I gave this talk at the Christian New Media Conference on 20 October 2012 (#cnmac12 on Twitter).
Back in March this year I was happily dual-screening. What’s dual-screening? Well it’s something I expect a lot of you here do – it’s watching tv at the same time as another screen – your tablet or smartphone. I find I watch a lot of TV in this way, reading the commentary on twitter whilst watching a popular tv programme. So it was a Sunday evening and I was looking at twitter and very quickly started to spot a hashtag #prayformuamba. Wondering what it was I clicked on it and eventually gathered that Fabrice Muamba was a footballer for Bolton Wanderers who had collapsed on pitch in the middle of a game.
Now the story of Fabrice’s collapse due to a heart condition and his miraculous recovery is an amazing story – I’d encourage you to go away from here today and read all about it but that is not what I want to focus on here today. What I’m interested in is how twitter seems to have broken a barrier on talking about faith and in particular about prayer in public. #prayformuamba is not the only hashtag to have featured the word pray we have seen trending – we had #prayforjapan after the earthquake and it seems to me that it has become a kind of meme – a copied phrase, a normal response to a crisis on twitter.
Twitter reported that between March 17th and 19th there were 685,721 tweets with the Hashtags #PrayForMuamba and #Pray4Muamba! That’s quite an incredible number of tweets! One thing that really struck me was that a lot of these tweets weren’t simply sharing the hashtag because that was what everyone else was doing but the tweets actually talked about praying for Muamba.
Look at these tweets from very prominent English footballers from the time of the event:
Even a popular image that was being tweeted at the time was this picture of the player Van De Vaart (on the opposing side, Tottenham) visibly praying on the pitch.
I would argue that these weren’t people just jumping on the hashtag bandwagon but who were genuinely doing what the hashtag was suggesting – that is, praying!
I think Kyle Walker (another footballer – I had to look that up, I’m not a football fan!) summed it up nicely in this tweet:
There are 6 key things I want to draw for us from this phenomenon.
The first is simply an observation – the printed media now follows what happens first on digital media. Without twitter, this astonishing headline in the Sun would not have appeared and Fabrice’s inspirational fiancée would not have been able to literally lead the nation in prayer in the way that she did.
Secondly, I was brought into a new world or culture through this experience. Twitter gave me access to the football community – one which I don’t normally inhabit. And perhaps, in a way, it also brought the football community into the Christian community? Ordinarily it would be difficult for me to get a way in to a community that I wasn’t a natural member of. On twitter we have access to lots of tribes, creeds and nations and I find that really exciting!
Thirdly and I think perhaps most importantly is the fact that people pray. Everyone prays. Christians don’t have the monopoly on prayer and neither do religions. Praying is a simple human response. As it says in Ecclesiastes: God has placed eternity in the hearts of men. We have that longing for God in us. We shouldn’t be surprised that people pray and we shouldn’t be surprised when people who we perhaps didn’t think were believers talk about praying. The Kingdom of God is never very far away. I think a simple way to share faith with others is to talk about prayer – from what we’ve seen on twitter, it’s something that’s happening everywhere.
Next and connected to this is that I think being online it is easier to talk about your faith. We put status updates online and people have time to digest them and respond. Sometimes they might actually respond but sometimes something we share might just make them think. It is a far less confrontational medium. I wrote a blog post last Advent about the incarnation and put it on my facebook wall. An atheist friend commented on it and we had a lively exchange. There is no way that I could have had that conversation in the pub! So what should we take from this – be bold! Don’t hold back things about your faith when you’re using social media. Let your faith come out in your natural expression of who you are.
I would suggest, however, that there are some pitfalls for Christians when responding to phenomena like the #prayformuamba hashtag. The temptation, when seeing someone use religious language is to jump in and try and crow-bar a gospel presentation or testimony into the conversation. Remember that this is a public arena and remember also to consider what relationship you have with the person you’re speaking to. Do you know them? Is what you’re sharing in context or have you just seen the word ‘pray’ and decided to tell them what you want them to hear? Be sensitive to the spirit and pray about your response and how God might use you. The other pitfall is to retweet the message but not act on it! If you’re sharing a tweet like #prayformuamba – make sure you do actually pray!
Finally, I would suggest that when sharing your faith online that you share your whole story – share everything of who you are as a follower of Jesus. Don’t just tweet about the days you’re on top of the world but share also the things you’re struggling with, your prayer requests and your opinions on last night’s X Factor! Our faith online should be authentic and when it’s authentic, it’s attractive. Don’t only tell people half the story of your walk with God.
I think this episode on twitter this year has exposed to us that people are more interested in faith than you might think. Many would like to say that we’re a God-less society but I don’t think that’s true. Just this year the Church of England released some interesting statistics showing that Cathedral service attendance was up 7% on previous years. People are looking for God and people are willing to say so in places like Twitter. Although we have seen this year evidence of some vile bullying on twitter the big story should be this one about Muamba – people coming together online to share a prayer request.
For Christians I think that Twitter has opened up vast opportunities for us. It brings us to people and tribes that are unreached or hard to reach. It enables us to share our faith in a non-threatening manner. It enables people to talk openly about their faith – whether they obviously identify as Christian or not and it can even be used to get the Sun newspaper to declare that God is in control!
I wonder if St Paul might have used twitter were he around today? He certainly, in writing letters, was using the best technology available to him. Being in the world of social media makes me consider what Jesus meant by ‘the ends of the earth’ a little differently!
I leave you with this wonderful tweet I found this week when researching for this talk. It’s clearly another hashtag game called #bestfootballpics. Here someone is sharing a picture of Fabrice Muamba miraculously alive and well. Let’s thank God for his intervention and that he answers prayer!