When Pastor Earle J. Fisher wants to reach out to his congregation during the work week, he doesn’t call a meeting or make a call.
He tweets: “What can the righteous do today? What WILL the righteous do today?”
Fisher, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Whitehaven, says he’s gotten as many as 100 responses a day to those sorts of spiritual inquiries.
“I constantly try to engage people with thoughts and issues that inspire and inform them,” he said. “It allows me to reach a broad audience with a click of a button.”
Preachers like Fisher are finding new Digital Age ways to follow Jesus’ Great Commission, as reported in Matthew 28, to “go and make disciples of all the nations.”
Congregational leaders across Memphis are using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other forms of social media to seek converts and build community. But while the methods may be modern, and still under construction, the approach isn’t.
“When I was in seminary and doing research on digital media to learn how to improve an online program, I realized, ‘Oh, wow! — this is a lot like the Middle Ages!’” said Elizabeth Drescher, a Santa Clara University teacher, scholar and writer who has spent years studying how churches and digital media interact.
As a doctoral student with a focus on medieval spirituality, Drescher plunged into a study of the spiritual lives of ordinary believers in the late Middle Ages. The invention of Guttenberg’s printing press in 1440 is considered a landmark of individual freedom and accessibility to information. That new access, Drescher says, triggered the first interactive social revolution.
“Certainly by the late Middles Ages there were more and more books available, and people had more exposure to them,” she said. “But not a lot of people owned them, and not a lot of people could read. If you were the dude in the neighborhood who had a book, you were reading to everybody.”
Chaucer’s fictional “Canterbury Tales” exemplifies medieval interactivity where people would “literally sit around and read stories to folks in their neighborhoods.”
“People would argue ‘that’s not the way that ends’ or ‘I can tell it better than you can tell it,’ ” Drescher said. “It was a very interactive project.”
The pre-Reformation church was extremely interactive in building community, Drescher said.
“People didn’t go to church then like we do today,” she said. “They just milled around. Mostly they couldn’t understand a lot of what was said in the church service, so they played cards, and dice, and gossiped, and looked at stained glass pictures and images of saints and Gospel stories and important people in their community.
“There was graffiti all over churches, and they read graffiti. You could see all of this in preaching manuals from that time. And someone might say, ‘Oh, the sermon’s going to start; let’s go get everybody from the pub.’ Learning about faith was entirely multimedia.”
Today’s church leaders are trying to relearn that lesson, Drescher said, but it’s not as simple as putting up a church Facebook page or tweeting links to church events.
“The church shouldn’t be trying to sell a product or retain a customer with social media,” Drescher said. “If your measure of success is how many people are coming to your Facebook page, or how many people follow you on Twitter, that’s not necessarily a sign that you’re engaging people on a spiritual level.”
In her book, “Tweet if you (Heart) Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation,” Drescher argues that the social dynamics of today’s new media are causing cultural shifts as powerful as those that shaped the 16th century’s Protestant Reformation in Europe.
Earlier this year, for example, some Chicago churches distributed ashes on Ash Wednesday in subway stations, coffee shops and public buildings, rather than just inside church sanctuaries. A dwindling congregation in Seattle converted the top floor of their church into subsidized housing for veterans and the bottom floor into a café.
According to a 2010 Pew Internet Life Study, 80 percent of Internet users are active in some type of civic organization, and churches make up the largest percentage of that group.
The numbers, Drescher says, demand that ministers and church leaders find ways to use social media to connect with people and “invite them into the conversation.”
“Social media becomes the connective tissue from one Sunday to the next,” she said.
That’s how Fisher, also a college professor, tries to use Facebook and Twitter.
“We’re not always in the field,” Fisher said. “A lot of us don’t have time to get out and meet everyone and shake hands with them,” he said. “It’s no substitute for one-on-one connections, but it does seem to help.”
Brown Burnett is a freelance writer for The Commercial Appeal.