It’s All Saint’s Day 2014. I log onto my Facebook account and am greeted by a vivid image of glowing candles and a few solemn white words: desire, thanksgiving, mourning and hope. Beside the picture, I see a prayer:
All Saint’s Day. Again and again, I light up four candles.
The first one for them who left too early.
The second one for them who got away when they were old and tired.
The third one for us who are missing so much.
The fourth one for hope: We will meet again.
The post was created by Kirkko Suomessa, the Church of Finland Facebook page, which is the official page of Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. It was liked almost 15,000 times and shared over 10,000 times. There were hundreds of comments in the discussion underneath the image, mainly short prayers and memories of loved ones. According to statistics, the picture has been seen almost a million times; the Finnish population is a little over five million.
Spiritual life on the Internet
Finns do not tend to speak about religion face to face, but they do discuss religion by way of the internet. Since 2006, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland has invested time and resources into developing online church communities. I was one among those recruited to do so as part of a project called “Spiritual Life on the Internet,” monitoring and engaging in conversations, and also training around 2,000 colleagues to use online services as part of their work. A guiding principle was interactivity: applying the same skills that our pastors, deacons and youth workers used every day in a new, online setting to engage with people approaching religious and spiritual questions on the internet.
At first, discussions in open online forums were challenging, but by using our own names or the official church nickname “Listening Church” we were able to create confidence among web users. We opened a chat forum called “Church Listens” (Kirkko kuulolla) in Suomi24 online community in 2010. According to statistics, Suomi24 is one of the most popular online platforms in Finland, The whole platform consists of thousands and thousands messages per day, and the Church Listens area generated 600-1000 messages per day between 2010-2013. Church Listens offers a place to communicate with “The Church,” not just to explore religious questions and seek pastoral support, but also as a space for the Church to listen to more critical voices.
The official Facebook-page was opened in 2011. It is a space for sensing peace, love and comfort. It does not work as an information page but offers Biblical texts and prayers, beautiful pictures about nature and people, according to the liturgical calendar. Images are planned for posting and sharing in order to help provide a sense of holiness in the lives of the Church’s followers. The picture of candles on All Saint’s Day was one of them.
Monitoring the change of spirituality and belonging
According to evaluation research (Ketola), a third (35%) of parishes report that they now actively and systematically monitor online communications concerning them. Practically, it means firstly that they know what people are saying about them in the parishes. Why do they like Masses? What are they saying about services and individuals working in the parishes? What kind of discussions are they? By understanding the signals, and by hearing the messages of people who do not tend to go to church, the church finds possibilities for communicating with individuals in a new way. A number of parishes have begun using web cameras to stream their services – around 10% were able to stream worship services, concerts or other gatherings online in 2011.
Work in social media can also be a useful tool for reputation management; it can help a national church meet expectations and avoid unnecessary mistakes and misunderstandings. For a state church, where the structure is bureaucratic and focused on administration and the parish system, the message is often institutionalized and formal. However, the church is all its members together in the body of Christ. Online work is an effort to extend the voice of the church. The voice of the church consists of its members’ views, and they are worth listening to and discussing. Ultimately, the message of the gospel can be better related to people who are known, seen and understood.
Challenges in the future
A lot of people are needed to keep these internet services going. The initial investment from the Church was only meant to get all of this started, and the next challenge is to keep it going. The workers in the parishes now play an important role doing this as part of their parish work. Organizing this has been quite a challenge because each parish is independent in a parochial system, and sometimes their independence can be an obstacle on the road to collaboration.
Training for church employees was considered strategically most important and it became the main focus of the project. The training for parishioners and laity never took place, and that was a disappointment; the next aim will be increasing the activity of laity in the future. Although the work in social media is relatively cheap, workers and volunteers need lots of support. They will need training and supervision, as well as regular meetings to share thoughts and problems. But it seems likely that social media will become and remain part of routine work for the people and parishes of the Church of Finland.
Ketola, Kimmo. Community, Participation and Faith. Contemporary Challenges of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. Publication 62 Church Research Institute. Tampere: Unigrafia, 2013.
Meri-Anna Hintsala is a pastor who works as a Communications Planner at the Church Council of Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Finland. Additionally, she is a Doctoral Student at Faculty of Theology, University of Helsinki. At present, she is working as a visiting Ph.D student at Lancaster University. Hintsala’s research interests are in the connections between postmodern religiosity and social media. In particular, she is interested in how gender constructions are related to religiosity, and how this is negotiated online.