BLOG TOUR: Mark Vitalis Hoffman, seminary professor

Greetings, Beth! I am so happy to be able to say I was blogged at chickpastor! Thanks for participating in the blog tour. You posed the following to me:

There are some things, spiritually speaking, that now a person can Google and find all kinds of answers, and people sure do use that tool for big spiritual questions. How can the church address those things through social media or otherwise? How can we direct them to a caring person who can answer that question?

If you Google for ” the meaning of life,” the top hit you will get is… (think about it; the answer will be obvious)… the 1983 Monty Python movie. The next hit will bring you to a Wikipedia article on the topic. The third hit sends you to a site at aristotle.net which actually tries to provide the kind of answers someone might be seeking. If you are searching for the meaning of life because you are depressed in some way, it quickly urges you to seek out professional help. Otherwise, the comments it provides are all fairly standard commonsense, the kind of encouragement and self-help you can find floating around anywhere. Interestingly, however, there is only one reference to ” God/the universe/insert your cosmic principle here,” and one mention of “religion.” So, someone seeking guidance on the web for big spiritual questions is not likely to end up at a church or thinking much about God. Your question, then, is a good one. Can the church use social media to help seekers experience caring, faithful guidance?

Frankly, I am not encouraged that it will happen. I suppose there could be something online like a crisis or suicide hotline, but the sites I found simply provided phone numbers to call. Perhaps church web sites should all have a crisis number to call, but I don’t plan to put my number on the internet with 24/7 availability. So part of the problem is simply assuring that kind of availability. A bigger problem, however, is the one which Abraham Lincoln noted when he once said, “It’s hard to know whom or what to trust on the Internet.” 😉 It’s unlikely that someone will confide in a person they have anonymously stumbled upon on the web. We do have circles of friends and people we can trust, and we can certainly find them on something like Facebook, but it’s unlikely that we carry on a discussion of a deeply personal concern on Facebook. We’re better off just calling the person, and we don’t need a social media presence for that to happen.

People certainly do go to the web to get information, including information about God and life, but from a religious perspective, they are more likely looking for worship service times. Maybe the best we can do as Christian individuals and as congregations is to provide a welcoming and compassionate online presence that will encourage seekers to think we are persons who might be trusted and might even be worth seeking out in the real world.

A second question you asked:

I am first and foremost a preacher; what changes do you see afoot for preachers as far as social media goes?

I know that sites like Textweek and Working Preacher are great online resources, and the latter provides the opportunity for online discussion of texts. I have also seen my students and pastor colleagues floating ideas and asking for sermon suggestions on Facebook, but I don’t think these things are what you are asking about. Instead, I am wondering if your question isn’t really part of a larger issue. I am wondering if we need to rethink what a sermon should be or should be doing. I am wondering if we should be envisioning a whole different function for preaching, and I am thinking that social media might be able to play an important role here.

As the father of a couple daughters, I know that going to church and listening to a sermon was not necessarily the highlight of their week. (It probably didn’t help that they occasionally were mentioned in the sermons my wife or I preached.) Both of them tended to doodle quite a bit during the sermon, and initially I tried to encourage them to pay closer attention to the sermon. I realized, however, that they were used to doing homework while listening to music, having Facebook running in the background, and texting on their phones all at the same time. To sit still and listen to someone speak without any visuals was practically causing them sensory deprivation. They almost had to doodle in order to pay attention, and it turns out they usually were listening to the sermon. So my first concern is how can we make preaching more compelling and appealing today. While they have their place, I don’t think that resorting to videos or PowerPoint to create a visual splash is the answer.

I am intrigued and persuaded by the directions David J. Lose is exploring. He teaches at Luther Seminary, but you should poke around his … in the Meantime site. I’m summarizing some of his work here. Good preachers have always tried to help make a connection between the Scripture and the lives of the people. Laypersons count on pastors to be experts on matters related to the Bible and theology, but everyone is on expert on life. Everyone has experience in trying to live thoughtfully, meaningfully, and faithfully. Hence, Lose is encouraging preachers to think of sermons as participatory rather than performative. He says:

What would happen, I wonder, if Sunday weren’t set up as the big performance where the pastor puts on an interpretive show demonstrating his or her prowess at interpreting Scripture and connecting faith to daily life? What would happen, that is, if we imagined that Sunday was really the rehearsal – that life was the performance, the place we meet God in the world – and the pastor used that time not to perform the faith for us but instead to help us practice, to gain the skills we need to live our faith in daily life? In this scenario, pastors are less like performers and more like coaches, guides, and conductors, helping the rest of us to gain confidence in living out our faith in the world.*

I’m trying myself to figure out what that might look like, but you can see how plugging in to social media could work well here. For example, one of my students was leading a youth retreat. Usually cell phones are forbidden at such events, but this time, she had everyone text a friend and ask them to text back about who Jesus was to them. It opened up a whole different conversation. Now imagine how we might work this out in church on Sunday morning. Maybe it means tweeting the worship service and soliciting non-worship attender feedback. Or maybe social media could be used, perhaps even in real time, to help the preacher ‘rehearse’ how Scripture plays out in everyone’s lives. There are a lot of experts on life, and I think social media presents some exciting possibilities.

Thanks, Mark! Would love to hear anyone’s thoughts on these questions as well.

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One thought on “BLOG TOUR: Mark Vitalis Hoffman, seminary professor

  1. Thanks again for participating in the blog tour! A few links I reference in my response:
    Aristotle.net at users.aristotle.net/~diogenes/meaning1.htm
    Textweek at http://www.textweek.com
    Working Preacher at http://www.workingpreacher.org
    David Lose’s “…in the Meantime” at http://www.davidlose.net/

    I would especially be interested to hear what you or your readers might already be doing with social media as it relates to preaching, especially as socially media is being used in the worship service.

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