Saturday, October 29, 2011

From quietism to the blogosphere

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Dirk Willems in the digital age?
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of conducting a break-out session at the 2011 Anabaptist Communicators Conference, which was hosted here at Eastern Mennonite University. The conference theme was "Anabaptism in a Visual Age" and my session was billed as follows...

From quietism to the blogosphere
Surveying Anabaptist online engagement
This session will survey the various forms of online discourse within contemporary Anabaptist traditions, particularly Mennonite and Church of the Brethren. Both scholarly and popular venues will be examined, with plenty of discussion time to explore the implications to traditional structures and processes for Anabaptist discourse.

The session had about ten to twelve folks from various Mennonite-related organizations and agencies, including Mennonite Church USA, MennoMediaMennonite Central Committee, Eastern Mennonite Missions, Mennonite Mission Network, and Everence (formerly Mennonite Mutual Aid). As the only officially non-Mennonite in the room, indeed at the whole conference billed as "Anabaptist", I had to give my obligatory "Mennonites don't own the monopoly on Anabaptism" proviso before proceeding too far into the session. But once that was out of the way, we proceeded happily.

We started out by going around the room for introductions but also to hear about what each person in their role, or their organization in general, is doing with social media. Some of these folks are working directly with social media in their organizations, while others are in more editorial and/or supervisory roles. My general read from the group was that 1) social media is rapidly becoming an essential need and 2) organizations aren't quite sure how to do it well, both at the functional level but also as it relates to integration into organizational structures, processes, and strategy.

Next, I talked for a while about how I conduct social media work both in my professional role at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, as well as my personal/academic work here on Restorative Theology. My primary case study in the former was my recent role in one of our alumni winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and riding the subsequent social media wave. I noted here the important role of social media being part of a broader organizational communications strategy, because if EMU hadn't been prepared to quickly respond to such news, we would have completely missed this huge opportunity. Fortunately, we were well-prepared and I was only one part of that broader strategy.

After that, I quickly sailed through a number of Brethren- and Mennonite-related blogs that I keep up with and engage in dialogue, including my contributions to the Mennonite Weekly Review blog, and the process I have established with online editor, Sheldon C. Good. Some of the session attendees were engaged in efforts similar to Sheldon's at MWR, trying to cultivate a broad network of content contributors outside of the organization and establishing a blog and the editorial role as a kind of hub. My seminary's blog, Work & Hope, has a similar system.

Finally, we ended our time together by looking at two sets of questions/challenges facing the church and church-affiliated organizations as it relates to social media. The first set came from Anna Groff, associate editor at The Mennonite, who extracted these three points from a project at Union Theological Seminary called the New Media Project. These challenges are:

  • Ecclesial authority - How the “flattening” of information creation relates to the “priesthood of all believers”
  • Community - Addresses the “high value placed on individual personalities”
  • Bodily presence - Addresses online congregations and worship
The second set came from Harry Jarrett, a Mennonite pastor and social media consultant who recently issued these challenges to a committee of the Mennonite Church USA:
  • Organizational questions
    • What fear do you have around social media?
    • Who do you want to communicate and connect with through social/digital media?
    • What platforms do you currently use to communicate and connect with people for your organizational purposes?
    • What has worked?
  • Identity questions
    • What are people saying about your organization?
    • What do you want people to say about your organization?
  • Strategy question
    • How can the digital delegate platform serve your mission?
We didn't have quite as much time to discuss these challenges as I would have liked, for which I take full responsibility as facilitator. An hour is a very short time to try and do introductions, a case study, and then discuss such huge questions. But hopefully this post can help attendees and others to continue wrestling with how to be faithful as a Christian in the Anabaptist tradition, both personally and organizationally, in this digital age.

The advent of social media in the past decade, especially post-Facebook and post-smartphone, signals deeper shifts in how society views and engages the world. Both relational and structural networks in their traditional forms are being disrupted, agitated, and reorganized by these shifts. It seems that a "priesthood of all believers" tradition such as Anabaptism is well-equipped to narrate a practical theology for social media in the digital age. I'm excited for the possibilities that this conversation may produce for the edification of the body...

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