-Rev Melissa Fain-
I took many great classes while I was in Seminary. Most of those classes were intentional in their education. As in, the educator had a specific takeaway for each class, and most I took away that lesson. However, there was one class that imploded in a series of intentional and unintentional takeaways.
I took a class titled: "Images of God." I knew that was the one elective class I wanted to take. Before entering seminary, I had seen the fruits of a class titled, "Images of Christ." What I heard attacked me, which is why I want to push into it. (That's how I work theology. If I like it, I attack and pull it apart. If I disagree, I push into it and understand it better. It has given me a well-rounded theology.)
The purpose of the class was to look at cultural and social ways God has been defined, and express how those images are both sacred and wrong (sometimes both at the same time.) She showed us iconography from China, India, America Europe and Africa. She stopped on an image of a Chinese Abraham. She wanted us to see how God was in that image. The image of God was a reflection, and finding our identity in the Divine was important and good.
Then the class took a detour. We worked through the theology of "God is Black." Believe me, after discussing God in the foreigner, God being Black is merely a stepping stone. Only, it wasn't. The class was divided racially, and completely on accident. One of the room was Black, and the other half was White, with two Koreans sitting in the middle. When the conversation turned to "Mammy" and the appropriation of the slave woman into white theology, things turned tense.
Now, remember when I said I pushed into things I agreed with and pull apart things I disagreed with? Well, this was not the class to be pulling apart things, but I did it anyway. I named the division. One of the classmates had mentioned how we should just get along and work together, and I named the room. Look how divided we were. Then I went further and named it during lunch. We don't try to get along when we have a moment to get along and meet someone different from us. We all do it. I had recently noticed how our lunch room was separated by mostly race.
I'm not going to say my actions was the reason the class fell into chaos, but I'm not going to omit my involvement in it either. I needed personally needed to push into this class. My view of God had been white and male. This had been comfortable and safe. This class allowed me the space to see God first as female- a huge acceptance that I am too created in the image of God. It also allowed me the space to see God as Black- a huge acceptance that God is bigger than I previously imagined. That was a purposeful takeaway.
I also learned race relations is not an easy path, but a rocky road, filled with pitfalls and false paths.
When the class eventually turned to race relations, one of the Black students decided to use me as an example of racism. Without directly using my name, she told a story in the elevator. When she walked in, I pulled my purse closer to me. Now it was my turn. For those who are new, I dealt with childhood trauma, that left me wounded. In high school I dealt with it by pulling my legs up to my chest. I balled up. I was very uncomfortable around groups of people whether I knew them or not. By college and seminary my reaction, in elevators or elsewhere was to pull my purse over my stomach. I did it with everyone, and even my friends would see it. I told her this, and while I was telling her this, I was naming my woundedness for the very first time. Now I knew my actions were unknowingly hurting someone else, while I was unknowingly remaining broken.
The next time I took the elevator I stood open, leaving my purse on my shoulder. It was so difficult with every new person who walked in. Yet, this was the first real step to a new me, a confident me. The thing is, I wasn't doing it for me. I was doing it for her. Yet, she left the class. It was too much for her.
The role of the online church
I am nothing. I am a failure. Every day I encounter countless people who can do what I do, and do it better. I'm just the person vocal enough to speak what others refuse to speak, and do what others refuse to do. I'm not special; I'm just loud.
When I found myself on Reddit, I had the above class under my belt, and newly earned church trauma to boot. I saw the broken people, and I lamented with them. Ministers and bloggers didn't seem to see or react to those people. (With a few exceptions, of course.) Most of them were sharing their work and leaving. They were pasting their version of God, and thinking that was enough. Instead, it showed how clueless they were.
I took an evangelism class that gave me my working definition of what I'm called to do: "Find how God is already present in the community, and show the community God." That's all I did, and that is all we are called to do.
Well, I say "that's all" like it's as simple as dropping sermons or blogs out in the open. Dropping stories makes it about us. It's our story to tell them. It's not about us. It's all about them. We are so cloistered in our churches, fighting over contemporary or traditional worship. That's not evangelism; that's aesthetics. Evangelism is having a conversation. Evangelism might never point to a congregation or church, because it's not about the congregation or church- it's God's story already happening in the lives of those outside our walls.
This is really the point. If you are a church, and you are not actually talking to people online, you are not doing online ministry. You are using online tools and that is it. If you can't see how God's image is different from your own, than you can't evangelize. If you can't accept your failure and nothingness, you can't accept the grace in Jesus Christ to reach out to others.
