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‘The intersection of faith and media’

Communicators Network launches discussion on using social media to amplify voices that aren’t heard from enough

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Soundtrap via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — In the Communicators Network PC(USA)’s first-ever episode of Community Conversations broadcast via Facebook Live on Tuesday, the Rev. Lee Catoe and the Rev. DeEtte Decker didn’t hesitate to share their thoughts on how churches and the denomination can use social media more effectively to help amplify the voices of people who aren’t regularly heard from. Hear the conversation by joining Communicators Network by clicking here.

Catoe is managing editor of Unbound: An Interactive Journal of Christian Social Justice and the co-host of two podcasts: A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast with Simon Doong and Just Talk Live: A Faith and Justice Talk Show with Destini Hodges. Decker is social media strategist for the Presbyterian Mission Agency and hosts Community Conversations.

Finish this statement, Decker asked Catoe to open their hour-long discussion: “I often wonder if …”

“The church will take media seriously,” Catoe responded. Increasingly he’s felt led to talk about “the intersection of faith and media,” and he has a trove of radio and television memories from childhood on which to draw: the televangelists (and their wives, including Tammy Faye Bakker and Jan Crouch) and Christian musicians of his youth who put on a spectacle many Presbyterians find off-putting.

“This type of Christianity is not taken that seriously. We [in the Reformed tradition] have elevated academia even when it comes to social media, which is where the culture is at,” Catoe said. “We haven’t used media in the right way — except Mister Rogers. We should have hopped on that train and figured out what it looks like.”

It was conservative Christians who first latched on to social media platforms and began livestreaming, Decker said.

“Social media doesn’t always equal young people,” Catoe replied. “I’m from rural South Carolina … Social media gave me language and community, and it still does. We have to figure out ways to integrate it into our ministries, in equitable and productive ways. These are spaces for creativity and imagination, and I think the Spirit works in those places too.”

The Rev. Lee Catoe

Ever since the onset of pandemic-caused online worship, “progressive leaders are televangelists now,” Catoe said. “We have been forced to do it, and it’s a scary space to be in.”

Decker wondered how the social media revolution witnessed over the last 18 months has changed expectations among church members. “It definitely has. What church leaders are going through is hard,” Catoe said. “They are now videographers, tech supporters and producers of their own worship services. It’s something that came out of nowhere … People are giving them grace, but as we go back to in-person worship, people expect to have both [online and in-person worshiping opportunities].”

Asked by Decker about remaining faithful to the gospel and to rich traditions while being relevant in the digital media age, Catoe responded that many now question what tradition means. Is it the building and the pews and the stained glass? “In the Reformed tradition we believe in being Reformed and always reforming,” Catoe said, “taking a critical look at what we have always done, glorifying God and speaking out against injustice. If it doesn’t work, we regroup and redo, and this is the perfect time for that … We have to get to the core of our tradition and see how it manifests in this age.”

Catoe is “all about storytelling, which is part of our tradition too,” he said. “The Bible is full of stories, stories that were passed down, written down later and then translated … We have confessions, a point in time of what we believed and how we have evolved as a Reformed people. How do we open spaces to tell new stories?” Presbyterians and others have been “instigators of racism and white supremacy” which has “excluded a lot of voices over the years.” Latinx, Korean and Black churches “need spaces to tell their stories, and digital media is the place to do that. Jesus told stories, the prophets told stories, and that is what we have within the foundation of our faith. … If we take that seriously, there is no telling what we can do.”

Digital media, Decker said, “affords us the opportunity to amplify the story of the gospel, that God is here and loves everyone, and that nothing we can say or do will make God love us any less.”

She also said she doesn’t buy the argument that the church is dying.

The Rev. DeEtte Decker

“You can’t convince me that people are deciding that after thousands of years, people don’t want a connection with a higher power or a community of faith,” Decker said.

She then asked Catoe: What do churches absolutely need to be doing on digital media to get their story told?

“Social media only goes as far as the content you put on it,” Catoe said. “If you are trying to cultivate community and get some sort of traction anywhere, it comes down to knowing what is going on with the people you are in community with.”

The pulpit isn’t the only place where God’s word is proclaimed, Catoe said.

“I get chills listening to stories I hear on podcasts,” whether they’re stories of faith or not, he said. Music and poetry are other avenues many people use to access God in their lives, he said.

“We have set up this dichotomy of academic or charismatic,” Catoe said. “There has to be a little bit of entertainment [in worship]. Jesus was probably one of the most entertaining people ever, and he wasn’t the only one running around proclaiming things.”

He called Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian pastor and children’s television pioneer, “authentic, with a certain flair. He had something about him that really captivated people because of his authenticity.”

Decker said a professor of hers at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Dr. Shannon Craigo-Snell, studied theater while an undergraduate and talked about “preaching as performance” with seminary students. “It’s important [that preachers] hold people’s interest and have that flair that Mister Rogers had,” Decker said, “to be authentic in how you present the gospel.”

“I wouldn’t be in this denomination if I didn’t love it,” Catoe said. “But I think we need to have major conversations, because we are scared of authentic, joyous, straightforward and hard-hitting ways of getting the message out.”

Decker said she wonders if preachers and other worship leaders don’t embrace those ways out of a fear of failing. Have we lost our creativity and the “bit of bravery” it takes to say, “It’s OK if this falls flat,” Decker said. “This is part of what we are called to do, all of us Christians — to figure out a way of telling our story of life transformation through Christ.”

But just because you can do something doesn’t mean you ought to do it, Catoe said. Digital media offerings “don’t have to be elaborate.” Rather, he suggested, “focus on the people in your community who are engaging [what’s being offered]. If we can’t stream this week, oh well. If we can’t have in-person worship this week, we’re going to be virtual. You will always have people who push you, but I think keeping it as simple as possible is best.”

The second episode of Community Conversations will be at 1 p.m. Eastern Time on Thursday, Nov. 4. Lauren Rogers, project manager for digital fundraising with Special Offerings and the Presbyterian Giving Catalog, will be Decker’s guest. Join the Communicators Network in order to tune in.

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