Lead Us to Tweet, and Forgive the Trespassers

Lead Us to Tweet, and Forgive the Trespassers
Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

At a youth service at Christ Tabernacle Church in Queens, congregants interact via smartphone.
Published: July 4, 2009

Things went smoothly for the first hour of the Twitter experiment at Trinity Church in Manhattan on Good Friday in April.

While hundreds of worshipers watched the traditional dramatization of the Crucifixion from pews in the church, one of New York’s oldest, thousands more around the world followed along on smartphones and computers as a staff member tweeted short bursts of dialogue and setting (“Darkness and earthquake,” “Crucify him!”).

The trouble began in the second hour.

Twitter’s interactivity — its essence — made it easy for an anonymous text-messager to insert an unscripted character into the Passion play: a Roman guard who breezily claimed, “I’ve got dibs on his robe.” When another texter introduced a rogue Mary Magdalene, the intrusion only confirmed the obvious: Twitter’s trademark limit of 140 characters per message is no bar against crudity.

Religious groups from Episcopalians to Orthodox Jews have signed up for Twitter, Facebook and other social media networks with the same gusto that celebrities and politicians have, and for some of the same reasons — to gain a global platform and to appeal to young people.

Still, many clerics admit to an uneasiness about the merger of worship and electronic chatter.

In online debates and private discussions, leaders of all faiths have been weighing pros and cons and diagramming the boundaries of acceptable interactions: Should the congregation have a Facebook page, or should it be the imam’s or priest’s? Should there be limited access? Censoring? Is it appropriate for a clergy member to “friend” a minor?

Some recoil at the informality and unpredictability of the crowds marshaled by social media, and at their seeming immunity — even hostility — to the authority of established institutions. More deeply, some in the clergy see a basic tension between the anonymous world of online life and the meaning of religious community.

“In Judaism, we believe that God resides in the community — among people in the same room at the same time, hearing each other’s voices and looking in each other’s eyes,” said Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens, who also wanted it known that he carries an iPhone and a laptop and is talking with his congregation about a Facebook page.

“But can you tweet a minyan?” he asked, referring to the quorum of 10 people required for most Jewish devotions. “I don’t think so.”

Religious groups are answering many such questions for themselves — and, for the most part, signing up for interactive media, said the Rev. Bill Reichart, a Presbyterian minister in Atlanta who leads an informal network of Web consultants who work with people of a broad spectrum of faiths.

“If total control is what you want, social media will frustrate you,” he said, reprising his advice to the clergy. “But the trade-off is the ability to hear and learn, reach out in new directions.” Many clerics, desperate to connect with young people, have been like radio dispatchers using the wrong bandwidth, he said. “The young don’t do e-mail anymore,” he said. “They do Facebook.”

Evangelical Christian ministers were among the earliest Web networkers, and today, popular preachers like Rick Warren and Joel Osteen have thousands of followers on Twitter. At Christ Tabernacle Church in Queens, Pastor Adam Durso and his brother Chris, the youth director, keep in contact with their flock, sometimes hourly, on a half-dozen social media sites.

Leaders in other faiths are catching on, but moving slowly, said Monique Cuvelier, a Web consultant in Boston who attributes some of the resistance to the conservatism of any established institution, and some to a sense of privacy: Gossiping about the rabbi’s wife may be common in temple parking lots, “but having it end up on the Internet — that freaks some people out,” she said.

Lisa Colton, president of Darim Online, a consultancy that works with Jewish congregations, said some rabbis worry that a Facebook page might attract anti-Semitic graffiti.

The anxieties are different for every group. Some Muslim clerics have told followers to avoid making statements on social networking sites that antiterrorist investigators might misinterpret as suspicious.

The sites are assumed to be irresistible listening posts, said Farid Senzai, research director for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a Middle East policy group. Some imams advise people to avoid discussing politics, and especially to avoid mentioning Afghanistan or Pakistan, even if they have relatives there, he said.

For Roman Catholics, whose tradition requires every church in the world to follow the same liturgical script on any given Sunday, the main issue is message control. “It gets messy,” said Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York. “When people can post comments on your site, things can degenerate unless you are constantly monitoring.”

All the same, Pope Benedict XVI opened his own Facebook page in May. It has attracted about 62,000 fans, whose uncensored greetings, requests and occasional insults appear on its “wall,” or comment board.

Experts say there are many degrees of openness for religious groups tuning into social media. Some carefully restrict access and even require proof of membership. Others, like Westwinds Community Church in Jackson, Mich., do not. There, Twitter comments appear on monitors behind the pulpit during services. (Some recent tweets: “Nice shirt, pastor!” and “Jesus is a joke.”)

At Trinity Church, an Episcopal congregation with an adventurous approach geared to the culture of Wall Street, where it is located, the Passion play experiment was considered a success despite the interloping characters. “If someone chooses to interact with us mischievously, that’s fine,” said the Rev. Canon Anne Mallonee, the church vicar. “The opposite of engagement is not mischief, but apathy.”

Since Good Friday, Trinity has been tweeting its Sunday services to a small but growing group of followers (525 as of Wednesday) from Europe to California, including some who live closer by. A church employee transmits snippets of the service in real time — tweets like “God be with you” or “Inspire us with your holy spirit.”

“I’m a sporadic worshiper,” said Anne Libby, a management consultant in Manhattan who often follows the services on Twitter between occasional visits to Trinity.

The connection, however slender, has drawn her closer to the church community, she said. She has never tweeted back during a service. She does not always follow every word.

But she has noticed that her favorite Bible quotation fits nicely within the 140-character Twitter limit: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” she said.

Source New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/05/technology/internet/05twitter.html?ref=us