), the deep philosophical insight of McLuhan includes a further step, that the message is the messenger. The messenger is the message, because all media are simply extensions of humanity.

2. Much more is media than we typically realize. We always notice the new media (and I bet when Bishop Rinehart asked about "social media" he really meant "digital social media"), but really everything is media and mediated. Language is social media. So are letters, or the many posters and tracts published during the Reformation that sparked the Reformation. The paintings of Lucas Cranach are media. Clothes are media. And so on. Contextualizing digital media in this wider sense of what media is helps us avoid alarmist tendencies (these new media are corrupting our souls) as well as naive acceptance.

3. we are all avatars now. The generation now coming into adulthood is the first generation of people who have had to write themselves into existence as a part of their socialization. They have had to make decisions about their Facebook, Twitter, and texting avatars. Yes, people had "avatars" even before the advent of digital social media, but in the new media era, you can't be in the medium without writing and crafting an avatar/persona. This is now native. Similarly, bishops like Michael Rinehart have figured out that they can craft an avatar for online presence. They can "manage their brand." And brand matters, and it isn't a bad thing to be a brand.

Participation and Mediation

4. If I could get others to read another book on this topic in addition to McLuhan, it would be Pete Ward's Liquid Church. He writes, "“Liquid Church expresses the way that ecclesial being is extended and made fluid through mediation. The Liquid Church moves beyond the traditional boundaries of congregation and denomination through the use of communication and information technologies." Bishops should already "get" this, since they are in an ecclesial setting at one remove from the local congregation, and yet are an "expression" of the church. In fact, perhaps if bishops thought of themselves as a part of the liquid church, they themselves might be considered a "social media." 

5. So far very few bishops that I know are active in digital social media. Bishop Rinehart is an entrepreneur. As a bishop, you don't have to be active in social media. But bishop, here comes everybody (Clay Shirky) so if you want to be where your pastors are (and where their parishioners are) at least some portion of your time should be spent in the digital social medium.

6. This doesn't mean just Facebook. Or Twitter. Everyone participates in different media depending on interest and habits. I just had a fascinating conversation last night at the church soup supper about recipes on Pinterest. I myself probably love Spotify more than any other social media right now because of the access to new music. Lots of this is just a call to experiment and learn what works. And permission not to overextend yourself. Engage what makes sense to you, and comes natural.

7. Social media represents a shift to consumption as a networked practice (see, for much more on this, Henry Jenkin's amazing and important book, Convergence Culture). Convergence represents ever more complex relations between top-down corporate media and bottom-up participatory culture. This is certainly true in the church as it is elsewhere. Pastors are now networking with bishops in ways they never had before. CEOs are now networking with consumers. Rock stars Twitter back and forth with their fans. The more bishops and other leaders "get" this, the better off they will be in the new social media landscape. Bishops could especially learn from a Lutheran leader in this area, the CEO of Augsburg Fortress, Beth Lewis

Play and Hierarchies

8. The more serious the whole "death of the church" thing is getting, the more we need our leaders to take an experimental, playful approach to things. It's not in our hands, finally, after all, it's in God's hands. In the meantime, social media allows for, and often models, playful interaction. In fact, some forms of social media, such as MMORPGs, teach much about how to embed new kinds of learning and practices in contexts that are immersive, fun, and thrilling. Maybe more synod assemblies should be playful and open source, like the increasingly popular Unconferences.

9. Social networks like Facebook or Twitter are scale-free and non-hierarchical, enabling us to reimagine the kingdom of God in such terms. Perhaps the most radical insight arising out of this is that networks are often more yeasty than we give them credit for. We prefer to think of networks as direct, so we try to leverage them to impact directly the people or groups we are directly in contact with. However, networks often have their greatest power and impact as they pattern out through indirect and secondary connections. Again, the work of a bishop is quite like this description--just so bishops can learn something from social networks about the Trinitarian implications of their ecclesial "nodality."

10. Digital social media has turned more people than ever before into "productive users," what Axel Bruns in his Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond dubs produsage. Harness this energy in creative ways, and bishops can be leaders in the shift to the social changes implicit in the new digital media. Some of this will feel threatening to traditional understandings of the office of bishop, but it is worth considering. Take this one for example, that Axel Bruns says a mark of produsage is "fluid heterarchy, ad hoc meritocracy." Leaders in the system hold that role through the quality of what they produse. No hierarchy is needed to elect people to positions of authority. Instead of a bureaucracy, you find an ad-hocracy (see Alvin Toffler).

I could go on and on, and have probably gone on long enough. But this "top ten" list hints at the seismic shifts occurring as a result of the rise of new forms of digital social media. The world really is flattening, and truly here comes everybody, but it isn't the end of the world as we know, because the end of the world is in God. Oh, and what has already become a kind of church apologetics cliché, social media isn't a place to learn about ministry--social media is ministry.


  1. Have you read Douglas Rushkoff's "Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for the Digital Age" yet?

    1. Great book. Ruskoff makes the best "medium is the message" description of internet technology that I've read.

  2. No I have not. Thanks for the reference!

  3. I have just begun @stickyJesus. I don't know enough to evaluate it. Anyone? Authors are Toni Birdsong & Tami Heim

  4. Thanks, Clint, for this. I'm glad that more than the bishops are/will be reading this.

  5. You're welcome. I think sometimes we look at our leadership and do a psychological transference thing, expecting them to be up on all the things we expect ourselves to be up on. When in fact they don't always need to. In this case, the main point for me is that leaders in the church need to be aware of some of the philosophical, cultural critical, and theological insights emerging from the new digital media sensorium.