Bex Lewis: God is a communicating God

Dr Bex Lewis

You are really enthusiastic about the the potential of the internet.  Tell me why?

Bex: My core research interests are in mass communication.  My PhD researched British Second World War propaganda posters, and provided the history for the infamous Keep Calm and Carry On.  And the internet is the latest "toolbox". Utopianists may think that the internet gives an equal voice to everyone, and it does give a space that everyone can contribute to, if they choose, but much offline power does translate into the 'space'. We are all living in a digital age (whether we like it or not), and God is a communicating God, so we should be communicating in the spaces where people are, being salt and light - thinking about what discipleship looks like in the digital age, and helping others to engage online, without being stuck in an echo-bubble.

Why was CODEC created?

Bex: Wikipedia: "A codec is a device or computer program capable of encoding or decoding a digital data stream or signal."  CODEC (Centre for Christian Communication in a Digital Age) was created five years ago to investigate the newest form of communications media, and to see how one of the oldest messages in the world (the good news) can be decoded/encoded in the digital age/spaces. The Centre focuses on three particular areas: the Biblical (with Rev Dr Pete Phillips at the helm); the digital (with me); and preaching (or homiletics) with Rev Kate Bruce.Within the UK in particular there's little academic research into these areas.

What have you discovered about social media for the Church?

Bex: Social media should work well for the church (when perceived as more than 'an organisation'). It's a medium that requires listening, collaboration, transparency, authenticity, engagement, passion, interest, and allows plenty of space for evangelising. We're still in a state, however, where although the question is changing - social media is still seen as something "new" that is a bit of an add-on (potentially irrelevant in a church culture that prioritises the geographical), rather than something that can be brought in to augment what the church is already doing, to connect as part of a whole-community - in people's everyday lives through the week, rather than simply a broadcast message on a Sunday. We are increasingly getting asked about "how do we do it" more as people start to realise that it is time to get involved (and I run workshops for this through my consultancy Digital Fingerprint - we can each make a unique impression on the internet!).

The Big Bible Project is one of your many initiatives.  Were you surprised by its success? What was exciting about seeing online conversations around the Bible?

Bex: The project was originally funded only for a year, so we were prepared that that might be all, but developed it with longer term aims in mind - and we are now funded until mid 2015, and with a dedicated and engaged community. Research by CODEC into Biblical literacy indicated that levels were incredibly low, so this was designed to make use of new spaces to seek to encourage people to talk about the Bible - online and offline - and use the online spaces for opportunities to discuss with those from across the Christian faith spectrum (rather than just those you meet week to week in church) - and also provides content that people can find online - plenty of people are searching. In the second year we created #digidisciple(s), and have had about 120 people writing for the blog over the past 2 years, with about 60 currently active - see FYI - we have just submitted this for The Jerusalem Awards.

Are you doing anything to reach non Christians?

Bex: We decided that The Big Bible Project in particular had to be about encouraging digital discipleship for those already Christians, but in encouraging people to be salt and light in their personal networks online, and in thinking about what is appropriate in 'evangelism', we hope that we'll help people to be stronger witnesses in their own space. One thing we've had a few debates about is sites where it says "Share this if you love Jesus", rather like a Christian version of those guilt-ridden "pass this onto 20 people or your cat will die" emails we used to get - just make your content good enough that people will want to share it!

In what way do you think social media has improved communication between Christian organisations and the world?

Bex: Well, that's something that needs research, and - as with posters in the wartime - we need to think about how far we can measure what is down to social media, and what is down to other factors. Taking it back to the war - posters were produced encouraging women to sign up for working in the factories, women went to the sign-up offices, and were told that they weren't needed. So any messages that are sent out, or (preferably) interactive options that the church engages with should be considered against the values/strategy/actions of the church/Christian organisations as a whole. To many the church is a place full of smoke and mirrors, irrelevant, full of homophobic misogynists ... we have an opportunity to engage in the online spaces to demonstrate a more Christlike attitude - and the more of us there are - the more people can see the reality of real Christian living.  Recent examples include @ABCJustin and @Pontifex - both of whom use their social media to enhance the other activities that they are doing.

Do you think social media helps the church be relevant?

Bex: My gut instinct on reading this question, is can the church afford NOT to be on social media?  If it's not, it's ignoring one of the biggest communication spaces that exist, and becomes irrelevant. The stats show that there are literally billions of people online, for several hours each day - we are called to engage with the world, to be salt and light in it, to pass on the good news - how can we miss out on opportunities to engage with those people? I'm not too sure any of us have ever been too comfortable with the person shouting in the street "are you going to hell?" type, and social media emphasises this even more - we're in a world which marketers call "pull media", rather than "push media". We need content that draws people into what we're doing by being ourselves.  For example, on my Facebook I may post a couple of thoughts from a church sermon mixed in with stuff from the gym, funny pictures, birthday messages, links, and whatever else I share - Christianity is part of my whole-life - and because I'm not pushing it at people, they are open to asking more questions about it.  I had three people ask to come to church with me because of what I was posting.  Rather than throwing stuff out, be ourselves, be interesting, be relevant, be honest.  If people come looking for that message and we're not online, what are they going to find instead?

Is everything about social media positive or do you see some drawbacks?

Bex: As with every form of communication, and in fact everything that's ever invented, new practices are enabled and others are lost. When writing was first invented, Socrates feared that intelligence would be lost as people weren't having to memorise content; when printing was invented, monks feared that the hours that they spent handwriting the Bible (a deeply spiritual practice) would be lost, and others feared that the hoi-polloi would get their hands on 'the message' without appropriate mediation from a priest. Social media has much to offer us, but we need to be aware of what's not so great - such as the ability to respond instantaneously/when you're having a bad night's sleep - so that we can adjust our behaviour and in this case wait and respond later! Some would say that social media is simply a tool, and it's what you do with it that counts, and in many respects I spout that too, but each new technology does also change the possibilities - but we need always to remember that it's human beings at machines, not human beings are machines - and that we ultimately make the choice about much of what we do with that technology.

Some Christians are reluctant to us social media.  What would you say to them?

Bex: For many organisations that I've worked with, they have an age-top-heavy audience, and they need to think about whether they want to work with that audience (only), and therefore whether any of those people are using social media - if not, then maybe you don't need to. If, however, you want to start to draw in a new (younger) audience (and there are plenty of older people online - "Grandmas" wanting to see pics of their grandkids are the fastest growing group on Facebook) then you need to think about starting out.  There's no need to do everything at once.  Think about what you want to do, and see which would be appropriate to fulfil that need. Or a church may decide to get to grips with Twitter - talk about the kind of things you want to share on there, give someone responsibility for it, and let them focus on that for a couple of hours a day for e.g. three months, and see where it's making a difference - noting that the ROI of social media tends to be around stronger relationships (which may lead to people being donors in the future) where you enthuse people around what you are doing, so that they enthuse about it to their networks ... rather than seeking to turn those links into money in a short space of time - it's a long game.

There are also opportunities for collaboration - e.g. the #IF campaign drawing on a number of aid agencies, celebrities, and hundreds of common voices - one of those (probably more rare) examples where each of those small voices contributing to the debate does make a difference.

How do you see the trends of the engagement from Christians about social media in the future?

Bex: Another one that needs some research, but if anecdotal evidence is anything to go by (and the increasing numbers attending the Christian New Media Conference that we co-produce with Premier Christian Media), there is an increasing awareness of the relevance and need to be online and in the digital spaces, but as with anything - it's going to take time to get people involved, and confident in using this... many churches are only just thinking about getting a website up.  There's no excuse for not having a simple one now - one can be built in a couple of hours.  It's the content that needs more thought, but you should really already know what your church stands for, its values/practices, and what you want people to get involved in.