Fig Tree has done more listening to the stories of others, than telling my own story. Go and do likewise.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
For almost seven years there has been material posted weekly, sometimes daily, for Fig Tree Christian. I actually considered waiting until July to post this just so I can say it had been exactly seven years. Seven being Godly and all. At the end of the day, there is a method to my madness. I'm always playing a big picture game, and waiting until the meditations are seven years old is neat, but plays outside the bigger picture.
Sometimes keeping this page active is a slog, and frustrating. It's my personal opinion that most active ministers believe having a personal blog is important, but almost all fail to keep it active. They are good for 2-8 months, but then their schedule becomes too active, and something has to give. Before they know it, the church is linked to a blog that hasn't had a single post in over a year.
How do I view blogs and how do I view this site apart from blogs?
Blogs and Vlogs: Want my opinion?
The word "Blog" originated from two words, "Web Log." Early on, it was a public journal or diary. Ministers used one to have a place to share an opinion. Consider them pastoral op- eds.
Somewhere between when Fig Tree started and now, the term "blog" lost its meaning. Today, blogs can be about anything from a public journal to a deep lesson on how to cook the proper pasta. Usually not the former, but a whole lot of randomness on the later. I'd actually say, most seriously bloggers have felt the url format for Vlogs (video blogs- usually on YouTube), or post on sites that give more visibility.
Vlogs are another can of worms all together. There is a whole genre of professional vloggers who try to make their video look amateur- but there is really some great camera and video editing skills behind the scenes. We, the public, have bought into these professonal vloggers.
We yearn for the homemade. That's why we buy things that have imperfections built into them. They give the illusion the item was handcrafted. It's true for our videos too. We tell ourselves we want to see reality, but we really don't want to see reality. What we really want is something cheep, and well put together. (Maybe with clothing, that's only six months, but we'll buy it if the price is low enough.) With videos, we'll put up with a little commercial and buy into the authentic illusion.
Why am I mentioning this? Vlogs are like magic. It looks like the magician just threw something together, and voila! Something that looks magical and easy appears before you. In reality, there are tons of strings and levers making that magic happen. Ministers see it, and think, "Wow, I could do that too!" Then they pull out their Apple phone, and begin recording. Watching the video back, they don't know why it didn't hold the same "magic."
Camera angles, lighting, what you are wearing, where you are recording, background noises, sound quality in general,.. just to name a few things are the reason many ministers cannot do vlogs. More than that, the ones who tend to get the before-mentioned items, tend to lose the very thing most people are looking for: authenticity. For a minister, authenticity is vital!
Fig Tree Christian: Burnout is real!
Two parts with what Fig Tree does with blogs:
Fig Tree Christian: A diamond in the rough.
It is frustrating to have an idea of what I'm supposed to be doing, and not being able to do it! Our video side of things is abysmal! I can single-handedly record, edit and publish a video, but the time I'd need is too much. I have the authenticity, now we need the production value. We are a unpolished diamond. To the untrained eye, we look like a rock, not worth anyone's time. To many who can see our potential, we are still no better than a rock, because many of those will not or cannot help us to refine our videos. So I'll admit it, we do "vlogs" poorly. I can't wait until we have the resources to do them well. I'm ready to work with people.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
The online image is the new stained glass window.
Last week I suggested a Twitter hashtag and retweet was the online version of a team t-shirt. Add the post two weeks about Facebook, and you begin to see the pieces of church begin to come together. Neither of these pieces are church, and today alone will not make a church. Using any of these pieces in the correct way, will bring you closer to entering the online world as a church.
The Online Image: The Land of Online Authority
This is where I go an a tangent to get to a broader point. I promise if you follow along, you will not be left wanting.
This morning, as I was writing, my mind was transported to the fellowship hall of my childhood church. Multiple events burst through that memory. First it's an after church gathering. Little carefully crafted cheese tarts sits next to a haphazard container of Fig Newtons, simply opened and placed on the table. Then it's a celebration of the winner of a talent show. Shiny costumes and little bags of wrapped chocolate coins. Then it's a craft fair. A tissue box made of yarn and plastic embroidery sheets. Then finally, empty. Well kinda. There's always a three wheeler hidden behind the divider to split the room into two.
What brought this thought into my head when I haven't been in that specific room or church in over a decade? It was a smell, specifically the smell of rose water and coffee. The smell hit me, and I began immediately deconstructing it's pieces to bring them back together at any time. It was like finding an old friend, and inviting them back into my life. I found the magic that allows me transport back in time. Now images, smells, and feelings are enveloping me.
Notice I didn't say words.
Yet- ministers, we seem to think that words are enough. If we just write that amazing post, or share the manuscript to that unbelievable sermon, we will... what will we do? We are not reaching out to an online audience with just words. I've watched it time and time again on Reddit. Ministers drop their sermon in /r/Christianity like that's going to be enough. Time and time again I see the brutal response TLDR (too long, didn't read.)
