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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET

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For Houses of Worship, the Two Faces of Facebook

November 19, 2010 - 11:24 AM | by: Lauren Green

The New Jersey pastor who decreed Facebook forbidden fruit for his leadership staff may be going against a rising tide of biblical proportions.

So say many church pastors and officials who see social networking sites as one of the best ways to engage and build a religious community.

Danielle Hartland, communications director of Grace Church in Erie, Pa., says Facebook itself is not the problem, because it’s morally neutral. “The thing is, Facebook is neither evil or good; it just exists,” she says. “What you do with it determines what it becomes.”

What it became to the Rev. Cedric Miller of Living Word Christian Fellowship Church in Neptune, N.J., prompted him to order about 50 married officials at his church to delete their accounts with social networking sites or resign from their positions. Miller said some 20 couples had run into marital troubles because their spouses connected with or re-ignited a relationship with an ex-flame.

But it’s hard to demonize a technology that has become a major force for keeping the faithful connected to a church’s core beliefs.

Hartland says her father fell away from the Catholic church at age 18, but came back to his faith through Grace Church because of how pastors were interacting on Facebook. “He knew lots of people before he ever walked through the door of the church,” she said.

Grace Church is not alone in its pursuit of hi-tech ways to bring parishioners into the pews … even if they’re only virtual pews.

Woodlands Church in Woodlands, Texas, boasts that it is on the cutting edge of technology. Pastor Kerry Shook gets direct feedback from his listeners during his sermons. “We even have a Twitter service where people can twitter questions to me while I preach, and it helps me connect with the congregations,” he said.

Shook says he understands and agrees with Miller’s concerns, but he says his church “has chosen a different route.” But the church does promote a weekly “Facebook fast,” he says, so that “it doesn’t become a detriment to building strong relationships.”

Pastor Frank Chiapperino of Hope Summit Christian Church in Rochester, Minn., is a big cheerleader for churches using Facebook, and he encourages his staff to use it as well. His blog entry, 10 Reasons Your Church Should Be on Facebook, brought in calls from other curious pastors.

“If they’re not using it, they’re thinking about it,” he says of his colleagues.

As far as the potential for evil, Chiapperino says, “I think a lot of good comes out of Facebook, than I have seen problems.” He said it provided a good way for his congregants to get to know him and his family when he came to the church. “It’s very quick and casual,” he said.

He believes the “old guard” may be wary of the new tools, but they need to see the light.

According to a recent Nielsen survey, Americans spend nearly a quarter of their time (22.7 percent) on social media sites, a 43 percent increase from the year before.

Churches, synagogues and mosques have learned that if they’re going to reach their congregants, cyberspace is where they’ll find them. At church social networking sites the faithful can get updated information on weekly sermons, church activities, group meetings … even counseling.

People are more inclined to spill their hearts over a pressing personal issue in the anonymity of an online chat, Hartland says. Eventually, she says, a pastor then will try to convince the person to come in for some face time.

She also says that singling out Facebook as the root of potential adulterous affairs is giving the site too much power. Facebook only exposes a deeper issue within marriages.

Chiapperino notes that Jesus himself raised the issue of the fine line that people walk when they use things that have great good, for evil.

“Jesus taught about money, saying ‘the love of money is the root of all evil.’ Money is not immoral, but any morally neutral tool can be used for good or evil,” he said.

Adultery, like many bad behaviors, is a sin of opportunity, and social networking websites create 24 hours of opportunity. But the real problem lies within the marriages themselves, which many times are built on unreal expectations, says marriage counselor Gary Chapman.

Chapman, a trained anthropologist and author of the best-selling book “The Five Love Languages,” and the just released “Things I Wish I’d known Before I got Married,” says in his new book that “Being in love is an emotional and obsessive experience. However emotions change and obsessions fade.”

Couples who based their marriages on the in-love experience, which typically lasts about two to three years, become disillusioned when the true work and challenges of marriage set in, Chapman says. Many may even believe they married the wrong person.

Social networking sites offer opportunities to seek out new and exciting relationships, to boldly go where no married person should venture.

But Chiapperino says Facebook is not what leads to an affair; it’s what’s in the heart of the individual.

“And that,” he says, “is what the church is here for.”

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