By Melanie Addington
The Oxford Eagle
When thinking about new technologies and the popularity of social networks, religion is not the first thing that comes to mind.
However, thanks to churches such as Oxford’s The Orchard, technology, specifically Twitter, is quickly becoming a companion to religion.
Lead Pastor the Rev. Pat Ward first joined the social network Twitter in early 2008 after one of the pastors on staff at his church, The Orchard, told him about it. “I was pretty skeptical at first, but realized how fun it was when other people I knew started using it too,” Ward said.
After about four of the church members joined Twitter, Ward realized the technology was helping them to forge new bonds with each other.
“Every morning when we got together, we immediately began talking about things we had been posting about during the week: laughing at some crazy situation, expanding on a story, talking about a video we had linked to. It is fun and it makes us feel closer to each other. I wanted more people to enjoy that, and they do now.”
A quick search reveals almost 1,000 churches or church-related organizations that are now on Twitter. In fact, the trend is growing so rapidly that a Texas minister, the Rev. Anthony Coppedge, just released a book titled The Reason Your Church Must Twitter.
But Christianity has not always been at the forefront of technology. In fact, when Gutenberg began printing Bibles, the church thought everything was going to fall apart, Ward said.
“Instead of the end, that technology gave birth to modern Christianity as we know it today where people can connect with God collectively, at church, and personally, with the Bible at home,” Ward said.
However, with new social networks, Ward said that technology is quickly changing relationships.
“We have to be aware of the way that new forms of communication and social media are changing the way people connect with each other,” Ward said. “Often at The Orchard, I've talked about how people talk more now — through Facebook, text messages, e-mail, even Twitter — but really say less than they ever have.”
Ward notes that Twitter is not for everyone. In fact, the many technological options out there can often interfere with real relationships.
“Technology definitely does have it's benefits too, though,” Ward said. “For our church, it helps us all get the information we need ahead of time so we can be together and enjoy each other. It extends the lessons from Sunday into the week. New technology also helps us be better financial and environmental stewards because it saves us printing and postage.”
The Orchard, which Pat and Sarah Ward began in 2006 in Oxford, also utilizes its Web site to provide podcasts of sermons, prayer lists and updated event information. Members also use Twitter for requests for prayers when loved ones are ill. But mostly discussion revolves around pop culture and, for Ward, the experience of being a new dad. Having just celebrated the birth of his first child, Sawyer, Ward often comments on his new daughter’s activities.
The Orchard is part of The United Methodist Church. However, the group chose to make The Orchard its church name as an intentional way to bring people to the church that have previously left.
“We wanted people to come with fresh eyes and see that we really are a church for everyone,” Ward said.
For the Orchard, its members and lead pastor, technology is only useful if it helps bring people closer to God and each other, Ward said. “We are always quick to acknowledge that the most powerful things that happen in our church are the least technological,” he said. “Nothing is more beautiful than the sounds that fill the Powerhouse on Sunday.”