Social Media Worship: thoughts on an experiment for Greenbelt

I could keep all this stuff close to my chest until we actually do this, or I could post this paper and invite a dialogue in the best traditions of the Internet. This is my current thinking about a Social Media experiment for Greenbelt 2013. The worship has not yet been commissioned for GB13 and is only therefore a proposal.  The experiment will take place at 2pm on Sunday 25th August 2013 based at (but not limited to) the Greenbelt Festival.

Introduction

This paper outlines a technical and theological approach to using social media to engage a diverse community of users to engage in an online worship event during the Greenbelt Festival

The impact of social media on the world and on communities have been significant. However, business and churches especially have been slow to properly understand the significance of social media and use it in effective ways to extend their reach into the lives of individuals. Hitherto, business organisations and churches have been broadcasters of information: using print, TV, radio and even SMS as methods of sending a one-way message to consumers which is entirely made up of the marketing-sanitised message which they desire to broadcast.

This is in direct contrast with the true purpose of social media which is to engage in a dialog with individuals also using the service. Whilst there is an element of broadcasting, it is moderated by responses and engagement. The most important part of the social media engagement is the stream: the composite flow of information which is significant both an individual elements but also as a gestalt: a complete whole.

Worship, once considered, is not simply a broadcast event. It does have some elements of that, as a message is delivered from a person (pastor, priest, or preacher) but response is also elicited. What Churches have been poor in achieving is in permitting, in encouraging a diversity of responses which might challenge a single accepted viewpoint. It would not be considered acceptable, for example, to stand up and engage in debate during the delivery of a homily, for example.

However, there are many emergent groups which do value diversity and the contribution of the ecclesia to the narrative of the community, and it is with these values that this proposal for social media worship is couched. Any community which lacks the confidence to engage with its users cannot authentically use social media in its true sense. If there is only one perspective which can be tolerated, and only one channel of communication, then the possibilities of social media as a process of theologia have not yet been fully realised. Such a community might use social media as a medium for broadcast, but it will only be in a limited  way[1. Any community which is more interested in the process of engagement, in responding in pastoral and theological terms to its user base, can find that social media in its true form is a useful tool for this.

The mechanism of social media worship

There are some limitations to the form and variety of worship that can be achieved entirely via social media. In 2010, I documented in my book Creative Ideas for Alternative Sacramental Worship a Twucharist liturgy. This was not so much a socially mediated worship as an experiment in communication as it supported a live face-to-face act of worship using a liturgy written in 140-character bursts. The liturgy and the responses were both tweeted and displayed on a screen.

I still do not consider that it is possible to hold an authentic Eucharist without face-to-face engagement with the sacred elements.

For this reason, the worship proposed is non-eucharistic, but which confirms to a traditional shape, reinterpreted in the light of the new media, and the new channels of communication which social media affords us.

Other experiments have used social media as an adjunct to face-to-face worship: eliciting feedback in the midst of live worship, but this is only possible when there is a locus of physical sacred space. How might this look when placed entirely in the ether?

When broken down and analysed, the shape of this worship could look like this:

  1. Gathering
  2. Welcome & Engagement
  3. Penitential Rite
  4. Absolution
  5. Word
  6. Response
  7. Meditation
  8. Intercession
  9. Blessing & Dismissal

Within each of these elements there is an element of broadcast and an opportunity for response, which is linked to a response to that response. As suggested earlier, it is that element which transcends traditional church models and moves the worship into the truly socially-mediated world.

In practical terms, the social media worship therefore needs to be delivered by a team whose collective purpose is to both broadcast and respond. This requires a reasonable level of access to the Internet to achieve this. For this experiment, I propose that a team of three or four (depending on expected scale) are connected to the Cheltenham Racecourse internet (by WiFi or hardwire, whichever is more convenient) via laptop internet via a phone as the GB technical teams were unwilling or technically unable to permit us to access their Internet.

One of these machines can be set up to send out the key broadcast elements of the act of worship. We will call this the Worship Leader. They can be scheduled (using an application such as Tweetdeck) so as to provide a structure for the act of worship. The other users are poised to monitor and respond to the responses and the dialogue which the Worship Leader generates. I will refer to these as the Deacons.

