By WILL HIGGINS The Indianapolis Star
On Wednesday, Pope Benedict XVI goes on Twitter, which people find funny because he's 85 and head of an organization that isn't always the first to embrace the latest in pop culture.
Interest in the pope's tweets is high. On Monday, before he'd thumbed out a single one, the pontiff, @pontifex, had more than 600,000 "followers" who will see his tweets in English plus another couple hundred thousand for the other languages he and his staff will be tweeting in.
For context, that's three times as many as entertaining and partially famous Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay has -- and Irsay has knocked himself out, Tweeting 7,935 times as of Sunday, including one from last week that sounded vaguely familiar: "... and as we wander down that road ... our shadows taller than our soul ... there walks a lady, we all know."
Rick Warren, the California-based fundamentalist pastor seen by some as the next Billy Graham, does have more followers in English. Warren has 808,000 followers (vs. Graham's meager 40,233).
But that's after 7,562 tweets (compared to just 169 for the 94-year-old Graham), including the recent: "A watered-down invitation will keep people from Jesus as much as a watered-down gospel. Pastors be clear, caring, bold!"
Whether their messages are clear, caring or bold, religious leaders increasingly have turned to Twitter. They have used the new communication tool in various ways.
As far as spreading faith, Twitter has limits, said Pastor Nathan LaGrange of City Community Church in Indianapolis, 839 followers.
"Tweeting ON faith is like tweeting BY faith," he said in an email, "Sure, it can always encourage someone who already believes in what's being tweeted. But let's be honest, belief and brevity don't often equal transformation, especially when thousands are glancing at a feed.
"In fact, brevity about faith can often leave someone floating in even greater ambiguity and confusion than before. So let's not ASSume we're evangelizing the masses with our 140 characters o' tweetiage."
There's also the chance of tweeting something stupid or offensive that could come back to haunt.
"Tweets are permanent," said Senior Pastor Dave Rodriguez of Grace Community Church in Noblesville, Ind., who has almost 1,300 followers.
So don't rush them. It's the quality not the quantity that's important, Rodriguez said.
"Flooding people with tweets is a quick way to get an 'un-follow.' Be original and limit quoting." A recent Rodriguez tweet: "When Jesus said 'repent for the Kingdom of God is near' he meant not once but continuously."
Twitter proves it is possible for preachers to condense their ideas into 140 characters.
Bishop Christopher Coyne of Indianapolis is a Twitter veteran. Coyne has racked up 4,299 followers.
Many people, such as comedian Sarah Silverman with 3.7 million followers, use Twitter to be funny, but Coyne cautions against clerics going that route because of the potential for something to be misinterpreted, he tweeted: "Even if it's really funny. Irony never works online."
It's probably a moot point regarding Benedict's Twitter account because the pope, who rose through the ranks as an expert on church doctrine, is not known for cutting up.
But Coyne has additional advice to ministers who would Tweet. Unlike in church, where the pastor talks and the flock listens, followers on Twitter, who aren't face-to-face, often feel pretty emboldened. They chime in, and not always genuflect-ishly.
"One of the things you have to deal with online is nastiness," Coyne said.
The Indianapolis Star asked readers on Facebook to predict the pope's first tweet and got a dozen responses, nine of them smarmy or mean, like this one: "Maybe he'll come out and say that he intends on helping the poor people of the world by selling his gold throne he sits on. Just kidding, he would never do that."
Finally, wrote LaGrange, pastors can get carried away with social networking just like anyone else.
"Constantly checking out of real conversations to check-in to my Twitter feed or spending valuable time generating cute little quips that will get me re-tweeted by the Twits is a sure fire way to spiral headlong into a pit of pride," LaGrange wrote.
"I only know because I face-planted into that hole myself. Had to go cold turkey for a while because I began to obsess about 'staying in the stream.'
"Surprisingly few knew I had even left..."
Contributing: Robert King, The Indianapolis Star