February 22nd, 2012
02:39 AM ET
By Dan Merica, CNN
Washington (CNN) – The General Theological Seminary was founded in 1817, making it the oldest Episcopalian seminary in the country. Twitter, on the other hand, was introduced to the public in 2006, making it, by comparison, a newborn.
Colin Chapman and Joseph Mathews, the relatively young founders of Digital Formation, hope to bring those two worlds together.
As a social media consulting endeavor, Digital Formation looks to help clergy and lay church leaders work their way through the ever-changing world of social media. When Chapman and Mathews proposed using webinars and classes as the means of teaching, the leadership of the seminary embraced the idea.
Though the organization is still in its early stages, the fact that Digital Formation was so quickly embraced shows how religious organizations not only desire more exposure to Twitter, but are willing to throw out what Chapman describes as a “behind the times” attitude to get that exposure.
“One thing at the epicenter of our operation is making sure we promote the use of social media in the church setting with a theological backbone,” Chapman said. “Usually people use social media as a marketing tool, but we really see social media as a way for interacting with people.”
Chapman and Mathews are both seminarians at New York City’s General Theological Seminary and during a few conversations, they asked each other why religious organizations have not taken to Twitter as quickly as the general public has.
“Religious organizations have a history of being slow to adopt new technology,” Mathews said. “Radio, television, I think that it has been the nature of the beast for awhile for the church to be slow in changing how it moves.”
This sentiment is not just held by Mathews and Chapman, though. Church leadership has been saying this since the birth of social media. In the book Tweet if You Love Jesus by Elizabeth Drescher, The Right Rev. Kirk Smith, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona expressed the need to take to social media.
“We blew it with radio; we blew it with television,” Smith said. “The question is whether we’ll be able to make use of these new tools while there is still a window of opportunity.”
According to Claire Diaz Ortiz, Twitter’s representative to nonprofit and religious groups, the model is out there. Ortiz knows first hands that when religious organizations tweet well, the response can be overwhelming.
“One of the great things that we see religious orgs doing really well is treating their church services as live events,” Ortiz said. “That is why some of the big mega churches are so successful on Twitter.”
And she isn’t kidding. Pastor Mark Driscoll (@PastorMark), the founding pastor of Mars Hill Church, has around 210,000 followers on Twitter. That pales in comparison to the nearly 530,000 people who follow Pastor Rick Warren (@RickWarren), founder of Saddleback Church.
While both Driscoll and Warren are big-name pastors, Ortiz said there are ways for smaller churches to effectively engage on Twitter. Her advice – have a couple of VIP tweeters who sit at the front of the service and live tweet what is happening.
Though that kind of presence on Twitter is hard for a small church to support, Digital Formation’s hope is that the payoff for those small parishes will be in the quality of contact on social media.
“What Colin and Joseph are doing is very important for the church imagining ourselves in the future,” said Rev. Patrick Malloy, the dean of General Theological Seminary. “This opens possibilities for us and allows us to see Facebook and Twitter not as just marketing tools, but they really are a means of connection by which we do the things we are called to do.”
And to Mathews, the time for churches to embrace social media is now.
“Social media is how people are communicating now,” Mathews said. “As a church we have to gather where people are gathering. People are taking to the web and are talking in clicks, so we think it is important to live our Christian lives where people are living their lives.”
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