Elizabeth Drescher’s “Tweet If You [Heart] Jesus”: A Review

tweet if you heart jesus final

Tweet If You [Heart] Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation, by Elizabeth Drescher. Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 2011. 190 pages.

The decline of American “mainline” Protestant denominations in the latter half of the 20th century is a well-documented phenomenon. Many explanations for the exodus have been given, with theories ranging from the appropriation of liberal theology, to a lack of “relevance,” or even the absorption of modern academic agnosticism in their relatively highly educated congregations. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that mainline churches are quite literally dying out, as the children of the baby-boomer generation are leaving and not coming back. At the same time, it has also been well-documented that as mainline denominations have declined in membership and attendance, evangelical and non-denominational churches have experienced consistent growth.

In Tweet if you [Heart] Jesus, Elizabeth Drescher, current Lecturer at Santa Clara University and former Director of the Center for Anglican Learning & Leadership at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, attempts make sense of these trajectories. Drawing on her ecclesial experience in mainline Protestantism and her academic focus on Christian spiritual practice, Drescher sees the recent explosion in social media usage as an opportunity for mainline Protestantism to reverse (or at least mitigate) this near 60 year-old trend.

She argues that the rapid growth in usage of social media and portable computing amounts to nothing less than a “Digital Reformation,” which the mainline church must engage if it wants to win back the relevance she perceives it has lost. Indeed, she sees the social media landscape as one uniquely suited for the situation of mainline churches today, feels social media effects line up well with the best of the mainline tradition, and believes that they must, therefore, be embraced by the leaders of mainline churches for their survival.

The purpose of the book, in other words, “is to provide insight into the opportunities and challenges presented by new digital social media for mainline churches, and to suggest ways that lay and ordained leaders in ministry…can participate in this Digital Reformation by way of nurturing and sustaining the Christian Church as a force for spiritual and social transformation” (2).

After describing our digital context in the introduction, Drescher builds her case by dividing the book into five parts. Part I features a quick survey of digital media from the social, cultural, and historical perspectives. Parts II, III, and IV address the effects and opportunities of the Digital Reformation on the church under the categories of communication, community, and leadership, respectively. Part V draws these three categories together in two case studies intended to demonstrate the congeniality of social media usage to mainline churches as they exist today. It is important to understand that for better or worse, Drescher is concerned very specifically with the mainline denominations, and not the church catholic, or even all of Protestantism. This point should be difficult to miss, but reader’s expectations for her range of concern should be adjusted accordingly.

The introduction is key as it lays out the foundational assumptions of her approach. First, the early 21st century has featured such rapid growth in the integration of digital media into American life that it cannot be ignored or even reasonably escaped. Indeed, she notes that

“Efforts to ‘unplug’ are laudable when they invite us to reflect on the transformation which we are currently participating…But they are misguided when they contribute to the illusion that the effects of digital culture on our daily lives, including our religious or spiritual practice, are something from which we can truly opt out, even temporarily” (11).

Second, she argues that the correlation between growth in evangelical and non-denominational churches and their use of broadcast media shows that for the mainline church to grow, it too must engage the dominant communication media platform of the day, which is social media. “A key assumption here,” she argues, “is that for mainline churches to participate meaningfully in the revitalization of the Church, we must travel through this new landscape on its own terms, open throughout to the possibility that God just might be doing an entirely new thing among us—140 characters at a time” (21). Though a correlation between broadcast media techniques and evangelical and non-denominational protestant church growth may indeed exist, Drescher fails to establish that it is in fact a causal relationship, and therefore fails to establish her foundational assumption that meaningful participation in the revitalization of the church will be done, as she says, 140 characters at a time.

In Part I, Understanding Habitus, Drescher’s examination of social, cultural and historical perspectives on digital media correctly recognizes that our situation is changing. She frames this change with the concept of habitus, an umbrella term for all that which constructs “how things are in these parts.” Much like the way of the automobile cup holder transformed the way we eat (drinking copious amounts of soda and consuming fast-food), social media are restructuring the way we relate to one another (31).

