Social media sparks a new worshiping community
Humble Walk Lutheran Church in West St. Paul, Minn., is not a full-fledged ELCA congregation yet, but one of the Saint Paul Area Synod’s “Synodically Authorized Worshiping Communities.”
Jodi Houge, a mission developer, has been on the job there for less than three years. If you showed up on a Sunday afternoon for worship, you would certainly find the rough, organic joy that frequently comes with new life.
You would also find a welcoming seat in their circle of approximately 35 participants, a rhythm instrument for use in their original music and liturgy, and a tightly woven community growing in the heart of their working-class neighborhood.
And to think, Facebook helped make this happen.
For worship communities like Humble Walk, social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter are now a viable alternative in the search to connect with new and potential members.
Their use of Facebook for community news and devotional dispatches isn’t groundbreaking but is a great example of fledgling congregations using technology to reach out to young adults who do not have a church home.
In the case of the people living in the Humble Walk neighborhood, it was a perfect fit.
In October of 2008, Jodi and her husband, Nate, looked at their neighborhood, full of 20-somethings living paycheck-to-paycheck, and saw the need for a neighborhood church.
“We wanted to do something that was specifically for them,” Jodi recalls, “for this socio-economic class, but, you know, also for those artsy weirdos whom we tend to run around with.” But when Jodi looked at the popular strategies recommending the use of websites to spread the word about new worship communities, she didn’t know where to begin.
“I’m sort of a technological peasant,” she confesses. “But I was on Facebook... so someone in the community said, ‘Just do a Facebook group.’ And we started doing all our communication through that, since almost everyone was already using it. It was a natural place to gather people and get information to them.”
Unlike many of the more established ELCA churches in the Saint Paul Area Synod, Humble Walk doesn’t operate under traditional structures. Due in part to their size, but more to their organic nature, they don’t have a congregation council or administrative meetings.
Even job titles are scarce; Nate, who wrote much of Humble Walk’s liturgy and leads music almost every Sunday, doesn’t want an official position or a pension. Instead, they place an emphasis on simply worshiping and working together in community, and Facebook is just one tool that has helped them grow in that identity.
Some critics question the authenticity of relationships built on social media networks.
“I’ve heard a lot of people say that it’s ‘false’ community,” Jodi replies, “But I haven’t found that to be true at all. Being on Facebook gives people something to talk about the first time they have an actual conversation.
"If they’ve connected in our Facebook group, and later are hanging out at church, and it’s that awkward, first 15 minutes of, ‘Well, what do we talk about?’ -- they’ve seen each others’ pages and end up saying, ‘Hey, we like the same band!’
"Connecting is a human need we have, and Facebook makes it easier. Opening up conversations and putting yourself out there doesn’t come easily to a lot of people, but I think this gives them something to begin with, in a positive way.”
Jodi and Humble Walk know that not everyone values weekly worship gatherings in the same way they do, and that’s why they’re branching out. This summer Humble Walk is planning a kids’ program for the neighborhood, as well as a band night at a local pub.
They also realize that Facebook can’t replace face-to-face relationship building. Jodi knows that for her neighbors who speak English as a second language or can’t afford a computer a Facebook group doesn’t do a lot of good.
But for the time being, Facebook is serving as a valuable tool for this intimate, developing community. Here’s hoping that Humble Walk will exist long after Facebook has become passé.
“I think we’ll always be connected to some sort of online community,” Jodi says. “I have no idea what that will look like in five years, but at this point it doesn’t matter. It’s working now, and we’ll keep evolving with it.”