Social Media – for Good and for Ill

There’s quite a lot of comment going on at the moment over the effect of social media on the riots in London. We’ve not caught up in our heads with how to build societies when individuals have instant cheap mobile fast communications. Such technology can be used for good or for ill.

We cheered on the twitter organised revolution in Cairo and condemn with equal force the twitter organised riots in London. In time, let us hope for the space and peace to reflect on that and the differences in circumstances between the two situations. One thing is for sure, throttling and censoring the internet in educational establishments is unlikely to teach people how to live in a globally connected world.

Social media like anything powerful has potential for great good and great harm. When I am old and being pushed around in my bath-chair by the kindly nuns, stroking my silky-white beard, I shall look back at my life and see that much of it was a quest for using the unfolding, developing, fascinating social media technology for good and for God.

A lot of that is woven into the ways in which St Mary’s Cathedral lives out its life and vocation in the world these days. As I type this, there’s a facebook event set up for Bishop Christopher’s visit on Sunday. It allows people to invite others to come to hear him in church. I set it up yesterday and invited some people. Today I see that some people have said they are coming. Each of them will have alerted their followers on facebook to the face that something is going on as it will appear on their facebook wall. Some have deliberately posted it to their facebook pages so that their friends can see it even if they can’t come. And some have explicitly invited others. And the resultant guest list that is being built up consists of people I don’t know and have never met before. I see some people who have been invited by members of the congregation who are significant decision makers in Scotland. Others have been invited just because someone knows that there’s something going on that makes them think an invitation is worth passing on. It is a disperate and diverse set of people who have been invited already and I expect it to grow by the end of the week.

Then there’s other people’s blog posts about the event like Jaye’s new post today. She’s used social media (ie her blog) to share the news of what’s happening on Sunday with friends and work contacts alike.

It’ll be tweeted too, of course and there’s no knowing who’ll see it on there.

Then, I guess there might well be pictures shared on the St Mary’s Flickr group after the event – again people from the congregation sharing the good news with those around them. Who knows who? Who knows where?

All of this is mission, of course. Easy mission. So easy you barely realise that it is mission. It is about buzz, conversation, networks, profile building, worthwhile events and good news. It isn’t about computers or technology, just the regular chit-chatter of the kingdom being ushered in.

In all my years in ministry, I’ve known many an attempt to get people to invite their friends to church. Very, very few of them have had any impact, particuarly in churches which have a mainstream ethos. However, I find now that if there’s something worth sharing then people don’t need much encouragement. Indeed, they barely think about it. They just use the online tools that are part of daily life to share with others what they’ve found to be good.

(It works the other way too, mind. No-one wants a bad report from a mystery-worshipper online forever!)

People sometimes ask me how the church is to reach people who are not connected to this kind of technology in the future. My response is always the same. Increasingly in the future the church may need to set aside special resources to see whether it can reach people who either choose not to be connected this way or are prevented from doing so by something. Ignorance, fear and poverty are all well kent factors in people’s ability to engage. Churches have always had people in them who have wanted to tackle things like ignorance, fear and poverty and I presume people may emerge who have a passion for reaching the unconnected.

My prediction is that if the church wants to reach the unconnected underclass, specialist ministries are going to have to emerge which will try to reach them.

I guess that the rest of us are probably going to end up paying for such work too. Well, we will if we value it and believe those people to be worth reaching.

And that may be an assumption too far.

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