John Voelz isn't trying to brag, but it's fair to say he was down with Twitter before most people knew it was a proper noun.
Last year, Voelz, a pastor, was tweeting at a conference outside Nashville about ways to make the church experience more creative ways to "make it not suck" when suddenly it hit him: Twitter. (See the 2009 TIME 100: Ashton Kutcher on the Twitter guys.)
Voelz and David McDonald, the other senior pastor at Westwinds Community Church in Jackson, Mich., spent two weeks educating their congregation about Twitter, the microblogging site that challenges users to communicate in 140 characters or less. They held training sessions in which congregants brought in their laptops, iPhones and BlackBerrys. They upped the bandwidth in the auditorium. (See "Finding God on YouTube.")
As expected, banter flourished. Tweets like "Nice shirt JVo" and "So glad they are doing Lenny Kravitz" flashed across three large video screens. But there was heartfelt stuff too.
"I have a hard time recognizing God in the middle of everything."
"The more I press in to Him, the more He presses me out to be useful"
"sometimes healing is painful"
There's a time and place for technology, and most houses of worship still say it's not at morning Mass. But instead of reminding worshippers to silence their cell phones, a small but growing number of churches across the country are following Voelz's lead and encouraging people to integrate text-messaging into their relationship with God.
In Seattle, Mars Hill churchgoers regularly tweet throughout the service. In New York City, Trinity Church marked Good Friday by tweeting the Passion play, detailing the stages of Jesus' crucifixion in short bursts. At Next Level Church, outside Charlotte, N.C., it's not only O.K. to fuse social-networking technology with prayer; it's desirable. (See pictures of John 3:16 in pop culture.)
On Easter Sunday, pastor Todd Hahn prefaced his sermon by saying, "I hope many of you are tweeting this morning about your experience with God."
"It's a huge responsibility of a church to leverage whatever's going on in the broader culture, to connect people to God and to each other," says Hahn.
If worship is about creating community, Twitter is an undeniably useful tool. The trick is to not let the chatter overshadow the need for quiet reflection that spirituality requires. At Westwinds, people can ask questions about the sermon that the pastors will answer later, or they can tweet in real time and hope another congregant offers insight. Some use Twitter as a note-taking tool. Often, it's pastor-directed, with McDonald preaching while Voelz taps out, "In what way do you feel the spirit of God moving within you?" Discuss.
There have been at least a dozen "Twitter Sundays" at Westwinds, but the 150 or so Twitterers of Westwind's 900 adult members are free to tweet at any time, at any service, whenever the spirit moves them.
The same rules apply at Next Level, where pastor Hahn headed straight to his office to log on as soon as the inaugural Twitterfest ended in April. Punching in "nextlevel" in Twitter's search function, he read:
"had awesome music today and yes i am twittering in church.
"nothing u do 4 the lord is in vain."
"I think my thumbs are going to be sore"
Next Level has no plans to make Twitter a formal part of each week's service, but Hahn advises parishioners that "if God leads you to continue this as a form of worship by all means do it."
Robbie McLaughlin took him up on it. The graphic designer used Twitter the Sunday after Easter and says he intends to do it again, as he was caught up by the way it transformed how he worshipped. He likes the way it helps him see what God is doing in other people's lives during the service. (And there's another benefit too: no more misplaced musings jotted down on that day's program. "With Twitter," he points out, "your notes are there forever.")
Though the Next Levels and Westwinds may be the face of the future, for now, they're just a quirky minority. But Voelz gets at least five e-mails a week from people inquiring how to launch Twitter within their church. How did you rig the screen resolution so people could read the tweets? What was members' reaction? And, not surprisingly: Got any tips to persuade church leadership this is way cool?