Although the key medium of communication will be Twitter (largely because of the number of users able to access it), this can be mirrored onto a Facebook page/group to involve those not using Twitter. It can also incorporate links to other social media platforms such as Instagram and Flikr to elicit other (non-textual) responses. Other links to video and audio can be embedded into the stream and can enrich the multimedia experience of the worship. The vast majority of users will be able to engage in worship via smartphones using WiFi or mobile internet, but a proportion will also access it via SMS which is still a valid and widely used Twitter platform. The growth in bandwidth for the mobile internet has been phenomenal in the past 12 months and market penetration of smartphones will mean that those who are interested in such an engagement will be able to access it. Although the act of worship is intended for those primarily at the Greenbelt location, it is in no way limited to them as it will be available worldwide.

The worship will be accessed by following a dedicated Twitter Account: @tw_worship and during the act of worship all interaction will be tagged with the suggested hashtag #GB40SMW

It is a given disadvantage that one has to sacrifice characters for clarity in names and tags. This reduces the amount of available characters for interaction but as short mnemonics can be difficult to identify and are often used by others resulting in “crosstalk”. A good example of this was in 2012 when a far-right US rally led by Glen Beck was tagged with #gb12 over the same weekend as the Greenbelt festival also using the #gb12 hashtag. The confusion between social-conservatism and social justice was both amusing and potentially destabilising.

Example

This is entirely conjectural and does not represent any part of the Social Media worship as yet unplanned.

Worship Leader

Typical Responses

Deacons

#GB40SMW The Lord be with you
@gb40socialmedia and also with you #gb40smw
@gb40socialmedia ok
@gb40socialmedia what?
@GB40SMW We call to mind our sin.
@GB40SMW Consider where you have let God down
@GB40SMW when you have brought them to mind respond with Amen
@gbsocialmedia amen
@gbsocialmedia AMEN
@gbsocialmedia I need to confess @user You can DM confidentially
D gbsocialmedia I confess <redacted> D user God hears you. You are forgiven
#GB40SMW God hears all of you. You are forgiven @gbsocialmedia amen
#GB40SMW where do you find yourself? post a pic of your location
@gbsocialmedia bit.ly/MADEUPURL
@gbsocialmedia inst.gm/MADEUPURL
#GB40SMW Psalm 150: Video link: you.tb/URLHERE
@gbsocialmedia I love that vid. Where is it shot?
#GB40SMW Psalm 150: text bit.ly/LINKHERE @user Dartmoor. goog.le/MAPREF
#GB40SMW What do you need to ask of God in prayer?
@gbsocialmedia my dad is very ill @user your prayer is heard
RT @user @gbsocialmedia my dad is very ill
@gbsocialmedia I need help @user would you like to talk confidentially?<dm conversation ensues>
@gbsocialmedia why does God allow my Dad to suffer? @user <response and conversation direct or broadcast depending on confidentiality issues>
#GB40SMW Our worship is concluded. Go in peace.
@gbsocialmedia Amen! Thank you! #gb40smw

What do we envisage people to be doing in Social Media Worship?

A mixture of direct questions and open invitations can gather responses from those participating in worship. In common with most social media engagement, we do not see it as an exclusive activity. A very few will be connected to a laptop somewhere; others will access it on a tablet or a smartphone in the middle of another activity: eating lunch, attending another talk. Is this multitasking a dilution of worship? Alternatively, even when engaged in worship are there not plenty of distractions already in play which makes the intrusion of worship into everyday life just a mirror of the notion that everyday life intrudes into worship?

As this is an experiment into an unfamiliar territory, it might be worthwhile seeking some feedback from those who participated through a simple user survey (surveymonkey) or direct responses. This could determine reactions to the concept as well as trying to understand the context in which participants engaged (if at all).

If it is determined that this form of social media worship is unsuccessful, then at least we can cross off this particular model as an unsuitable one for worship.

Let’s experiment!


[1 Nicky Gumbel, the Vicar of Holy Trinity, Brompton and all things Alpha has tens of thousands of followers (https://twitter.com/nickygumbel) but only sends out messages (good though they are) and only follows around 200 people. This is not dialogue so much as broadcast