God is more than words.
God is in the position of the candles on a Sunday morning. God is in who you have lighting those candles. God is in the people sitting in the pews. God is the light cutting through that window at 10:30, catching those tiny pieces of dust slowly floating in the air. God is that first person who steps into the sanctuary and chooses to see that light or not. God is in the recesses and edges. God is tone and inflection. Only words is just the crust of the experience. You can taste the filling, but that's all.
Fig Tree: A Drop in Bucket
When the images you create are hyper condensed sermons it's tremendously important to get them right. I dare say, the images are often more important than the words.
Fig Tree has a Pinterest page, and I personally share on Imgur. On Pinterest, most of the images I created for Fig Tree is tagged to a meditation. I don't expect most people to go beyond the image. Like a congregant from the Middle Ages would find their God in the light cutting through the colorful glass images, people today find meaning in the sifting of daily pictures.
These images hold power. Innocent and terrible lies are easily shared with colorful backgrounds. Golden tongued soundbites can be destroyed with poor creative forces giving vision to word.
There were images I believed myself until I took two seconds to research them. It's dangerous. Our responsibility rests in being an institution that responsibility to share truth in all things, including the images.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
Last year, I wrote this piece called The Age of Deborah. The point of the post was to show how diverse female ministers are today. A friend said it was tweetable. Therefore, I tweeted the meditation with the hashtag, #AgeofDeborah. I asked questions and asked people to tweet them back using the hashtag.
Wow did that tank!
There are a couple of reasons. First of all, I have fallen more into female ministry being like Jeremiah: Exiled from our temple. The other reason plagues many ministers: I didn't get Twitter even one year ago, and if I had, I might have done things differently.
Twitter: The Land of Empty Actions
Churches who have a twitter handle, often have a carbon copy of their Facebook Page. That's really why I started with Facebook last week. Because the collective church doesn't understand the dynamics of these social media platforms, every area of their online presence looks the same. If that's your church, you're doing it wrong.
Twitter is a place to sell a brand. Hashtags and retweets are the newest generation's version of wearing brand t-shirts. Just like wearing a Nirvana t-shirt didn't really make one part of the band (In some cases, didn't even mean the person actually listened to any of the music), retweets and hashtags doesn't mean anyone is going to take any sort of real action towards what they are retweeting.
For example: #BringBackOurGirls did not bring back the girls. What it did do was build Michelle Obama's brand as someone who cares about global issues. This is where Twitter fails. Many think if they just retweet or use the correct hashtag then that is enough. (Perhaps they know it's not enough, but it's not much different than reality. Retweeting is the only action they end up taking to enact positive change.) Retweeting might give you a 1:250000 chance of winning that epic trip to Maui, but it won't exact the change you want to see in the world.
But here's where what I just condemned is also good. It's a free place to create an amazing brand. I know churches seem to get very squirmy when it comes to the brand subject. Like it or not, every institution is constantly creating and recreating their brand. If your church is not doing it actively, than it's implicitly doing it.. Implicit brand creation is scary territory. Churches that don't care about their brand can look cold and unfeeling. It can accidentally sell something dangerous, to an already skeptical public.
Being honest with a church's brand means you can be the positive change, and you can grow your brand through hashtags and retweets to do it.
Fig Tree and Twitter
If I were to sum up Fig Tree in a single tweet, what would I say? If you find yourself here time and time again, try to answer this for yourself before you choose to continue reading.
Fig Tree is about fixing relationship in a broken world.
Hopefully, if you came up with your own, your statement could fall within or near what I just wrote. Keeping this in mind, check out Fig Tree's twitter feed. Yes, the meditations are shared, but so is relationship. Jumping on trending hashtags is about understanding the brand. We don't have a brand that easily trends, so using other brands to highlight our own is the best way to go.
Yes, I deeply support and believe the #metoo and #churchtoo movement, but I also know sharing those hashtags are not really about exacting change. Only actual change changes things. I do know it adds to Fig Tree's brand, and therefore I share it for that purpose. It let's the unknown person know we are about restoration in the church.
I'm also relational through the Twitter handle. This was a difficult place for me to reach. I couldn't imagine actually conversing with people through Twitter. I'm Reverend Melissa. Fig Tree is something else. Right? Wrong! When I distanced myself from the tweets it held others away as well. The minister, IMHO (in my humble opinion). is the doorway to the church. The minister chooses whether tweets are a snapshot from a distance, or a voyage into the depths of Christ's Church. Twitter started working when I stopped being distant, and started being present.