By Episcopal News Service staff
The General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church is working with the Office of Communication of the church’s denominational headquarters on a new education program called Digital Formation.
The goal is to help clergy and lay leaders throughout the Episcopal Church appreciate the importance of understanding the use and effects of social media in the church as well as its theological foundations and implications, according to a seminary press release.
The program begins with a series of webinars, each centering on a different topic related to social media. The first hour-long webinar starts at 1:00 pm EST on Feb. 17. Interested persons may register here. The program includes 45 minutes of content and a 15 minute question-and-answer session. The topics include:
“The exponential growth of phenomena like Facebook, Twitter, and the use of various mobile devices challenge us to take not just a practical ‘how to’ approach but also to develop a serious theology of social media,” Colin Chapman who, along the Rev. Joseph P. Mathews, have guided the creation of the program, said in the release. Both are GTS students.
“Formation is a part of our name because we hope to address not just technology, but also how we are shaped into the image of Christ, how we embody our Baptismal Covenant,” added Mathews.
In an interview with Episcopal News Service, both Chapman and Matthews said they bring their faith online with them and it has served as a chance for them to evangelize in the world of social media.
“I think what happens, particularly with people who are maybe somewhat newer to the Internet and social media, is that you can cheapen what happens online as not personal or less than personal,” Chapman said.
But, he said, “when you acknowledge that the person on the other end of your Facebook wall is a person reflective of the incarnate nature of Christ it completely changes the church’s need to be involved because now we’re no longer dealing with digits and bits and images on a computer; but you’re dealing with Christ in the other.”
Following the webinar series, Digital Formation will welcome the Rev. Matthew Moretz from Christ Church, Rye, New York, the host of the popular online video series “Father Matthew Presents.” Moretz will be on the GTS campus on Feb. 23 at 7 p.m. to discuss how social media has supported his own ministry and mission, as well as how others may use social media tools such as YouTube to highlight their own parish’s strengths. The public is invited and there is no charge.
Matthews compared the evangelism possible through social media to the methods used by St. Paul when he founded early Christian communities.
“In the first century, Paul got into a boat and went around the Mediterranean and built a community of people where they were. And he didn’t just say ‘You need to believe in Jesus” and then get back in his boat,” Matthews told ENS.
Paul lived with the people, built up the community and the church and when he eventually did move on, “he stayed in the touch with the communities that he had planted and we have some of those letters now,” he said.
“It’s important for churches to pay attention to social media because it’s where people gather,” he said, adding that much social interaction takes place online and noting the oft-repeated statistic that Facebook’s membership is equal to the third-largest country in the world.
A short Episcopal Church-produced video about the impact of social media is here.
“Another part of it for me is that as the church has lost a lot of its clout in the sort of post-Christian society that we’re living in, social media gives the church a platform to re-create intentional communities similar to those of the early church,” Matthews said. While early Christians might have been were living together and sharing houses, denizens of social media share news feeds to be connected to each other.
"That enables a way to talk about discipleship and formation, which is why we’re talking about digital formation,” he added.
Digital Formation will have a presence at General Convention this summer and has ambitious plans for additional training sessions on and off campus next year, according to the release.
“Helping current and future leaders to understand social media underscores General’s commitment to an ever-increasing emphasis on the use of new technologies in the enterprise of theological education,” said the Rev. Lang Lowrey, the seminary’s president, in the release.
The Church Center’s Office of Communications is working with Digital Formation to share expertise and technology in an effort to make some of the programming available on-demand to the wider church
“We are delighted to be working with GTS on this program,” said Anne Rudig, director of communication for the Episcopal Church.
For more information about Digital Formation, email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Digital Formation’s Facebook page, which includes a schedule of upcoming webinars and events, is here. The program can also be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/digiformation .