Another essay on social media and the church

I have been talking with church folks about the use of social media for some months now and have noticed among them  confusion, resistance and even suspicion about social media generally.  People have noticed that are lots of conversations going on out there via Facebook, Twitter, blogs and chats, but often those conversations are dismissed as shallow and/or uninformed or just mean.  And people do say mean and silly things online - in addition to saying all kinds of caring and helpful things online.

Still, I sense a reluctance to join the conversation (even to make it deeper and better) for fear of letting go of traditional notions about church and religion and communication, even though we can see, if we look, that those notions are getting very frayed around the edges.  There is a feeling that the church ought to close itself off from that sort of thing, or rise above it.

And then there is the refrain I've frequently heard that social media is just another thing that somebody has to learn, to monitor, another thing on the priest's to do list, another drain on his or her time.  That Facebook is just a time waster that you do late at night, after work, perhaps as a guilty pleasure.  In discussions about social media with church leaders and communicators, many seem to be more concerned with potential pitfalls and with gatekeeping than with the opportunity to harness the incredible reach and power that social media offers.  They don't see the value of it.  They imagine social media being more like print media where mistakes live forever when in fact social media is ever changing.

And they don't "get" the interactive component. Who has time for that, they ask?  What if people we don't know try to join our group? (What if people we don't know try to join our church, I ask?)  The pitfalls, while there, are tails that are wagging the dog here.  To focus on "not broadcasting all over Facebook that Fred and Sally are getting a divorce" is to miss the boat entirely.

In fact, there is great value in social media. Consider this: social media is to the 21st Century Church as the printing press was to the reformers.  Actually, it's even better, because the printing press just allowed messages to go out.  Social media is about messages going out and coming in, about sharing in conversation and deepening relationship.  Social media provide incredible opportunities to engage everyone in our culture, offering a window into the church community that is unparalleled in history.  Seekers, people who are lonely and lost, potential members who may be hesitant to come to the door (even though they saw the poster about the pancake supper) for fear of being rejected or subjected to something offensive or scary can see on the web what services look like, hear music and sermons, read blogs to find out what the church is really like.  They can look at pictures of folks enjoying fellowship or doing mission together.  They can get a preview of the community to allay their concerns or fears or to awaken their own longing for community and sharing in the efforts of helping others. Social media isn't a substitute for personal connection - it's another way of making personal connection. It's the way millions of people are making personal connection.

So, social media offers an incredible opportunity to create and deepen connections, to foster dialog and relationship, to make room for and provide a platform for sharing real life/real world faith stuff with and among people who are already out there using social media in their daily lives, and it's all pretty much free.

Further, consider the pastoral opportunity social media presents.  It used to be that the parson was expected to stay in touch with all the members - perhaps visiting all of them in their homes and of course keeping up with their goings-on so as to be the pastoral presence in their lives.  To know who's pregnant, who's ill, who's getting married, who's going off to college, who got a new puppy, who lost a job or a parent, who is grieving, who is going on vacation, who got a new job.  Personal visits are still expected in some places, but more and more people either catch the minister at church on Sunday or call in or sometimes make an appointment for a face to face visit.  And all that is good and no one who doesn't want to should be forced to use email or Facebook.  But surely priests don't answer the question about connecting with and visiting parishioners or going out to public events in the community as the face of the church "who has time for that?!"  

Ministers should be using social media as tools for pastoral care, rather than seeing it as a game to play late at night.  There are millions of people out there who are using social media to connect and stay connected and ministers can do that, too.  Ministers can and should make time for that, just as they make time for home visits, or phone calls, or personal conversations in the office.  Those highly desirable "young people" are using social media, and so are their grandparents, so that they can share pictures and messages.  Priests and other pastoral care types have an excellent opportunity via social media to connect with and stay connected to their parishioners and with people on the edges of the community - to "visit" by going to the big public square that is Facebook and Twitter.  To offer video chat "office hours." To stay connected with the kids when they go off to college and see the pictures of the grandbabies and check out the vacation photos, and share some of their own stuff, too.

My final point is this:  If you think of Facebook or Twitter or blogs as places to go, places where your people are, then it's not that different from the local vicar heading down to the pub or the coffee shop or the park to interact with the community there.  Your people are out there!  Go visit them!


P.S.  Lots of people are writing about social media and the church today, and if you'd like to hear some other and intelligent voices out there, I'd like to call your attention to three essays that I think are worth your reading time:

First, my C of E friend Fr. David Cloake writes on his blog "Vernacular Curate" about social media and the church.  One quote among many good ones:  "Blogging and micro-blogging and all other social-media tell the stories of ordinary Christians in ordinary time outside of the church building."  Read it all here.

Second, Keith Anderson writes in "The Living Lutheran" that culture isn't killing the church - grief is.  Read this poignant and generous essay here.

The third link is to an excerpt at the Daily Episcopalian from Elizabeth Drescher's excellent book on social media and the church Tweet if you  <3 [heart] Jesus (Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation).  I have read Dr. Drescher's book and recommend it highly - she carefully and clearly delineates the potential power of social media and makes the case for how much better mainline Christianity is equipped to take advantage of it than we were in the broadcast media age.  The excerpt, which shows us how the digital reformation facilitates today's priest in making connection, deepening relationship and generally pastorally caring for his or her flock (or, how George Herbert would have used Facebook) is here

Your thoughts?


Unknown said…
Very interesting post - having taken up blogging again recently (I started before CMS, but quit after the death threats ...) I decided to preach a sermon on Web 2.0:

However I have seen a lot of church drama due to Facebook. Recently a congregant signed up to a silly app that then posted on my wall that they were 'Thinking about Kissing Edward'. Didn't go down well!
Hi Edward - thanks for the comment. Of course there can be drama, and your FB page needs to be monitored and silly or offensive or irritating stuff removed pronto. It helps to have a couple of administrators on the FB page to stay on top of that kind of thing, including blocking outside apps like "questions" and the like. Easy to do and worth doing - you are in charge of your page and you don't have to be at the mercy of apps or other people - that's what the settings are for. Once people get the message that you're not going to do the drama thing, they play nice.
Wonderful post. I could not agree with you more. I am disappointed by the gatekeeper attitude of some in the church when it comes to Social Media. Most of it is born out of fear and a lack of understanding.
Your analogy of the public square is right on. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Thanks, Christopher - you are right about fear and lack of understanding being at the root of church gatekeeping (both virtually and in real life). Thanks for your comment!
Anna @ VFM said…
Great post! I'm the social networking manager at Vibrant Faith Ministries, and I present a 3 part series of social media webinars, attended by church workers around the country. It's been such a joy to see some of these 'gatekeepers' come around and change their view of SM. Thanks for your thoughts here!
Thanks, Anna! Good to know that others are out there doing something helpful and that you are seeing transformation!
Meredith Gould said…
I like to ease church administrator and ministry folk into social media by explaining how, at the very least, it's faster and better than ye ole phone tree; how it offers opt in AND out; and how just as IRL, so-called trivial conversations (e.g., What's for lunch)help establish relationships that can lead to community.
Excellent point, Meredith. