OK, this is a story about Facebook. If you don’t know what that is, check out the following description and story of this social networking phenomenon at: http://mashable.com/2006/08/25/facebook-profile/ (see link)
We begin with a story: my best friend is in charge of everything technological at a major Catholic high school with thousands of students in a large southern city. Two days ago we were IMing (that’s Instant Messaging) each other on Facebook about 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon and after the usual pleasantries he told me a story about one of their students. The school had just ended on Friday for a three day weekend. This young man and his mother were involved in car accident and the young man died.
Now you know that every time a young person dies there is a lot of activity. Schools usually bring in grief counselors and so on. So I asked what the plan was to handle this tragedy. He said that grief counselors would be brought in: Monday for the teachers because it was an in-service day and Tuesday for the students when they returned to class. Then he said that he was reviewing the young man’s Facebook account and was shocked to see that he had over 500 “friends.” That means that this young man was connected electronically to over 500 other people. Isn’t that amazing in itself? I mean that a single young person could be tied to the lives of so many others? My friend began a “forensic analysis” of the young mans Facebook friends to identify who his friends at school were in order to give the grief counselors a head start.
Then my friend noticed that this young man’s best friend had changed his Facebook “status” and had announced the death of this young man on Facebook. The message was simple, something along the lines of “RIP Davey: I’ll miss you.” Then this best friend went on to create a group on Facebook dedicated to the memory of the young man who died.
Keep in mind I was chatting electronically with my tech savvy friend around 4 p.m. By 5 p.m. the newly created on line memorial page had over 60 members. Three hours later the page had 266 members. Another three hours later it had 432 members and the students had contacted the school chaplain to unlock the chapel for prayer.
Now on Sunday morning, my friend writes: “ Now only 23 hours since the group was created, it is over 720 members, 200 more than he had in his own FB friends list. Alumni are joining in and leaving messages and being affected by the death of a "younger brother" from school. What started as a gathering of a few dozen classmates who are in town ended up being over 300 kids who knew him showing up to pray at school at noon today. On a holiday weekend. In the rain.”
How did the page gain so many members so quickly? Because many Facebook users have Facebook updates sent to their mobile phones as well. This allows anyone in the world to instantly be made aware of anything going on in your life at all that you wish to publish.
The memorial page itself is amazing. There is a picture of the young man who died, full of life and laughing. There are links to the news report of the accident and to a news story about the young man’s father, a physician of note. The young man’s friends uploaded pictures and there were over 70 posts to the wall of this page when I last checked. Young people saying beautiful things about the young man who died and how they felt about him and what had happened.
It is now Sunday morning and I am still in a state of complete amazement at the speed with which this online support group was created. I’m amazed also because it seemed to happen “all by itself.” I’m amazed also that before the professionals arrive at the school on Tuesday morning, the students have already organized and are ministering to each other. And it gives me pause to think about the future of pastoral care.
Has technology provided us with a new way to share our feelings and help us grieve? I think so. Now I don’t think that as a pastor I won’t ever stop going to the homes of the bereaved for a personal visit and I don’t think we’ll stop doing funerals or making follow up phone calls. But I do think this web based, grass roots kind of care will prosper and grow as a way to supplement human face to face contact. Apparently technology is becoming a new tradition in the way we relate to each other.
What would it be like if in the future; tech savvy churches provided streaming video through the web of funerals, weddings, and baptisms and so on? It might mean more participation by family members who couldn’t afford or simply didn’t have the time to come in person.
This all fits into an interesting conversation I had with some staff members this past week. I told some of them about how my uncle, the patriarch of my mother’s family, is upset with me because I can’t afford to go to a family wedding in California this spring (after I couldn’t afford to go to one in Idaho last year). He’s worried that as a family we are drifting apart. And he has grounds for concern. My cousins and I don’t know each other that well and we all live in different regions. So I suggested that we mandate our whole family get on Facebook so we could keep abreast of each other’s lives. One of the people I was talking to then expressed how he couldn’t relate to the superficial level of communication that Facebook provides. But that got me thinking that frequently the superficial is the avenue to depth and meaning. You almost have to get to know people on the superficial level before you can advance into greater levels of understanding and intimacy. And Facebook provides such an avenue.
I continue to see how technology is changing the way we do things in the church and I’m glad to be a pastor at such an exciting time when traditional methods are in flux and new traditions are coming to life. Everyday is fresh and provides new challenges. Thank you, God, for challenging us to stay relevant, to stretch our imaginations and grow. That’s as much a part of being made in the image and likeness of our Creator as reaching out to the world around us and sharing his amazing love in Jesus Christ and the comfort and strength that it gives us.