The story starts back in February, when the majority of our worship team went to LIFT: A Worship Leader Collective in Atlanta for the weekend. What we thought was going to be a conference focused on worship leader training turned out to be a weekend of worship. It was fantastic. There were no classes. There were no break-out sessions. Instead, there was lots of singing, several messages (lectures?, conversations?), and plenty of time to mingle with other people attending. For the first time in a long time, I was part of the congregation instead of part of leading the congregation. I was surprised by how foreign a feeling that has become for me, and how much I missed it. If I have the opportunity to attend this again, I'll jump on it.
One of the things interesting about LIFT was the demographic that it attracted -- young people. At 37, I was easily one of the older people there. With that younger demographic comes a greater use of social media. I use, and love, Twitter (where I'm drmellow), and noticed that many of the people attending LIFT were tweeting using the #lift hashtag. I ended up having conversations with other people at LIFT who I never met face-to-face. I followed a handful of new people. A handful of new people started following me. This is one of the things that I think Twitter should be about -- bringing people together based on common experiences. Several months later, I still enjoy reading the tweets of my newly-made LIFT friends. I like getting insights to the things they are doing in their communities, at their churches. It's an interesting dynamic.
That's how I met Stephen Parris, one of the worship leaders at River Church. I don't remember exactly which of his tweets struck my fancy, or if one of my tweets struck his. I do remember that his Twitter avatar at the time was a QR code that decoded to "Slave to the King," which I thought was pretty cool. (At the time, I didn't know what it decoded to, 'cause I didn't get a chance to decode it until I got home. But I still thought it was cool that his avatar was a QR code.) I also noticed that River Church was in Charleston, SC. Knowing that we have family in Charleston, and that we were planning a visit in April, I kept tha tin mind as a church to visit when we were in town. We ended up tweeting at each other throughout the weekend. I mentioned that yarbiedoll and I have family in Charleston and might visit River Church next time we were down, and he welcomed us.
Over the next few months, things got back to normal. I was back to playing guitar at church. I was working my day job. I started thinking about baseball I kept up with Twitter, but not as much with the folks from LIFT. Then, as our visit to Charleston grew nearer, I started thinking about River Church and LIFT again. I tweeted that we'd be in town, and Stephen renewed his invitation for us to visit. We did. It was great.
River Church meets in a multi-purpose room at a charter school. From the moment we arrived, we felt welcome. First, we were bombarded with cries of "Welcome to River Church" from an army of middle schoolers in yellow t-shirts. (Turns out they were a visiting youth group.) Then, someone met us inside, took us to the gathering space, and introduced us to several other people who were already there. I never felt like anyone who talked with us was "doing a job," I felt like the people were genuinely happy to see us. We had time to mill around before the service a bit. When we mentioned that we had virtually met Stephen at LIFT in February, someone pointed out who he was. We went to say "hi" to him. It was only kinda weird meeting someone in real live that I had been tweeting with for a few months, mostly it was very cool.
The service started and felt very familiar. They sang the same kind of songs we sing at our service. They have a similar band. There was a lot of singing. Between the songs, Scripture was proclaimed. It was loud. It was energetic. After a bunch of singing, the pastor delivered a message centered around the passage in James where the Church is reprimanded for paying special attention to rich worshipers and pushing poor worshipers to the side. A lot of what the pastor was saying was a challenge to River Church to become more inclusive. He noted, e.g., that the demographics of the congregation did not match the demographics of Charleston. He challenged the people to move out of their comfort zone and change that. He gave a specific example of what he was going to do to move out of his comfort zone. While much of his message was universally applicable, it was also very rewarding to see a pastor addressing issues that are specific to his congregation. It's also the first time in a long time where I've heard a message that made me think about the Scripture in a different way that prompted an "a-ha" moment in my mind and helped me gain a deeper understanding of God's word. That was really cool. After the message, there was more singing, then everyone was dismissed. People tended to mill about for a bit, and several other people came up to us and introduced themselves to us.
We felt very welcome at River Church, and it will be where we worship when we're in Charleston in the future.
What I find particularly interesting about this story is how much social media technology played a part in making it happen. If I hadn't been following the #lift hashtag on Twitter when we were in Atlanta, I never would have met Stephen. If I hadn't have met Stephen, I never would have heard of River Church. It's very clear that Twitter played a crucial part in getting yarbiedoll and me through the door at River Church when we visited Charleston. Is my experience typical? No. But it did open my eyes a bit to how important it is for a church to have a good web and social media presence, especially if it wants to reach out to and attract younger people. It also showed me that having a Twitter presence alone isn't enough -- a church needs to actually use it in an interactive manner. When I tweeted questions to @RiverChurch, I got answers, information, and a personal invitation. It's not a "one size fits all" strategy.
And, really, that's one thing church should be about -- building relationships.