There was a time when conferencing in the Methodist tradition meant something closer to a direct democracy than it did to the now more prevalent sense of representative government. For example, the Christmas Conference of 1784 saw the majority of itinerant pastors in America gathered in attendance. Over time, however, as the church grew both in size and structure that the proportion of representation grew less and less. Now annual conferences are allotted a certain amount of lay and clergy delegates to General Conference based on size and the number of church in a respective area. This is very similar to the method found in the United States House of Representatives and how they are organized and allotted. The way we organize ourselves in light of governing speaks to the heart of what it means to exercise our voice.
In a day and age that has seen massive political upheaval across the world and major demonstrations here at home from both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street Movements, one must ask whether proportional representation still suffices as the prominent way we make our voices heard. We’ve seen many examples of masses of people gather to cry out against the representative governments. We now have to ask whether that’s a truly faithful way of organizing as the church. Where are persons being shut out? Who and where are the absent voices in our church? And how can we see too it that no one feels left out of the process of organization?
Interestingly, a new development has started to have an impact on larger meetings around the church. Whether it’s a conference event or a continuing education conference wireless internet, smart phones and portable tablets (think iPad) have allowed participants to log on to Twitter and react to what is heard at these meetings. Yes, social media has, in fact, infiltrated the church in new and exciting ways.
Now for those who don’t know, Twitter is known as a social networking website. Posting on the site is called “tweeting.” You can search for and follow the posts of whoever you want. And there’s a wonderful method of tagging your tweets to allow others to see what you’ve said called a hashtag (# symbol).
Let me give you a recent example of how this works in the life of the church. I went to the Wesleyan Leadership Conference in Nashville put on by The General Board of Discipleship back in October 2011. At the beginning of the gathering we were notified that our hashtag was “#WesleyLC2011.” So every time we tweeted, we ended our tweet with #WesleyLC2011. This way those who were not physically present could interact with what we were discussing. Essentially, Twitter allowed for a meeting of 75 participants to be opened up to whoever wanted to interact through the virtual world.
By now you may be asking what in the world does the Christmas Conference of 1784, political upheaval, and Twitter have to do with one another and The United Methodist Church?
First, for the first time those who were elected as delegates to General Conference do not have to be the only ones present. There will hundreds of United Methodists physically gathered in Tampa from all over the world. But there will also be hundreds gathered through the power of social media.
Secondly, many analysts have noted the fact that social media has helped drive the transformative power of political change. The Arab Spring in the Middle East was largely organized and driven through social media, often by younger adults. The same power has been seen among movements here in America as well. It is because of this influence that we have to plead with our denominational leaders to see to it that the Convention Center in Tampa is 100% wi-fi enabled. In the 21st Century, to disable Internet access would be likened to cutting off phone access. It is a means of communication and information access.
Finally, the politics of running for and being elected as a delegate to General Conference can no longer forbid access to those who are not elected. Social media has granted us unprecedented access to follow what’s happening and to voice questions and comments in a way that hasn’t been seen since the Christmas Conference of 1784. The system is in the process of being upended and we’re in the process of watching the way we exercise authority shift in a major way.
Social media has had a hand in some major change in the Arab world and here at home in America. It’s driven the voice for change and empowered those who once had no voice. By utilizing the power of social media I’m convinced that conference will no longer just be a place or an event—it will be a way of acting uniquely as United Methodists. It will be a return to a way of life that maybe we’ve forsaken in recent pursuits for efficiency and streamlined organization. And it will be a 21st Century example of honoring the Methodist sense of gathering to conference–a true means of grace–in such a way that I’m sure would make even Mr. Wesley himself very proud.