Part II, Communication and the Digital Reformation, deals mainly with the similarities between a culture formed by digital social media and one formed by orality. In other words, social media marks a return to the days before the printing press, when communication was necessarily social. This stands in stark contrast to the “Broadcast Age,” which introduced in churches the “phenomenon of ‘believing without belonging’” (63). Digital social media bring belonging back as a necessary component of believing, because participation is a necessary component to digital membership. Though her comparison between the Pauline epistles as a medium and platforms like blogs, Facebook, and Twitter is rather weak, her point that digital media provide a more level playing ground which invites discussion and participation still stands–and millions are participating. In a moment of pastoral application, she asserts that “if you are somewhere in the formal leadership hierarchy in your church and you’re not engaging…digital groups in some way, you’re truly not attending to one of the most vital, active segments of your community” (91).

Part III, Community in the Digital Reformation, features both the strongest and weakest sections of this book. Her assessment of the effects of broadcast communication on American community is excellent as she attempts to show the relational superiority of digital social media in contrast. She writes,

Take, for instance, the friendly neighborhood pub in the popular 1980s sitcom, Cheers…Sam’s bar functioned as a televised virtual meeting place that allowed disconnected Americans to imagine themselves into community. But the virtual nature of this experience is twice-removed: Viewers imagined themselves into a community that, first, was fictional, and, second, that could have no awareness of the reality of any particular viewer (98).

If we understand relationships as simply two entities engaging in give-and-take (participation), it is clear how Drescher can make the case that digital media are to be preferred. But give-and-take does not necessarily constitute relationship and this is primarily where the book fails. It never approaches articulating any sort of Christian anthropology and consequently misses the importance of embodied living and embodied relating as a necessary ingredient in “real” relationships versus the “fantasy of broadcast community” (97). Digital social media foster a similar sort of relational fantasy, offering participation without proximity. The same critique applies to her prescriptions for utilizing social media to practice the “Borderless Church”; attempting to “practice the ministry you profess” digitally is difficult when you profess faith in a God who calls us to imitate his incarnate son (116).

Drescher’s vision for Leadership in the Digital Reformation (Part IV) fails here as well. Her reference to the attention she and many of her colleagues paid to the Chilean miner crisis in 2010 exemplifies the bias of digital social media towards decontextualized and disembodied relationships. To put it another way, should a crisis in another hemisphere take precedence over the countless crises occurring in your neighborhood? I agree with her insistence on the importance of “location” in shaping leadership, but virtual leadership is just that—virtual—and becomes nothing at all when the lights go out, as it were (147).

Part V, Practicing a Reformation, deals mainly with practical applications drawn from a few selected ministries. It is here where she draws out her belief that the relatively low numbers in mainline churches may actually be an advantage. They are already less focused on a dynamic, figurehead sort of pastor, which fits with the more democratic biases of social media. Mainline churches are also typically less concerned with building a brand or attracting members (an attitude of the Broadcast Age) than participation with one another (a necessary component of social media).

At its best, Tweet If You [Heart] Jesus demonstrates the fact that our cultural habitus is shifting dramatically as digital social media grow in popularity. The writing is clear, engaging, and for the most part, to the point. Its problems, however, begin at the foundation. First, Drescher fails to demonstrate beyond correlation that increasing engagement with social media will save mainline denominations. The underlying assumption here is that people left mainline Protestantism because they were not being engaged in a culturally relevant manner. But there are many explanations for mainline decline (including widespread theological liberalism) which she does not address. Furthermore, she fails to develop a Christian anthropology upon which she might base her conclusions. In other words, without knowing what men and women were created for, it is difficult to assess media effects in any meaningful way. Finally, the title suggests the book will have something to do with Christian devotion in a digital culture, but is essentially about the preservation of mainline Protestantism (Tweet If You [Heart] the Mainline Church would be suitable alternative) and its conclusions are applicable to only a narrow slice of the church.

For those looking for a good book on a possible tactic for preserving mainline churches and engaging your congregations through digital media, perhaps Tweet If You [Heart] Jesus would be of some use. But for those looking to understand how to respond faithfully to the effects of digital social media, and digital culture in general, one would do well to look elsewhere.


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About the Contributor

Danny Hindman

Danny Hindman
Danny Hindman graduated from Wheaton College in 2010, and studied Communications and Media Ecology under Dr. Read Schuchardt. He is currently pursuing a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and is interested in the intersection between biblical anthropology, Christian Ethics, and Media Ecology. 

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