Diane Butler Bass is a researcher and writer who looks at the realm of spirituality and religion. Her work of late has partially focused of late on what constitutes and drives mainstream Christian congregations. “ Christianity For The Rest of Us” is a fascinating book in which she examines the type of church that many of us experienced as we grew up and what currently makes for a thriving and vibrant worshipping community.
In her research, which included both “numbers crunching” and a long series of in-depth ethnographic activities with members of different congregations, Bass identified ten elements usually present in these thriving congregations. One of these elements is Testimony.
Bass and her interviewees have a lot to say about this venerable and changing Christian tradition. From the early church’s need for oral history to preserve and grow, to the Puritan practice of public statements about how God had already changed us to make us eligible for church membership and finally to the current practice of sharing our spiritual journey with others in varied places and situations, this is a well-written and interesting look at one of the components of being a Christian in a faith community that many of us are not all that comfortable with.
Testimony is on my mind today for two reasons: 1) because I am using the Bass book in an adult Christian education class right now and we just discussed this chapter, and 2) because of what happened on facebook.com last week.
There among all the Mafia Wars, Farming, Bingo, pictures of the kids and someone’s summer vacation, and the seemingly endless polls about everything under the sun was this status update from a dear friend:
“No one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick. If you agree, please post this as your status for the rest of the day.”
I have no idea where this post originated because I started to see it in other people’s posts almost immediately. In true viral fashion, I immediately copied and pasted as my status because I was struck by the simple truthfulness of the statement. Apparently I was not being very creative because this same message started to appear from many of my connections. Since my connections include a range that includes childhood friends, college buddies, colleagues from every job I have ever had, members and staff from all my church homes, business partners, relatives from across town and the other side of the world, along with an eclectic collection of friends from various and sundry times of my life, this was significant. Watching a statement take hold in so many varied minds was impressive to me.
But what really got my attention was what happened next.
Variations of this message from the “loyal opposition” began to appear. Not really unexpected, since health care reform has been such a divisive and engaging topic all summer. Our television and computer screens have been dominated by pictures of shouting groups from all sides of the argument and the charges and counter-charges of not letting the other side speak have flown. Elected officials have been shouted down and good citizens ignored. The whole affair has not been characterized as “civil discourse”.
So I braced myself for more of the same in this online venue.
However, I was pleasantly surprised by what started to happen. As you might imagine, people started responding to each other. On Facebook, when you connect to someone you know, you also become witness to their interactions with other people that they know, but you do not. You can see some of their online conversations with their friends. Some people find this disconcerting. I’m a little more of a voyeur, so I don’t mind, although I always remain mindful of the public nature of what we post.
So in some cases, people were reacting to what a “friend of a friend” stated as their public testimony of their position on health care.
However, in my corner of the virtual world, the discussions were polite, respectful, and with a definite air of “We can disagree and still remain connected.” I was pleasantly amazed by the general air of open communication that unfolded on my computer screen. This was not what I have come to expect.
As I pondered all this, several questions came to me. I’ll leave them with you . . .
Can social networking media provide new ways of enabling us to provide testimony to our beliefs and our faith?
Is it possible that establishing connections before having the “hard conversations” is a key to changing how we communicate when we disagree?
Can social networking media actually support healthy discussion as well as the more-publicized ranting and raging that often characterizes the public impression of how issues are treated in online forums?