Reflections on a social media sermon
Reflections on a social media sermon

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On Sunday, at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Burke, VA, I gave what I can only think to call a social media sermon.

We CMT staff members can’t take many Sunday morning teaching and preaching gigs, because we’re all active in our own congregations. But when Good Shepherd’s rector, Larry Packard, told me he was looking for a hybrid sermon/forum talk on the promise and pitfalls of social media and other technology, I managed to clear some time on my calendar.

I thought readers of this blog might be interested in how things went, and perhaps what I said. Before I offer a couple of short reflections, let me set the scene. (If you care more about what I said, just scroll down to the embedded media.)

This sermon/forum thing took place in the parish hall as part of the Liturgy of the Word, which was moved to that space to give us access to its very bright projector (Good Shepherd uses the space for what they call a community rental ministry; they also run an alternative worship service there concurrently with a traditional service one Sunday per month). After the Peace, we processed into the nave for the Liturgy of the Table.

I decided to use Storify to collect the social media artifacts (videos, photos, tweets, etc.) that I wanted to incorporate into the presentation. What I like about Storify is that it allows you to narrate and annotate those artifacts in order to weave together, well, a story. And you can share that story after the fact and people will actually be able to follow it, which is not true of most slide decks and other tools for collecting links.

I used the story (found below, though email readers may need to click through to the web version) as an outline for a lightly rehearsed presentation, so I was able to be a little more flexible and keep my nose out of my (electronic) notes. On the other hand, I wandered from this script a ton more than I would with a traditional manuscript in a traditional pulpit, so I had to skip a lot to come in for a landing.

What did I learn from this little experiment? Quite a bit, though I’m not finished reflecting:

The power of video

The ability of video to grab people’s attention should be no surprise to us, given what we know about learning theory and cultural patterns of media consumption. I made the classic mistake of writing the sermon mostly to the adults, but several parents said, “you had my kid engaged as soon as you clicked play on that first video.”

Engaging a tech-skeptical audience

One mistake I always make when visiting parishes is forgetting that I’m not teaching an audience who has willingly come to the seminary (usually at some cost) for technology training but rather people who have a whole range of attitudes about new media. At home, I’m preaching to the choir, as it were. On the road—not so much.

By pulling this congregation out of their usual routine, I was probably alienating more parishioners than I was exciting. The “informal introduction” in the text below was my attempt to honor and connect with the folks who were uncomfortable.

The complexity of the extended teaching sermon

Quite aside from any questions of technology, I have to say that I found this genre confusing. I did not start my preparation with exegesis of a biblical text; I started with what I thought the congregation needed to hear about technology in the church. (In fact, we cheated on the lectionary and substituted a gospel text that worked well with the message I was working toward.)

I don’t have any answers here, just the age-old questions about the difference between the pulpit and the lectern. I imagine that a more text-focused “social media sermon” would be a whole other animal—more spiritually edifying and probably a lot of fun. But I did enjoy the chance to teach in the context of worship, and I’m glad Good Shepherd tries these hybrid experiments in the summer.

The importance of backup plans—and grace

On the technology front, I was off to a bad start from the moment I arrived. As I pulled into the parking lot, I realized I’d forgotten the dongle to connect my iPad or iPhone to a VGA projector (projecting from the iPad has a screen-size benefit; my iPhone, on the other hand, has Internet connectivity that doesn’t rely on local WiFi).

Since my Chromebook doesn’t have a VGA port (only HDMI), that option was out too. Thankfully, my local A/V contact graciously ran home to grab his laptop for me to borrow (thank you, Bob!). However, either the wireless connection or Storify itself were having problems, and I wasn’t able to advance beyond page 1 of the story. Thankfully, my most crucial visual aids (the first couple of videos) loaded without a problem.

The moral of the story? Keep extra dongles in your bag, arrive early, and rely on the kindness of strangers.

At long last, here’s the Storify sermon itself. I’d love to hear from anyone who regularly preaches with help from social media visual aids. How has the experience been for you? What would you add to the lessons from this probably atypical example?

Kyle Matthew Oliver (@kmoliver) is the digital missioner and learning lab coordinator in the Center for the Ministry of Teaching, content developer for the e-Formation Conference, a contributor at Faith Formation Learning Exchange, and a panelist on the Easter People podcast.

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