I learned about the shooting in Newtown at 1:03 on Friday afternoon. I learned about it from Facebook.
It wasn’t a status or headline I read; it was a message from my friend Sharon. It asked if we could send a prayer shawl to Connecticut, and expressed her feelings of sorrow. I didn’t have any idea what she was talking about, so I checked some news websites and heard about the shocking story.
At 2:02 I posted an announcement on my own Facebook page that those who would be worshiping at Campbell the upcoming Sunday would pray over as many prayer shawls as we could in order to send them to Newtown United Methodist Church, asking knitters to contribute to the effort if they could. In that post I tagged Campbell United Methodist Church. 35 people liked that status; 8 shared it; several others posted similar statuses of their own.
I also sent messages via the Newtown UMC website, both to their pastor and the main office, saying that we would be gathering, praying over, and sending prayer shawls their way.
The next morning I posted another Facebook status basically repeating the idea. This time 25 people liked it and 5 shared it. I also sent a churchwide email via our iContact service with the information in it. Several colleagues saw the buzz on Facebook being generated by people of Campbell, and spread the idea to their own congregations in various ways.
Sunday morning at 6:15 I posted a message on Newtown UMC’sFacebook page to let them know we would pray for them in worship, and assuring them they were not alone. Someone in Newtown “liked” it before worship started here, so I was able to tell worshipers here that our message had been received.
On Sunday morning the prayer railing was filled with the vibrant colors of dozens of prayer shawls. Many had come from the closet in which we store them as they are finished, until they are needed. And several others were brought in that morning. Two were laid on the prayer railing incomplete, still connected to balls of yarn, knitting needles inserted through. At least one person brought a shawl and left to attend church in their own congregation. Another had to work but brought her shawl during her break. At each service, we came forward, touching the shawls, entwining our fingers in them, placing hands on the shoulders of those who were.
Monday the shawls were boxed up, then mailed by a church member who volunteered to take care of that task. They are supposed to arrive in Newtown this Friday. In both boxes is a paper copy of a letter that I wrote to the congregation of Newtown United Methodist, sending our support and prayers along with the shawls.
With the boxes shipped, I then posted a .pdf of that letter on our Wordpress newsfeed and put a link to the letter on my Facebook page, and that link has 52 likes and 5 shares.
One of those shares was by Newtown UMC, along with a note that said, “We are humbled and thankful by the witness and outpouring of love shown to us by you and countless others. Jesus smiles upon you, we are indeed certain of this, if nothing else! God bless you and yours, verily His.”
Thinking about these events, reflecting on this story, I notice two things. First, I believe it represents the church at its best. No attention-seeking sensationalist statements of trite theological cliché, just love. I do not begrudge television personalities and famous fundamentalist preachers for their statements of the past few days, but neither do I even remotely consider their remarks representative of the Gospel. Rather, a simple idea shared with a pastor and embraced by a congregation and brought to life through the love and sacrifice of so many … pure, active, gracious love for people - this is church.
And secondly, it is simply astounding how much happened in this story through online connections and social media. Clearly online social networking is not the future of the church, it is the present. If your own congregation isn’t “doing online” well, fix it. Everything that happened in the story above may have happened 20 years ago as well, but it would have taken ten times as long and been a hundred times less effective. Nothing ever will replace the face-to-face aspect of church; the doctrine of incarnation will see to that. But the connective power that is available online can no longer be ignored by congregations if they want to remain faithful to God’s mission.
Faithful, fruitful ministry. An ever-expanding pattern of discipleship. Helping one another in our time of need. Changing the world for God’s sake. This is the church, and it is beautiful.