Religion has found Twitter, the 3-year-old web service that allows people to dish on their daily lives in 140 characters or less. Increasingly, monks, nuns, pastors, rabbis and followers of all faiths are using Twitter as a means of spreading their faith, talking about faith-related news stories, connecting with their congregations and sending their prayers into cyberspace. Consider the following:
Each morning and evening on Twitter, @TheUrbanAbbey has prayer services in 140-character bites. The monastery without walls included this prayer in a recent morning service: “Giver of the present, hope for the future: save us from the time of trial. When prophets warn of doom, free us from our helplessness.” Though the virtual abbey is based out of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Arlington, Virginia, its members and the more than 1,000 Twitter followers live all over the world.
The 91 Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration pray together five times each day via their Twitter account, @BenedictineSis. Their monasteries are in Missouri, Arizona and Wyoming.
Wider nets, celebrity pastors
@RickWarren: “You weren’t just made BY God, u were made FOR God. Until u get that, life will never make sense. God made u to love u.”
@RevRunWisdom: “Never allow urself 2 make some1 your priority while they only make you their option.”
For some Christian pastors, Twitter has allowed them to cast their evangelical nets a bit wider, to populations they wouldn’t reach from a Sunday pulpit or even with their website. Some have started tweeting the content of their Sunday services. Bishop James Brown, aka @ifeelgod, “got on Twitter almost two years ago as an early adopter. I use it to promote ministry training, as a prayer portal, and a place to connect,” he wrote in a Twitter direct message. Brown is founding pastor of Victory International Church in Fort Worth, Texas.
Twitter has allowed Rabbi Amber Powers to meet Jews far outside the walls of her Pennsylvania rabbinical school, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, where she is the dean of admissions. “I wanted to see what types of Jews were tweeting, what Jewish content existed on Twitter, and whether being active on Twitter might be a good way to increase RRC’s visibility,” Powers wrote in an email. “Through Twitter, I have met some very interesting and engaged progressive Jews whom I might not have encountered otherwise. There are Jews everywhere who are hungry for rich, relevant Jewish content and resources and Twitter is a very convenient way to reach them and help fulfill this need.”
Celebrity pastors such as Rick Warren (@RickWarren), of Saddleback Church, and Reverend Joseph “DJ Run” Simmons (@RevRunWisdom) have a presence on Twitter too, and a lot of followers: 325,714 for RevRun and 40,402 for Warren. Both Warren and RevRun mainly tweet encouragement, truncating smaller words to fit in their whole message. One of Warren’s recent posts was, “You weren’t just made BY God, u were made FOR God. Until u get that, life will never make sense. God made u to love u.” Rev Run wrote to his followers: “Never allow urself 2 make some1 your priority while they only make you their option.”
Tweeting prayers has become popular, too. Economist Alon Nil started tweetyourprayers.info as a hobby this summer to allow people to send their prayers through his Twitter account @TheKotel. The prayers are printed and then inserted between the bricks of the Western Wall in Old Jerusalem. So far, he has 5,984 followers.
Not just for ministry
But not all people of faith on Twitter are there to spread the Word. Some ministers like to connect with other ministers and seek a respite from the daily grind. Reverend Lia Scholl (@RogueReverend) is pastor at the Richmond Mennonite Fellowship in Richmond, Virginia. “I’m not sure what I do here is ministry, though”, said Reverend Scholl. “I think that some people are using it to ‘witness,’ but I think it’s about being in touch, not about getting people saved.”
Tony Jones (@jonestony), author of The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier, also avoids Twitter for ministry purposes. He uses his Twitter account to market his books and chat with fellow ministers and authors. “It’s an amazing communication medium. I think that leaders will use it to communicate, including during worship,” he said, “until it is eclipsed by an even better medium.” One of his recent posts was a quote from Cicero in both Latin and English.
But Twitter sometimes can be a distraction when it’s used during a worship service, said Steve Knight (@knightopia), the international communication coordinator for Serving in Mission in Charlotte, North Carolina. “I hope churches that decide to go that route will think seriously about the implications of that before doing so… Twitter isn’t just an amoral, inanimate conduit of information, it actually affects the message itself — in some pretty obvious ways actually, like the 140 character limit.”
When you project a pastor’s Twitter page on a large screen during a service, for instance, it can detract from the goal of “turning down the noise in a church worship setting, where one might expect some quiet space for contemplation. Incorporating Twitter actually has the reverse effect. It amplifies the noise by making the constant stream of information and ‘feedback’ pretty much unavoidable.”
Part of Twitter’s draw for Brother David Felker, an oblate with the Antiochian Orthodox Church, Western Rite, in Colorado, is connecting with people of diverse religious views. Though he hasn’t seen his Twitter followers translate into more traffic on his church’s website, Felker said, “Interestingly, I’ve found that sending out my usual daily dose of comics, science, philosophy and theological articles has drawn a small group around me… Among those tweets I’ve gathered a few atheists with the serious intent of enjoying their tweets regardless of how they might see mine… It is a pleasure to “talk” with people from around the country and the world while quietly loving them in the name of the Risen Christ.”
So what does the infusion of religion into the world of tweets and re-tweets really mean? It’s easy to see Twitter as just another noisy distraction, a passing fad, but that may not be the whole story. Perhaps it offers one more way of being in conversation with our fellow humans about the core beliefs that sometimes separate us and sometimes bring us together in the name of a higher power. Perhaps it even offers us a new way to clarify our thinking for ourselves, and then declare: This, I believe.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: You can follow Busted Halo on Twitter at @bustedhalo.]