Book Review by
What comes to mind when you think of “the social church”? For many of us “good Baptist” folks, we think of ice cream on a Sunday night or potlucks for dinner. Maybe we think of the dreaded planning of wedding showers and baby showers.
Justin Wise has a different idea of “social” under consideration in his book titled “The Social Church: A Theology of Digital Communication.” He’s referring to the explosion of what is called “social media” in the recent decade and how that technology can connect people. His book is an effort to share his experience of developing digital strategies for churches.
Wise admits in his introduction that this is not intended as a “how-to” book. Instead, this is geared toward explaining the “why-to” of social media and calling for more willing involvement by churches in the digital realm. Wise lays out the need for going where people are and connecting in that space. He explains how he started a Facebook page for his church and the pleasant surprise that it became a positive ministry involvement for the body.
To his credit, he acknowledges that objections to digital participation exist and deals with the some of them. It is in the realm of answering objections, though, that “The Social Church” falls short. Falling into the category of “digital native,” Wise envisions only theoretical or emotional objections to involvement with digital media. He does not address concerns that many smaller churches have, including time involvement and cost. His response to those who are on the other side of the digital divide, the generations who are not computer-savvy, is unfortunately dismissive. Alongside this, he notes readily that such media outlets as Friendfeed or MySpace have already flashed and gone, showing the volatility of social media, but considers churches that hesitate to enter the digital realm as abandoning it rather than watching for better opportunities.
The strength of Wise’s work is his admission in the later chapters that social media is no substitute for real presence and connection. This is valuable, as he has spent much of the book advocating heavy investment of time and resources in feeding the social media accounts of the church. Admitting the power of one-to-one live relationships, though, undercuts much of his advocacy of social media as a primary focus. Instead, social media should be a secondary help for actual relationships.
Does Wise’s “The Social Church” persuade? Not very well. He speaks with a certainty that will embolden social media advocates and may draw a few hesitant folks toward the social side, but this may well alienate the major objectors. Also, while Wise’s subtitle is “A Theology of Digital Communication,” he spends as much effort presenting marketing and technology information as he does scriptural information. Is it a helpful book? In a limited manner, yes. However, I would look elsewhere for a comprehensive guide for church social media.
Doug Hibbard is pastor of First Baptist Church in Almyra.