Cyber-Savvy Pastors Blog When the Spirit Moves Them

Pastor Ben Arment spends several hours each week carefully preparing his Sunday sermon for the 100 members of History Church in Oak Hill. In contrast, he takes just minutes to jot down a few thoughts on faith for his blog; within 24 hours, his message has reached about 300 people.

Like History Church services themselves, Arment’s blog, “History in the Making,” takes an unorthodox approach to religion that his mostly young readers find appealing. The blog entries cover a variety of topics, including his reflections about Christians’ responsibility in the world, dispatches about clergy conferences and quirky stories about his toddler son’s broken arm.

Then there’s the series of postings comparing a church program to the popular X-Men comic book superheroes. People have “unique supernatural abilities” like those of the action heroes that they must use to serve God, he writes.

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In the four years since Arment started the site, blogging has become as much an instrument of his faith as the pulpit.

“As a pastor, I shouldn’t be just leading a church but connecting with people using the same formats they use every day,” Arment said. Blogging is “a forum that’s successful because it corresponds with how younger generations think.”

Reaching out to younger generations has long been one of the major challenges for ministers, but hundreds think they have found an answer in blogging. A growing number are taking the Gospel to the Web hoping to get people thinking daily about faith. Many pastors say blogging has become an increasingly integral part of their ministry as they attempt to reverse the decline in church attendance by people in their twenties and thirties.

Few ministers in the United States have used blogs as successfully as Mark Batterson, the lead pastor of National Community Church in the District. Batterson estimates he spends 20 percent of his workday updating his blog, “Evotional.” He recently hired a “digital pastor” whom he met through the blogosphere to maintain the church’s Web ventures.

“I used to think that the blog supplemented my weekend message,” said Batterson, who draws upward of 25,000 visitors a month to http://www.evotional.com. “Now I wonder if it isn’t the other way around. It’s hard for me to imagine why a church that has younger members wouldn’t have a blog component.”

About 75,000 new blogs are created every day by people from all walks of life, so it should come as no surprise that some bloggers are ministers. But many religious leaders say the idea of a pastor willing to share so much about his daily life reflects a shift in the relationship people expect to have with their religious leaders.

“Increasingly, people want to have a personal connection with their church and their pastor,” said Brian Bailey, who co-wrote an upcoming book, “The Blogging Church,” about how churches can use the medium to reach out to members. Blogs provide a unique opportunity for people to feel more invested in their church, even if the pastor doesn’t have time for a face-to-face meeting, he said.

“It’s no longer enough for a lot of people to get the church’s mailing, read the Web site, and sit in the pew for an hour on Sunday,” he said. “They might know there was a mission trip last week, but with a blog, they can read about the day-to-day details, see pictures and feel like they’re part of something.”

Bailey said younger churchgoers are especially likely to want a more active connection with their pastors, and they are attracted to humorous stories or photos. A popular new feature on Batterson’s blog describes a “stupid mistake” he made that day. The series started with a story about what happened when he tried to empty his coffee cup while whipping along Interstate 295.

“First of all, half the coffee came flying out instantaneously,” Batterson wrote. “And it all came right back in the car. It splattered on my face, on my shirt, and in my lap! . . . Hopefully that makes you feel better about you.”

Many of the pastors’ blog posts revolve around a religious lesson. Entries sometimes include Bible passages or mini-sermons as well as song lyrics, links to articles or other blogs and personal anecdotes that contain a message about how the bloggers think people should live their lives.

“Today, I ran into a family that [my wife] and I met ONE YEAR AGO in Reston Town Center . . . and struck up a new friendship that will bring good things,” Arment wrote in a recent post about the importance of spreading the Gospel to “unchurched” friends and strangers. “This is such a great reminder to be patient and wait on God to work in people’s lives.”

Centreville Presbyterian Church Associate Pastor Neil Craigan said he views his blog as a chance to get people thinking about faith daily, sometimes in untraditional ways. Entries on his blog, “Broken Bonds Loosed Chains: The Musings of a Devoted Follower of Jesus Christ,” often include song lyrics from U2 or Bruce Springsteen. Craigan believes rock-and-roll songs raise questions for Christians to consider; he recently posted the lyrics of the U2 song “Grace” to prompt people to think about the role of God’s grace in the world.

“There is still something in our secular culture that recognizes the role of a spiritual leader,” Craigan said. “I’m in a position to raise important questions, and blogging is a tremendous way to do that.”

Bailey said building a successful blog is not as easy as posting church newsletters and Sunday sermons under a clever domain name.

“The most common temptation is when you don’t know what to write about, and you see that bulletin sitting on your desk,” he said. “People are not interested in blogs that are PR announcements. It needs to be the personal voice of an individual.”

Several churchgoers said blogs are a fairly natural fit at “new paradigm” churches such as History Church and National Community Church, where one of the 12 core values is “everything is an experiment” and 75 percent of the 900 members are single and in their twenties. Several Catholic and mainline Protestant ministers said their blogs do not blend in as seamlessly within their more traditional congregations.

The Rev. James A. Tucker, a parochial vicar at Our Lady of Angels Catholic Church in Woodbridge, said his blog “Dappled Things” contains stories that he hopes provide spiritual lessons, but he tries to distance it from his official role as a parish priest. The site, which mixes daily homilies with discussions of new science fiction books, identifies Tucker as a Catholic priest in Northern Virginia but does not mention the name of his church. Only a handful of his 1,000 daily blog visitors are members of Our Lady of Angels, he said.

“I do think a lot of people keep their blog as a way to evangelize, but when I put mine up, it was specifically not to do that,” he said. “This is personal, not professional, for me.”

Both Tucker and the Rev. Richard A. Lord, rector of the Church of the Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Vienna, said their congregational ministries benefit from their blogs’ roles as portals connecting them with other ministers.

“I’m constantly trying to help people understand that this is ministry for me,” Lord said. “It’s virtual preaching, really,” he said of his blog, “World of Your Making.”

Unlike standing in the pulpit, virtual preaching allows pastor-bloggers to reach people from all over the world, they say. “John Wesley [a prominent 18th-century evangelist] had to travel 250,000 miles on horseback to reach people, and I can do it with one click of the mouse,” Batterson said.

The Rev. Jan Edmiston, pastor of Fairlington Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, said the historical analogy is apt because the blogging phenomenon is part of a larger shift in the way religion is practiced — although she is unsure what form that change might take. She now devotes every other Monday to “monastery day,” when she sits in a coffee shop reflecting on the state of the church and expressing her thoughts on her blog, “A Church for Starving Artists.”

“I’m doing the things you would do in a monastery except with a cup of coffee and my laptop,” she said. “It’s completely spiritually energizing in ways a lot of people wouldn’t think possible. I think the church is going through a transformation similar to the Reformation, and blogging helps me work through where I fit into that.”

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The Washington Post, USA
July 9, 2006
Megan Greenwell
www.washingtonpost.com
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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday July 9, 2006.
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