In the eyes of Christian church denominations, the prevalence of social media is equally likely to be seen as a blessing or a potential pitfall.
Religious leaders in Decatur and throughout the country are quick to take advantage of the networking shortcuts offered by services such as Facebook and Twitter, but at the same time are wary of perceived dangers and even addiction to social media.
Even at the highest level of a denomination like the Catholic Church, the 84-year-old pontiff, Pope Benedict, has offered both guidance and warnings to members of the faith on the use of social media.
"It is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives," said Benedict in last year's address for the Catholic Church's World Day of Communications. "In the search for sharing, for 'friends,' there is the challenge to be authentic and faithful, and not give in to the illusion of constructing an artificial public profile for oneself."
This is a challenge faced even by the pope himself, as his own church uses social media to convey his messages. Although Benedict reportedly doesn't physically enter the messages, tweets from the pope do appear at the Vatican's URL www.pope2you.net, a clear indication of the digital age that churches of all denominations now find themselves in.
In Decatur, area churches face the same challenges. At the Parish of Sts. James and Patrick, the face of social media is likely Deacon Greg Sullivan, who stays current on issues of technology, including updating the parish Facebook account on a daily or even hourly basis. He sees the utility of such technology to the church as a tool to help hold people together.
"I think its most important role is to maintain this connection between the people of the parish between Sundays," he said. "It helps keep the church in their lives on a daily basis. I use the parish Facebook account, for instance, to post things about saints' feast days, or readings for that day, or other articles that I think might help people understand modern faith more clearly."
Sullivan even makes use of the so-called "confession app" for iPhones and iPads that allows users to reflect on an upcoming confession and itemize sins.
"I have it on my iPad, and it's OK if used properly," he said. "The app is just another tool used to prepare for the sacrament. It's just meant to help someone examine their own conscience and fault, not actually convey the sacrament. I show it to my classes and we kind of get a chuckle out of it."
However, Sullivan also pointed out ways in which the same services could easily be abused.
"I think the time element is the biggest thing when it comes to social media," he said. "I spend a lot of time on it as a function of the job, but I don't think Facebook should be found at the family dinner table. And if you're spending more time in front of a monitor than with the
people you love, that's probably a problem."
Other religious leaders in Decatur also chimed in with similar opinions that mixed optimism with caution. Senior Pastor Jerry Shirley of Grace Baptist Church said his congregation was connected by both a private Facebook account for members only, as well as a wider-reaching "Grace Notes" group that Shirley operates. These practices have become more and more common, with a 2011 survey of 1,003 Protestant congregations showing that roughly 60 percent of churches are now employing some means of social networking, according to Christian research organization LifeWay Research.
"It runs the spectrum from good use like prayer requests to simple gossip," Shirley said. "Some people use it to spread messages of what's important to them or to facilitate friendship with someone 1,000 miles away, but the time-wasting is also so prevalent. There's plenty of opportunity for good use and bad use, but with the right mindset and attitude toward these tools, you're much more likely to stick to the good uses."
Pastor Jim Montgomery of Decatur's First Presbyterian Church said his own personal "soap box" issue regarding social media was the amount of time that many people, especially young people, invest into spending online, to the possible detriment of in-person socialization.
"I think that's a major issue our culture has," he said. "It's devastating when person-to-person communication goes away. We are made to be in close contact with each other. I believe parents in particular should set limits on just how much time they and their kids should be spending in that world. There are a few families in our church who I think are very good about when they even allow their kids to have a Facebook; I think it's not until around eleventh grade."
But even with some reservations, few church leaders would argue that congregations shouldn't take advantage of the opportunities offered by social networks like Facebook.
"Personally, I'm on Facebook and find it very useful for staying in touch with our youth who are away at school," Montgomery said. "We've used it before to successfully get the word out to our friends and nonmembers about special services. Like any tool, it can be used for good or for bad. I just think it's important for people to know what pool they're stepping into when they choose to spend a lot of time online."
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