The U.S. State Department asks Twitter to delay maintenance plans for the weekend so Iranians voting in Friday's election can communicate instantly, and defeated candidate Mirhossein Mousavi uses Twitter to organize protests against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The FBI tracks Twitter to stop a crazed Oklahoma City man from turning the April 15 Tea Party Protests into what he warned would be a bloodbath. Beating even The New York Times, a ferry passenger on the Hudson River uses Twitter to deliver the first reports and pictures of U.S. Airways Flight #1549's emergency landing.

The instant firsthand information sent from someone's cell phone or computer to the Twitter stream is appealing to this wiki culture; nowadays, we trust mass accumulation of knowledge more than we do an authority figure's research. Besides, there's nothing quite like being able to talk directly to the guy who watched the school bus tip over 20 seconds ago.

As popular as Twitter is (reporting over 7 million users this winter, with a 1382 percent growth rate from 2008), many people still don't know about it, or dismiss its usefulness when they learn about it. (As guest editor of Newsweek last week, satirist Stephen Colbert poked fun at the three-year-old site by proposing the cover story, "Hey, Have You Heard About This Thing Called Twitter?") I happen to know a few folks who have enjoyed a chuckle on my behalf when I call myself a "Twit." It's not worth the risk of being labeled a rabid Twitter evangelist, so I usually refrain from giving my whole spiel to my skeptical friends (I limit it to 20 minutes).

Twitter is a micro-blogging and social-networking site that allows you to post and read status updates ("tweets") in 140 characters from your computer or cell phone. You can follow (receive tweets from) as many people as you like, and they can follow you as well. If you wish, you can protect your tweets so only people you allow can read them, and you can limit how many come your way, so it is never invasive. Numerous free applications are available to design your Twitter experience to the level of participation you want.

What's so good about it? And why would a Christian have any interest in joining?

First, Twitter is a quick, easy way to stay in touch on a moment-by-moment basis with people you know. No need to wait for Christmas cards to find out what's going on in their lives. No need to wait even until next Sunday. This "shallow" form of communication, as many call it, opens the door to deep relationships simply because you know what's going on in your loved ones' lives. As a pastor's wife, I love seeing the effect this has on the local church - how interconnected everyone is in life and ministry.

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Second, following like-minded people, whether you know them or not, helps you to discover the most up-to-date news about what interests you. For example, I can follow @joinStAT to find out how to get involved in fighting human trafficking right in Indiana, my home state, @MichaelHyatt to hear news about Christian publishing, @CTmagazine for international awareness, or, If I need inspiration, I can follow @BibleBuzz to help me in my daily Bible reading or @PatsyClairmont for a holy laugh. Words, whether filling book pages or the laptop screen, have power; letting someone know you just prayed for her, or offering a word of encouragement or a laugh, is a ministry that subtly but profoundly affects daily life.

Third, reading tweets from people different from you helps you to be aware of trends and issues that matter to others. Knowing the hearts of people whose worldviews you oppose creates a compassion for them that supersedes judgment. When I see camaraderie on Twitter between supposed enemies, I wonder if Christians might be known again as people who love. If we reveal our compassion, might someone ask, as a Roman leader did in A.D. 125, "Who are these people the Christians, who are taking care of their own and also ours?" (adapted from Johnson 1976:75; Ayerst and Fisher 1971:179-181).

The virtual friends we make on Twitter can by no means replace the real relationships we have in our homes, neighborhoods, and churches. And Twitter can easily draw you into a lifestyle that keeps you in front of the computer rather than being active and engaged in the world of flesh and blood. Worse, it can cause you to feel as though you are in healthy relationships while your real-life relationships are suffering. Also, Internet conversation often feels anonymous, and we may say things that we regret that hurt others and do not reflect the heart of Christ. (See LaVonne Neff's Her.meneutics post "Blog Comments and Christian Courtesy.")

Twitter can, however, broaden our world and our understanding of it, deepen the relationships we have, open the door to new ones, and lead us into ministry opportunities we had never thought of before. To be or not to be on Twitter is not so much the question; the real question is: If you are, are you using this tool to improve your life, to benefit others, and to make great the name of Jesus?

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Five Tweeting Tips

(1) You are what you tweet. Are you an encourager, a humorist, a businessperson, a pastor - a complainer? People will know.

(2) Craft your words. This may be instant publishing, but it's still publishing. Your words will last longer than you will.

(3) No cheating. Say it all in 140 characters. Don't use a second tweet to continue your point.

(4) Don't answer Twitter's standard question, "what are you doing?" Rather than your flight plan, nap schedule, or lunch menu, say something that will benefit others.

(5) Don't overtweet. If people quit replying to you, it may be because they can't keep up.

Heather Gemmen Wilson writes at