The Narthex

Social Media, Denominations, and Ecclesiology

Last week Drescher in The Narthex  analyzed the recent GTS conflict and possible resolution in terms of social media, its use by the GTS8 and the possible implications for denominational power dynamics and ecclesiology. The way the conflict has played out certainly has a great deal to do with social media and how the  GTS8 used it.  It is worth reflecting on the ways this would have played out differently before social media. Had this happened 10 to 15 years ago I probably would have read about the conflict, if I would have known about it at all, in the Christian Century of Christianity Today. As I’ve  sat  with  Drescher´s  article  I’ve  come to  think  my  difficulties  with the  piece  that I  briefly  outlined  here,  are  clarified  by my  asking  what’s  at stake  in her ecclesiological  claims for  social media.

If I’m  reading Drescher  correctly  what is  at stake  is  the possibility  of a more just  and truly  ecclesiological  functioning  of the  church ( read  denominations?),  made possible  by an  embrace  of social  media. Or  more to  the point, what’s at stake  for Drescher is that social media offers a way to truly fulfill the priesthood of all believers, in a rewiring of the church. What follows is my beginning to reflect upon the possible effects social media might have on the church and what that may or may not mean for our ecclesiology.

A side note to my reflection here: I’m not sure that the case study of the GTS8 shows social media put to use in a way that exemplifies the priesthood of all believers or even one where the powerless through social media have made the powerful hear them.  While professors and priests are seeing their positions of privilege and power decreasing in the society, still to be professors and clergy professors in what is essentially the Episcopal seminary, makes this case study more about two powerful factions within the Episcopal church.  Thus, I don’t see this as a conflict between the high-handed magisterial institutional and those without access to this magisterial institution, rather this is a conflict within the magisterial institution itself.  Granted the GTS8 stood to lose their standing within the institution and unjustly. However, even without social media I’m certain (but willing to be corrected) that the GTS8 would have in the least  had the ear of members of the magisterial institution, and would have had this ear because they walk quite freely in these halls of power.

The above quibble though shouldn’t ignore Drescher’s experience that social media drew in those who had no immediate connection with any of those in the debacle and that social media makes things public that at another time could have easily been and probably would have remained behind closed doors.  In short what Drescher is pointing out is that social media fosters networking, wider participation, and truth-telling.

That social media fosters networking and quick transmission of information about events and situations as they develop this can draw people into action and participation, but it seems to me it also (even in my engagement in social media) encourage and fosters by-standing, the rapidity of information can overwhelm and make it difficult to know what or how to act or even know if action is the correct response.  Some of Drescher’s positive claims about truth-telling and social media work mainly (it seems to me) when the sufferer of injustice is able to harness social media adeptly and those in power or the oppressor either doesn’t make use of social media or  is inept at harnessing the social technology. It becomes no easier to discern and know what is going on nor how to interpret the flurry of  claim and counter-claim when all parties are able to use social media equally well.  Also, social media can be used by anyone for the pursuit of their ends and can do so effectively. (e.g. One could argue that social media was used expertly to turn back a just decision by the board of World Vision concerning their gay employees.)

The shift I see isn’t necessarily towards the priesthood of all believers, though the connectivity of social media and it’s flattening effect may be harnessed in that direction, rather there is a shift in power based on who can best use the new technology.  This technology makes it possible to rapidly harness a wide-ranging network of people that with the old technology took much longer to build and required institutions like denominations to keep up and grow those networks.  With Social Media these can rise up (and just as quickly disappear as Drescher’s article tacitly recognizes), and it is more likely that those not at the centers of the old way of doing things are more comfortable with these new techniques of social organizing. The shift then is towards those who are comfortable with and have access to social media.

Ecclsiologically this new technology we call social media shows us that the old social technologies weren’t the church, but technological means to organize and divide (lets be honest, or perhaps more aptly to organize by dividing) Christians (and thus the church). Thus, social media does challenge the denominations attempt to claim exclusively “church” and “body of Christ”.  The old means of organizing weren’t unequivocally the church.

So, we should be very hesitant to claim that those who adeptly make use of social media are somehow incarnating the truer ecclesiology, because like all technologies social media isn’t unequivocal.  Whether the church in her essence is seen as a priesthood of all believers or as a holy ordering of bishop, priest, deacon, and people (though these aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive ), social media can be harnessed for the living out our life together, and it may reveal some aspects of the church that have been neglected or hidden. However, it is the human heart and an openness to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit that determines whether these means of organizing ourselves will be consistent with transforming work of the reign of God. Certainly social media has peculiar ways it can connect with this transforming work, but in our use of the technology we can undermine that possibility, just as our use of the old technologies undermined said possibilities.