Social media and the story we are telling the world

June 27, 2018

A tweet got lots of attention. So what? It happens daily, right? But this one occurred right at the same time as I was reading a book on generational intelligence and how millennials are viewing the church, and that got me thinking.

Here is the back story: A conversation started at the end of Annual Conference when a tweet posed the question: How is it that the Minnesota Annual Conference has the authority to change the Apostles’ Creed? A fair question. Honestly, I did not even realize it had happened until I read about it in my Facebook news feed, but sure enough, in the closing worship service, the word “Father” was changed to “Creator.”

You need to know that the language we use at Annual Conference in hymns, liturgy, preaching, and scripture reading—well, it gets a lot of scrutiny and feedback. For some, any use of the word “Father” for God is considered exclusive and problematic. For others, making God gender-neutral and losing the intimate relationship of God as father is a loss. We work hard to balance that, and sometimes we miss. We did that day with the Apostles’ Creed, no doubt it about. It is a historic creed of the church; each word was debated and crafted when it was written, and it’s not open for changes. The critique was deserved, and we took it to heart and have reviewed our policy and practice about inclusive and generous language at Annual Conference.

Clergy being ordained, commissioned, or recgonized follow the order of service in scripts during the Celebration of Life in Ministry Service at the 2018 Minnesota Annual Conference.
Clergy being ordained, commissioned, or recognized follow the order of service in scripts during the Celebration of Life in Ministry Service at the 2018 Minnesota Annual Conference.

But here is what happened next: The tweet was widely seen, and a Christian news outlet out east, which frankly had an agenda, published an article about the language change. Personally, I just ignored all the chatter. It was a word, not an overt agenda of the Minnesota Annual Conference. It was good people trying to do their best to craft worship that would speak to 800 people, and sometimes we get it right and sometimes we don’t. I could let it go, but once it entered the social media world, it took on a life of its own.

And that is what got me thinking. About the same time the post was going viral, I was reading this paragraph from Haydn Shaw’s book Generational IQ about why millennials are less interested in the church than previous generations:

Millennials see more hypocrisy. While every generation accuses the previous generation of hypocrisy, the church is under particular intense scrutiny today because technology can show the hypocrisy within one church to the entire world. Since we hear far more of the negative stories than the positive, the church looks worse than it is. Jesus told us that what would be whispered in the corners would be shouted from the rooftops (see Luke 12:3). Smartphones allow anyone to climb up with a megaphone. Additionally, the younger two generations don’t stay and fight hypocrisy in institutions as much as Boomers did. They just leave or disengage.”

Social media makes it so easy to post any random thought or rant. It feels cathartic to do so. We see. We react. We just need to tell somebody! The smartphone is in our hand, and so we post. We have all done it. The problem is: We have not just told somebody—we have told everybody. Luckily, because most of us are not Roseanne or President Trump, all that usually happens is that we get a few likes/favorites or a comment, and the world does not sit up and take notice. But I have to wonder, on that one day, with that one tweet about the Apostles’ Creed, if some millennials who were not connected to a church happened to see it, and thought, “This is what gets the church riled up? Changing a word in the Apostles’ Creed? Aren’t there bigger things for the church to be focused on? Why would I want to be part of that?”

If our smartphones are indeed megaphones and our social media feed is the story we are telling the world, that gives me pause. What is the story I am putting out there, and what conclusions might people be drawing from it? Is this post really reflecting what I want the world to know about Jesus and the church? Because once I post it, you never know where it will go. It has also caused me to ponder: When is a conversation (as important as it may be) an internal conversation, because taking it out to the world would not help build our reputation or relationship with those who are not a part of us? They just leave or disengage!

One of my daily questions is: What do we need to do differently to reach the next generation? We have all these great ideas about how we need to change the music or start hip new ministries. But I wonder if one of the things we need to do differently, if we want new people to give us a chance, is to consider the impact of our words, and ask ourselves before posting what conclusions might they draw about us from those words. Jesus said “by their fruits you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:16). Today, I wonder if it is not “by their digital footprint you shall know them.” What an opportunity. What a responsibility. 

Rev. Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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