Elizabeth Drescher, Tweet If You Heart Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation (New York: Morehouse, 2011), 192 pp.
Reviewer: Dr Bex Lewis
“God never told the world to go to church; but God did tell the church to go to the world.” – Sharon Watkins quoted in Tweet If You Heart Jesus (108)
Elizabeth Drescher is a self-proclaimed ‘digital optimist’, who in Tweet If You Heart Jesus aims to address enthusiasts, pragmatists, and skeptics. Working from an American focus, this book practices what it preaches in gathering material from both face-to-face and digital connections. Many others have referred to the ‘Digital Revolution’, but Drescher prefers the term ‘Digital Reformation’ as she considers the huge technological changes in recent years. She seeks to understand the cultural contexts in which they were formed, concerned with a focus on the ‘transformatory power’ of our language and practices, rather than simple ‘revolution’.
Drescher draws strong parallels between pre-modern era in which community and oral traditions were strong, and the modern day, which replaced the former with a print-based world in which individual, solitary practices, and the “opinion of the professional” have become the core focus. Western culture became obsessed with conformity to rules rather than practices of relational engagement. Technology has always changed what is possible: the printing press, the light bulb, and indoor plumbing have all changed our practices. Social media has often been accused of replacing ‘real’ friendships with ‘virtual’ friendships, but television gave us ‘fantasy friendships’ in much less ‘real’ ways than social media does.
Technology is neither the problem, nor its uncomplicated solution, but it is the reality for most in our world, and therefore we need to engage it. Drescher says:
If you’re somewhere in the formal leadership hierarchy of your church and you’re not engaging these digital groups in some way, you’re truly not attending to one of the most vital, active segments of your community (91).
Many churches are finally starting to get that the online landscape is important, but still need convincing that something more radical is needed than a new website. Technologies may be changing what is possible, but core practices of attentiveness, nurture, and cultivation, in which the church is experienced, are key. The characteristics (creative improvisation, participation, and distributed authority) that have made broadcast media unsuitable for so many mainstream churches are assets in a social media world, which offers more space for questioning. Drescher would likely contend that social media offers options for re-engaging with sermons, which have only relatively recently become passive, performance-based consumptions.
Where discussions focus on the notion of ‘unplugging’, we are given the impression that the effects of digital culture on our life are optional. We, however, are identified as a part of the ‘digital habitus’, in which immediacy, transparency, interactivity, co-creativeness, integration, and distribution are central facets of everyday experience. Drescher encourages us to think of the online world as a place, one in which the church has a long history, and to which the church can offer much—once we redirect the focus away from the technology that enables this. We have the opportunity to bring back old habits, returning to a 24/7 engagement that existed before the modern age, and opening up our communities more widely, offering a radical welcome to the marginalized, demonstrating by action, rather than by voice, going where the people are (online) as Jesus did, and breaking down the barriers created by the notions of private/public spheres generated during the industrial age.
Keith Anderson (177) is quoted as saying that church buildings have become anchors, and even idols, for many in the church. Digital technologies offer us the opportunity to go out into the world, and to practice “ministries of listening and attentiveness”, demonstrating an active engagement with the daily issues of the world, and to think more widely than our traditional (geographical) constituencies, putting us in a position to connect with things that are meaningful in people’s lives. As Drescher says:
We are not selling something to the world that will make more people like us, believe in our story, join our churches. We are trying to be something in the world that invites connection and compassion, encourages comfort and healing for those in need, and challenges those in power to use that power in the service of justice and love (127).
Once you can get past the book title (at which some do cringe), you will find pages packed full of useful, and thought-provoking content. The arguments that emerge in the book are convincing for skeptics (set as they are against the longer history of the church), and encouraging for optimists, who frequently find their efforts undervalued. The book is open to a wide readership but will be of particular interest to those who have a theoretical interest in cultural history, and also those in church leadership who are looking for a more practical understanding of what is possible in online spaces. Drescher acknowledges that in areas she has had to over-simplify, but this makes the text accessible to a wider audience, includes a big challenge to churches not to get left behind, and issues a charge to reengage with the “priesthood of all believers,” rather than becoming detrimentally occupied with a concern for retaining authority.