As the ‘microblogging’ phenomenon celebrates its fifth birthday, Martin Saunders asks: is Twitter a pointless distraction, or does it offer a landmark opportunity for the Church?
Come, follow me. The famous words of Jesus have now become a mantra for a generation, not of disciplemakers, but of social networkers. At the leading edge of 21st century communication, one seemingly humble idea has helped to change the way we communicate and relate to one another. When it launched five years ago, it looked too simple to make a splash; now ‘micro-blogging’ website Twitter is used a billion times a week.
Though it has been keeping the early adopters busy since 2006, Twitter now seems to have reached a sort of cultural tipping point. The site sees just under half a million users register for its services each day; while in the past year usage has almost trebled. In March 2010, 50 million messages were being sent through the site each day; by March 2011, that figure had reached 140 million. Facebook’s dominance in the social media sphere is – almost unthinkably – being challenged.
While Facebook allowed us to transfer our human connections to an online space, Twitter created opportunities to make new friends. It took ‘traditional’ blogging – in which you would write long essays about your current thoughts, and post them online for, in most cases, 12 people to read – and shrunk it down to microscopic size. Writing for Twitter, with its 20-30 word maximum, is a skill; in some cases it’s an art form. So users read the thoughts of scores of micro-bloggers within just a few minutes – in most cases deriving a different idea from each.
Not only that: they respond; they join the conversation; they re-tweet – relaying someone else’s message to their own pool of followers. And in this way Twitter becomes an extraordinarily rich community, updating at a rate of hundreds of messages per second, through users all over the world.
Celebrity involvement – and early adoption – was a vital and perhaps unforeseen reason for Twitter’s success. Many people, like my mum, know about Twitter because they know that Stephen Fry uses it. US President Barack Obama even tweeted to celebrate victory in the race for the White House, having seen Social Media play an important role in his campaign.
Many users created accounts because doing so gives them direct access to people they might admire or engage with, but who previously they would never have been able to meet. On Twitter, you can send a message to Jonathan Ross, Naomi Klein, Britney Spears or Rob Bell, and if they’re in a good mood, receive a reply.
For once, Christians have been at the forefront of engaging with Twitter. Many well-known US pastors – such as Mark Driscoll, John Piper and Rick Warren – have established accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers, through which they regularly offer their latest theological musings, or provide links to a new blog or sermon. More generally though, Christians are using the site to debate issues of theology and culture, often with people they don’t know, in completely different parts of the world. Usually this is respectful and friendly (see the hashtag #lovewins for a less positive example) but it is always worth remembering that these conversations are public; even though they are taking place between Christians talking about obscure details of theology, they could be being read by anyone. With that caveat in mind however, a major application of Twitter for the Church is as a place to share ideas and enjoy stimulating discussion about mission and theology with Christians from all over.
And not just from all over the world; all over the Church too. Twitter breaks down denominational and theological boundaries. Generally speaking, the tribalism we see in the physical church, and even in Christian events and festivals, is less pronounced in the twitterverse. This can only be good news for the Church, which often does unity about as well as three preschoolers sharing an Iggle Piggle doll.
Twitter also has great missional potential, which is already being explored through innovative projects such as the Evangelical Alliance’s Natwivity (www.natwivity.com), a retelling of the Christmas story through fictionalised 140-character accounts, and The Passion Experience (www.thepassionexperience.co.uk), an initiative developed by a Southend church, being extended this Easter to take the story of Christ’s Passion to Twitter users across the UK. Much more simply though, Twitter offers a mechanism for Christians to naturally ‘meet’ and converse with those of no faith; linking with them naturally through shared interests. Many of us find evangelism difficult principally because we don’t know many non- Christians – Twitter provides instant access to millions of them!
Because what Twitter does ultimately is remove barriers. It puts every web-enabled person on the planet on a level playing field, regardless of age, gender, theology or celebrity (and auto-translation tools will soon remove the language barrier). It offers community which at its best is supportive, generous and which – crucially – listens. As a relatively new medium of communication for the Church to embrace it offers so much promise for the future of mission, discourse and unity. So can Twitter truly change the world? In one sense at least it already has – the recent political protests seen around the world simply couldn’t have happened ten years ago when we didn’t have social networking. The ease of engagement and the hyperconnectivity of it all means it is ripe for catalysing movements. Could a new kind of conversation about God be one of them?