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Jonathan Davis suffered from a nagging tickle in his throat for weeks before he discovered the problem was a tumor. Doctors wanted to remove it and test for cancer immediately.
Anxious and fearful, Davis and his wife turned to the online "prayer wall" at The Table Project, a Minneapolis-based social network for churches used by some 3,000 congregations nationwide.
"Immediately, I started getting updates from people who were praying for me," said Davis, who attends Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. "Some people were leaving comments of encouragement."
Not that long ago, Davis likely would have waited days before word of his health crisis reached congregation members through a pastor or a church bulletin. Now, church members who use the Facebook-like Table Project can get the instantaneous support they're seeking via laptops, smartphones, tablets and the like.
The Table is the latest social media tool being adopted by churches to get out their Christ-centered messages and build relationships that keep congregants coming to worship services.
"It's been a fantastic tool to bind us together and grow us deeper in our relationships with each other as well as with God," Davis said.
A church can sign up free for The Table. Church members communicate privately or create specialized groups where people with similar interests can connect. In addition to the popular "prayer wall," The Table also offers each church a "serve app" for members to post needs -- or to volunteer to help someone else in need.
The site is meant to complement Facebook, not to compete with it, said Jason Wenell, founder of the nearly year-old nonprofit Table Project, which is funded by the Christian-based ministry Real Resources.
More about 'us' than 'me'
"We built the system to be more about 'us' than about 'me,' " he said. "Facebook and other networks are about content directed to me and it's not really about a greater unity."
The idea developed nearly four years ago when Wenell realized that church websites, Facebook and other social media were not fulfilling churchgoers' needs, he said.
Namely, a way for people to reach out in times of trouble and find others who don't judge but want to help.
"That kind of has been a surprise to us, the degree of vulnerability people have put there," said Ken Finsaas, executive director of The Table. "We've had cases of people struggling with great hardship, things like, 'I'm getting evicted on Friday,' 'I'm thinking of taking my life,' 'I'm suffering unbelievable depression.'
"People in their church are coming alongside them and saying, 'Hey, I was there. Here's how God stepped into my life.' Just unbelievable stories of people feeling supported in extraordinary ways."
'It's not just about Sunday'
Via the "serve app" on The Table, Wenell offers his truck to fellow congregants.
"We've met five families now who needed the truck to haul something," Wenell said. "Church is a movement of a body of people everyday. It's not just about Sunday at all. The Table doesn't make that happen, it just makes it a little easier, whether it's prayer or me personally sharing my truck. That's more church to me than going to [a building] and just listening in a pew."
Substance Church, one of the fastest-growing megachurches in Minnesota with nearly 3,000 members and four campuses in the Twin Cities, was among the first congregations to use The Table.
Pastor Peter Haas says The Table is particularly helpful for big churches where making friends can be a challenge.
"Studies show one of the top predictors of church satisfaction is how many friends your congregants have" within the congregation, Haas said. "Having The Table is an incredible tool for church satisfaction because it connects people 24 hours a day.
"The people that love golf can find out who the other people are who love golf. As we grow bigger, it helps our church grow smaller."
While more and more churches are turning to Facebook, Twitter and other social media to engage followers and attract newcomers, some still hesitate to fully embrace the global networks, said John Dyer, author of "From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology."
Specialized networks such as TableProject.org or a similar one called The City are more controlled places where churches can share information they would not post on Facebook. Islamic and Jewish faith groups have global social networking communities, Dyer notes, though he's not aware of any that are using local, private networks like The Table.
Why not use Facebook?
"There's some pushback by some Christians of 'Why are you creating sort of Christian ghettos of places where only Christians hang out? Shouldn't we be on Facebook with everybody else?'" Dyer said. "But I think some of these churches want to have secure conversations where they can talk about things they don't want seen on Facebook."
For Jonathan Davis, the instant support from Bethlehem church members via The Table "prayer wall" helped get him through his cancer scare. His tumor was found to be benign. But The Table's benefits continue for him.
"I've gotten to know people in real life because I've met them on The Table," Davis said. "In a large church it's easy to be on the sidelines and disappear into the cracks because there's so many people.
"Whereas The Table gives you that opportunity to be able to connect."
Rose French • 612-673-4352