Word on the web: TwitterChurch

There’s a saying that a church is not a building, it’s the people. And Jay Gamble knows where to find the people.

The pastor of LifeChange AME Church, based in Slayton House in the Columbia village of Wilde Lake, holds church services on Sunday like most other ministers, but every weeknight at 11 p.m., he hosts a different kind of service -- on Twitter.

Gamble -- @jaygamble, as he’s known on the micro-blogging platform -- currently has more than 22,000 followers, and has tweeted more than 8,300 times. The majority of those tweets and those followers are the result of “TwitterChurch,”  half-hour-long sessions in which Gamble sends out a series of short 140-character posts discussing scripture, life and God. Regular themes include hope, encouragement and trust.

“When Jesus was here, he met people where they were,” says Gamble. “Jesus was a person who, if you were on Twitter at 11 p.m., he’d be on Twitter at 11 p.m. That’s the theme I take onto Twitter: If someone’s on there, they’re looking for some kind of connection, interaction, dialogue, something. It’s becoming pastoring on Twitter, much more than just a Twitter service.”

The Oakland Mills High School graduate, now 40, has been a pastor for four years. The grandson of a minister, Gamble says he never had any plans to take on a life of service. Having seen “behind the veil of ministry,” he says, he thought it wasn’t for him and had pursued a career in information technology instead. But his father died suddenly when Gamble was 26 years old, and the young man became more and more involved in the church, eventually attending Howard University’s divinity school for his second master’s degree.

Despite his training at Howard, Gamble says, no one ever taught him how to reach out to people through other media.

“They teach you how to stand up on Sunday, preach a message, give them their points and say, ‘God bless you; see you next Sunday,’ ” he says. “That gave me the foundation, but at the same time, the people I know, the people interested in this, we’re all someplace different. The Internet helped me connect with them.”

Social media was something the self-confessed computer junkie, who still works in IT for the federal government, picked up on his own. Gamble has been on Twitter since September 2010, and over the summer of 2011 he started experimenting with TwitterChurch at different times and on different days on a whim. But he abandoned the project, thinking no one was interested.

“But people kept saying, ‘When are you doing TwitterChurch again?’ Really?” he says. He brought it back in full force at the beginning of September 2011 and hasn’t stopped since.

Gamble lives in Upper Marlboro, Md., with his wife and three boys, Julius, 8, Jonathan, 5, and Jeremiah, 3. When he was first starting TwitterChurch, he played around with a few different time slots but finally settled on 11 p.m., mostly because his children are asleep by that time.

“It’s quiet, and I’m a late-night person anyways,” he says.

The response to TwitterChurch has been overwhelming and humbling, Gamble says, and his Twitter congregation spans the globe.

He’s gained, on average, 5,000 new followers every month since starting his online preaching -- and his two congregations feed into one another. About two or three new people every week attend his services in Columbia as a result of online outreach, and some members of his congregation follow him on Twitter, too, Gamble says. The active communities of his two congregations are comparable, he says: While 200 people are part of LifeChange, about the same number  of people interact with him regularly through TwitterChurch.

“The beauty about Twitter is that the feedback is instantaneous, so I know immediately -- from people re-tweeting, favoriting the tweets, replying to me -- how many people are interacting,” Gamble says.  “TwitterChurch is just as big, if not bigger than the real church.”

Shenae Rivers, a personal trainer who lives and works on the Central Coast in California, is one of Gamble’s followers. She recently found Gamble, or rather, Gamble found her -- he says he follows any and everyone on Twitter -- and she follows TwitterChurch when she can.

“I like that he speaks the truth from a biblical perspective,” she says. “I think Twitter is a great way to get the message out. Twitter needs more positive messages like this.”

Rivers, whose tweets focus on life, work, fitness, football and God, says she has yet to find anyone else on Twitter who approaches preaching on the medium like Gamble, but if she does, she’ll happily follow them, as well.

As far as Gamble knows, few -- if any -- use Twitter to preach, though many use the outlet to discuss God. The medium allows the pastor to reach a broad, diverse audience, made up of different denominations and backgrounds.

“There are people in TwitterChurch who may never come to a real church, so to speak, because it may be intimidating to them,” Gamble says. “This is the first step for some people, and they may take another step at some point down the line and connect back to the church. This allows people to see, ‘What is this church thing about? What does it have for me?’”

Gamble plans to continue pastoring through TwitterChurch, he says. He’s even hoping to expand upon it with a website, but spreading more focus to sites like Facebook and YouTube would take the core -- the Twitter -- out of TwitterChurch. Gamble says he likes Twitter because he likes people, all people, and that’s what Twitter is.

In Gamble’s view, interacting with people on the social media site is something Jesus Christ would have done, or is at least reminiscent of the way in which Jesus interacted with his followers.

“In the New Testament, when you see Jesus interacting with people, he’s interacting with them quickly -- he’s asking them a few questions, then he’s healing them, raising them from the dead, casting out demons, and then moving on to the next one,” Gamble says. “And God can exist in Twitter. If we believe in God, then we believe in the power of God. If God is so powerful, then why can’t he operate in a 140-character tweet?”

Excerpts from TwitterChurch

On this particular night, Twitterchurch included 107 tweets, including those from Pastor Jay Gamble, and replies and re-tweets from his followers.

@jaygamble: Its time for #twitterchurch!!!!!

@jaygamble: as we always do ….lets start #twitterchurch with prayer ……. Come Holy Spirit …. In Jesus Name …..

@jaygamble: tonight our scripture is 1 Cor 15:33 Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.”

@jaygamble: and our #twitterchurch sermon topic is “Friends …. How many of us have them!!!!??”

@jaygamble: I want you to remember that scripture …. because your grandmother was right …. you lay down with the dogs you r gonna get fleas…..

@jaygamble: I want you to get this point tonight and REALLY evaluate the folk you walk closely with …. #twitterchurch

@jaygamble: if you are a student in school …. this scripture says you hang out with D and F students ….. LOOONG enough …. you will get D’s and F’s

@jaygamble: Jesus will meet you where you are … but help you get to where you need to be. #twitterchurch

@jaygamble: YOU ARE VALUABLE!!!! U choose who you will spend time with ... and all of us have limited time accounts... :) #twitterchurch

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