Do we need Twitter in worship?

6/2/2009

By the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards
UMNS Commentary

On May 3, Time magazine published an online article about ways in which some worshipping communities are beginning to integrate Twitter into Sunday morning worship.

Time’s article describes primarily contemporary or "emergent" worship settings involving a primarily younger adult, Western-Euro culture and fairly affluent, not to mention tech-savvy, gatherings of worshipers. Among the other screens present in such settings, one or two are devoted to posting the "tweets" of people responding via Twitter to what's going on at the moment.

Some congregations, such as Mars Hill in Seattle, a congregation that would identify as "Neo-reformed" rather than "emergent," keep the "tweet screen" running constantly throughout worship. Others seem to limit it to specific times — such as offering prayer requests, or responding to a Scripture reading or asking questions during a sermon.

Throughout the day, I was able to engage with a number of folks around the connection and around the world via e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter who were fleshing out what they think of the idea, under what circumstances using Twitter as part of worship might be helpful and under what circumstances Twitter in worship may do more harm than good.

By the end of the day, through the course of these conversations, I continued to look for some standards our congregations might use to discern whether or how to incorporate Twitter in worship where they are.

Here's what I've heard and come up with so far.

What others are saying
The responses I've heard so far have been all over the map. One person wrote, "You've got to be kidding." Another, "If I could fill my sanctuary full of non-Christian Twitterers who all are curious about becoming the Body of Christ, then it is my hope God will curse me with such an affliction that I never recover from." One pastor noted that he had been encouraging folks to text him questions during his sermon that he would try to answer at the end of the service. He says, "I'm looking forward to seeing them projected in front of me during the sermon so that I can address them as appropriate along the way."

Interestingly, some of the more strident objections have come from younger, tech-savvy adults. Here's one response that typifies this strand. "I blog, Facebook, Twitter, microblog on Flickr, and connect with people via various Internet forums. But at some point, I need a break from the chatter. And I need things not to be about ‘me’ and my self-expression (which Twitter, and the like, can tempt us to think)."

How and where Twitter might help worship
One of the big challenges in worship with a relatively large group is allowing for a sense of genuine interactivity where that is what is called for at particular parts of the service. Dialogue between "the experts up front" and "the masses in the pew" can be very difficult to foster. People don't tend to be willing or ready to speak up in large public gatherings. Or perhaps only a few of those present do; and over time, they become the only ones who ever do.

With Twitter, instead of standing up and talking loudly or into a microphone (which has to get to where the person is), people can give their feedback at interactive moments from where they are, and all who do this can have their comment, or question, or request for prayer, or even testimony immediately viewed by all in the assembly. And many people can do this at once, so the time it takes to allow each person to speak is greatly compressed. With Twitter's 140 character limit per message, no message will take very long to read, either.

One person who found Twitter helpful put it this way: "I've been using Twitter for months now. But today, I actually 'tweeted' our two services and liked it. It made me a better listener. It helped me synthesize my thoughts and helped me ask 'What now?' in response to the message."

So what are the interactive moments in worship where Twitter might really help? These could be such times as gathering prayer requests, responding to a Scripture reading or sermon, or perhaps even a response to a call to discipleship or a request for a testimony.

One other use, from Trinity Wall Street, is to Twitter the actions of the service as they are happening, not for the folks who are present but for those who are absent. Trinity did this for their passion play this year. This allowed everyone in the world who had access to the designated tweet to follow the contours of the play as it was happening, and did so in a way that was not legally either a "performance" or even a "broadcast" -- which also meant that it did not require the church to purchase copyrights and licenses since it was not sharing anything that was copyrighted this way.

While Trinity normally Webcasts its principal Sunday morning worship service, congregations that cannot afford the broadcast costs or the technology or the licensing to do this could still follow Trinity's example by tweeting the contours of their worship services for those who are absent. As long as no copyrighted text is tweeted, no performance, mechanical or synchronization licenses would need to be purchased.

Cautionary notes: How Twitter could be problematic
Responders to Time's article have noted a number of reasons to approach the use of Twitter in worship with careful discernment.

• Using Twitter might privilege the "haves" over the "have nots," and the "techies" over the "non-techies." This could reinforce classism, and perhaps in some contexts, racism, unless everyone in the worship space is given the training to use Twitter and the means to use it (a reliable device that can connect to it) at each service.

• Related to that, using Twitter is expensive. Although Twitter itself is free, accessing it is not. You have to have either a cell phone with a texting service or data plan, or a device with wireless Internet access (notebook or handheld), plus adequate bandwidth in the worship space to accommodate all users. This means a more robust high-speed Internet service to the worship facility and multiple high-speed wireless routers so everyone has the ability to participate at once without losing much speed and without some people getting knocked off. On top of that, you will need a dedicated screen or wall space and projector for the "Twitter screen" itself.

