Last Saturday night, the PC(USA) General Assembly elected Bruce Reyes-Chow as its moderator. Something that made Bruce unique from other moderators and moderatorial candidates in the past is his use of the internet in his campaign. Bruce used a blog, a facebook group, and I’m assuming a bunch of other online social-networking resources to share more about himself and his positions, and, perhaps more importantly, to listen to the concerns of his fellow Presbyterians. The “Web 2.0” approach to ministry is a natural extension of Bruce’s personality, it seems. In fact, he mentioned during the moderator election that much of his pastoral work at Mission Bay is done online. He also made a point of saying that the medium of the internet in no way lessens his pastoral work.
As someone who’s worked for the past two years in college-age ministry, and someone who’s going to be doing more campus ministry and church planting with young adults, I’ve been intrigued for a while now about the appropriate use of online communication in ministry, particularly in pastoral care.
Working at KUPC, I found that using the internet helped my ministry a lot. Being on Facebook helped me learn people’s names much more quickly. Reading the blogs of students in the church helped me better understand who they are and the contexts I was called to preach into. Being on AIM opened up the possibility for some conversations with students that probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise. These are just a few examples among many of my ministry being enriched because of the internet.
At the same time, though, I saw ways in which the internet created barriers in ministry, especially in pastoral care. In fact, my first experience in pastoral care at KUPC came to me via email. Without breaking any sort of confidentiality, I’ll just say that it was a pretty significant crisis. At first I found myself grateful that I was contacted by email. I didn’t have to be caught off guard, and it gave me the chance to really pray about and discern the situation. I found myself pacing back and forth in my dorm room and reciting what I had heard in Pastoral Care class… “Ok. Where’s Jesus in the situation? How do I bear witness to Jesus in this context?” Eventually I worked through these and more specific questions and sent a response.
Soon after, though, my gratitude for the internet turned into frustration as I got no immediate reply from the person on the other end. Was my email helpful? Did I say everything that needed to be said? What if I missed the point of the problem entirely? I was quickly finding the isolation that the internet creates a frustration for ministry.
Now, I later realized that these questions that I was asking myself were really more reflective of my wanting to be affirmed than they were for doing faithful ministry. But, as I continued to handle this and other pastoral care “cases” by communicating through IMs, emails or both, I also began to realize that other things were missing that were more important, like eye contact and (when appropriate) physical touch.
Perhaps the biggest piece that I’ve seen missing in doing “e-care” is the opportunity to pray with a person. In doing any one-on-one pastoral care, I always make a point of concluding a session by praying with and for the person. Frankly, I think the time spent in prayer with the person has always been the high point of any pastoral care I’ve done. Most people will rarely hear someone actually pray for them, and that’s a gift we as pastors can give to people.
So, I’ve seen how “web 2.0” culture has opened up doors for ministry. At the same time, though, I’ve seen its limits. The same resource that makes us more connected to one another than ever before also seems, in some ways, to isolate us and keep us from communication on a deeper level.
Rather than draw any definitive conclusion, I simply pose a few questions:How much technology is too much in doing ministry? Is it possible to do pastoral care completely online without ever meeting in person? To what extent is our culture’s (over?)reliance on the internet to communicate an asset we can use for the sake of the gospel, and to what extent is it a fallacy that needs to be critiqued by the gospel?