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INSIDE STORY: Online networking: A tool to help save souls in cyberspace?

I’ll admit it: I was a late convert to online social networking.
I just didn’t get it.
But about a year ago, my teenage son helped The Christian Chronicle create a fan page on Facebook.
So, I set up a personal account on this seemingly peculiar Web site where 175 million computer users interact with friends in cyberspace.
Little did I know that I would connect with old friends from high school and my Oklahoma Christian University days, with cousins and former colleagues, with Chronicle sources and even folks from my home congregation whom I might miss on Sunday but now follow throughout the week via Facebook.
Just how much Facebook — along with sites such as Twitter and MySpace — has changed the way many of us communicate struck me on the way home from my church’s recent spring break mission trip out West.
My wife was driving a 15-passenger van full of Oklahoma Christian students as I rode shotgun. Late on that Saturday night, somewhere near the Texas-Oklahoma border on Interstate 40, I used my iPhone to update my Facebook status.
“(Bobby Ross Jr.) is less than 200 miles from Oklahoma City,” I typed, updating news that we had left Durango, Colo., that day and planned to eat in Santa Fe, N.M.
For you novices, this might seem like pretty inane stuff. But people read it! And comment on it! (We’ll save our remedial training on “Walls” and “Pokes” for later, but trust me, folks in cyberspace eat this stuff up!)
“200 miles? Well, hurry it up,” Karen Driskill, whose husband, Tim, was driving one of the other vans, replied almost immediately from her home computer.
Although our group had been away for a week, friends and fellow Christians had kept up with our activities — from passing out flyers for a church plant to volunteering at an inner-city ministry — by clicking on pictures we posted on Facebook.
(We also attended a Texas Rangers’ spring training game and visited the Grand Canyon, but I’m not certain those endeavors qualify as the Lord’s work. As an obviously jealous minister joked on my Facebook page after seeing pictures of my kids posing with slugger Josh Hamilton, “I thought this was a mission trip.”)
That Sunday morning, after a short night’s sleep, I kept running into people at church who seemed to know all about how our mission group had spent its week.
“Welcome back!”  they’d say, then mention something they’d seen on Facebook.
“I think all mission trips in the future should be on Facebook,” one friend, Connie Moore Mashburn, wrote on my Wall. “I loved following the group via fb.”
Lest you think this column has no real point, please don’t miss Erik Tryggestad’s story on Mike Cope stepping down as minister of one of the largest Churches of Christ in the nation.
Why is Cope leaving the pulpit of the 2,200-member Highland church in Abilene, Texas? To reach out to young adults — those who have left the churches they grew up in and those who never attended church — through new media, including social-networking sites.
Other church leaders have developed Web sites such as SaintsMeet.com and the MissionalOutreachNetwork.com to foster relationship building and discussions of faith online.
At acanet.ning.com, described as “a positive community empowering saints,” thousands of computer users from mostly black Churches of Christ share personal stories and photos, listen to a cappella hymns and connect with fellow believers. I was invited to join this group by Chronicle reader Loventrice Farrow and received a warm welcome there.
Unfortunately, churches in general remain woefully behind in technology, said James Nored, preaching minister at the High Pointe church in McKinney, Texas, and creator of the Missional Outreach Network. “Just in the last year, even great looking Web sites that do not have social-networking features are quickly becoming dead sites,” he told me. “People want to interact, to share, to rate, to find new content on a daily basis.”
Nored’s site allows users to invite non-Christians to participate. One formerly homeless woman wrote on the site about a Bible study a church member conducted with her in her tiny, one-bedroom trailer.
The High Pointe church also is developing what it hopes will be a substantial presence on Facebook, which Nored describes as the “300-pound gorilla in online social networking.”
“By bringing the church community into the public sphere on sites like Facebook,” he said, “we hope to allow others to overhear the love and care that we have for one another and for the world and then invite others to experience the Christian community, Christ and the salvation that he offers.”

Bobby Ross Jr. is Managing Editor of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].

  • Feedback
    I have never heard of this networking but, I believe in being open minded to doing the will of God and reaching and telling people the good news gospel. I want to learn how I can be involved and help reach people for Christ!
    Kenneth Ray Rayborn
    Mt.Vernon Church of Christ
    Mt.Carmel, IL
    October, 5 2009

    Many people still want to create a Godbook or something crazy that is a Christian version of social networking. That seems to only perpetuate the isolation we experience in our world impact. Facebook has millions of people and is ripe for relationship building. Newcomers or critics often think it fosters shallow relationships based on poking, short status updates and embarrassing photos. But as the Facebook crowd matures (one example), it is a haven for introducing people to the Kingdom. We just need to watch out and not try and door knock it to death and end up turning away people. The church can do alot to foster an environment of trust but we need to tread wisely. Facebook has its own culture, so treat it as a cross-cultural experience! When I was a missionary in Africa, we spent years learning the language and culture as we started our bold proclamation. Treat Facebook the same way (and Twitter, too!) Learn and listen, respond and connect. Avoid preaching, judging, or overly self-promoting our congregations. Establish a strong presence that compels a non-believer to want to know you more. @marketingtwins on Twitter (follow me!)
    April, 30 2009

    Using the power and facility of the internet, we are able to communicate in mass to our members and potential members. Good article, we have just started using a social network and the response has been better than expected.
    April, 8 2009

    Bobby, good thougts and commentary. The church needs to advance. This will help us recapture communcation.
    April, 3 2009

Filed under: Inside Story

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