April 22, 2009

Authentic Relationships

2009 1512 page17 capWITTER, AKA “TWEET,” IS THE MOST RECENT COMMUNICATION PHENOMENON in America. It’s a free social networking and micro-blogging service that uses no more than 140 characters on a handheld device. Comedian Josh Marino is credited with creating the TWITTER backronym: Typing What I’m Thinking to Everyone Reading. It received international notoriety in February when members of Congress were observed tweeting personal comments to their family, friends, and constituents during U.S. president Barack Obama’s address to Congress.
Both tweeting and text messaging involve sending short messages from mobile phones or palm devices using the SMS standard that is independent of the Internet or access to computers. The only difference between the two is that texting uses 160 characters including spaces, compared to Twitter’s 140 characters. It’s significant that tweeting is surpassing text messaging among adults, while texting continues to be young people’s choice of instant communication.
As a parish pastor, until now my biggest worry was teenagers texting during worship services. Now I have to contend with adults tweeting what they think while I preach. Several immediate problems are posed by these new modes of communication, particularly for ministers.
2009 1512 page17First, they are all-consuming of the user’s attention, whether one is a high-ranking politician or a person in a pew where worship is in progress. Tweeters and texters become so absorbed with typing what they are thinking and responding to in cyberspace comments, they miss seeing or hearing important communication nuances from the presenter in real time. This is especially critical when the speaker functions as a mouthpiece for God in a divine dialogue with His people.
Second is a developing phenomenon infecting public and private high school students. It’s called “sex-texting,” or “sexting,” in which young people use camera phones to capture images of private body parts to transmit to each other. They seem unaware that once those portraits enter the cyber system they are there forever.
Third, the addiction to texting and tweeting robs our young people of the experience of personal relationships and fulfilling accompanying physical expressions.
Let me explain: Instead of having face-to-face conversations, as has been the custom, they now sit next to, or across from each other, without eye contact, text-messaging what they are thinking. This practice promotes virtual relationships devoid of the important contributions of body language that deepen the “knowing” of another person, not to mention the ruin of speaking and spelling abilities.
The biggest problem for pastors, however, is that which it poses in the spiritual domain. Scripture tells us that God said, “You will know that I, the Lord, am your Savior, your Redeemer” (Isa. 60:16). The Hebrew word yada, “to know,” is used in this and every such appeal or instruction in the Old Testament. It summons us to an intimate, passionate, personal, experiential relationship with God.
In addition to the gift of salvation, Jesus taught us how to develop and nurture an up close and personal relationship with God throughout the New Testament. How then can we, or will we, teach and pass on our understanding of such a personal experience with Jesus to a generation weaned on virtual reality and mechanical relationships?
First, we shouldn’t panic or overreact and reject these new modes of communication out of hand. We must learn to understand and use them to reach their advocates so that by “speaking” their language they’ll grow to trust us.
Second, we must live our personal experience with Jesus Christ in such an authentic way they will see that it is real and yearn for the same.
Third, we must preach and teach the Word of God in relevant, inspiring, and meaningful ways to texters and tweeters. Before long, like those of us who walked away from various affinities and addictions to pursue a living relationship with Christ, they will too. 
Hyveth Williams is senior pastor of the Campus Hill Seventh-day Adventist Church in Loma Linda, California.