• Add up all the electrical use required, and the eco-friendly quotient goes down.

• Several people have raised the issue of "hecklers." Twitter doesn't filter comments. Anything posted to a stream by anyone, anywhere will appear there. One workaround is not to post the stream directly, but rather to post a version edited by someone on site who then reposts either to a related Twitter stream or, more safely, to a basic word processing document by cutting and pasting the "good posts" from Twitter into the document actually seen onscreen. That's at least one other person to add to the technology team for each service, the "tweeditor" (tweet editor). That also means one more person in that space who will not be able to worship, because his or her focus will have to be on the task at hand.

• Brain science reveals three other significant challenges: focus, mode switching, and priority. Our brains can give primary focus to only one thing at a time. When what is happening in worship calls for the united attention and action of the whole assembly -- such as singing, prayer, responsive readings, and celebrating the sacraments -- Twittering would actually break the unified action of the whole community into individualized actions of individuals.

Switching focus from one thing to another -- such as from someone speaking to the task of composing or even reading a tweet -- creates a gap in our primary attention that lasts a few tenths of a second on average, long enough, when driving, for example, to make a crash more likely. (This is why talking on the cell phone while driving is a bad idea -- for the driver and both conversation partners.) This means that for parts of worship where continuous primary attention is appropriate, the physical act of Twittering actually reduces attention to whatever is going on at the moment and causes a total loss of primary attention between the time you start Twittering and the time you return your focus to whatever is going on in worship.

Finally, the brain is designed to give priority to visual inputs all the time, without our conscious awareness. It gives first priority to visual inputs whose motion changes (slow to fast, fast to still), preferencing 3D over 2D, then gives priority to high contrast visual inputs (such as black on white, the usual way Twitter feeds are presented live), then to images over text per se (over a few characters, the brain reinterprets text into images). Posting and continually updating Twitter feeds thus automatically creates a condition of moving 2D images in high contrast that will take priority over every static, lower contrast non-3D image in the worship space (www.brainrules.net/vision and www.brainrules.net/attention).

That's not necessarily a bad thing. But it does call for judicious use of this technology. Since this will happen automatically, it would be best to limit the use of Twitter to times when the Twitter screen and Twittering itself really should be the primary focus rather than something else going on (such a prayer, or music, or a reading of Scripture).

So do we need Twitter in worship?
If the primary use for Twitter during worship might be during times that call for intentional interactivity, Twitter really could help.

But what one still has to ask is whether using Twitter facilitates better interactivity than actually interacting with our bodies and voices might do. Perhaps what we might learn from congregations who are using Twitter in worship are ways such real interaction might be encouraged by real means. We might consider then how to make adjustments in how that real interaction currently happens to make them more fruitful and engaging for all.

Case in point: Do we now actually encourage anyone to share his or her reflections from the Scripture readings with the worshipping community? If not, and we encourage silent meditation on the text, might we actually be reinforcing more of a "me-and-Jesus" approach than a corporate reading?

Case in point: Do we either (a) not encourage people to share prayer requests in real time or (b) do this in such a way that only a few "outspoken" people ever do it? Twitter might be calling us to re-examine how we actually empower more people to share their concerns in real time so more of us can corporately and individually pray with more understanding and compassion.

Also related to prayer, multiple messages to Twitter can happen all at once, as can the Korean (and in many ways, early Christian) way of each person praying aloud all at once. This may sound like a mere aggregate of "me and Jesus" experiences if you haven't participated in it before. In practice, it's much more like a symphony of prayer, each instrument playing at the same time, though differently, according to its ability, usually guided by a set of biddings or petitions that set the overall topic for prayer at each point along the way.

If the sermon becomes a more interactive experience, it can also become much more the work of the people -- much more a liturgical, participatory action, than an offering by a "soloist" intended to be applauded (or critiqued!) by any and all. Twitter can help that happen -- but then again, so can the models of preaching as interactive event of God's word in the midst of God's people found in African American and other global contexts.

So do we need Twitter to worship well? I don't think so. But perhaps we can use the reminder of what Twitter can do well for worship so that we can offer ourselves to God in ways that do so even better. Instead of interaction being mediated by expensive and perhaps distracting technological means, we might instead find better practices that let us offer ourselves more fully to God with one another, in flesh and bone -- real people, in real time, in real life gathering around our real living, Triune God who offers us real word, real cleansing and real presence.

Burton-Edwards is director of worship resources with the United Methodist Board of Discipleship. Used by permission. Copyright 2009, The General Board of Discipleship of The United Methodist Church.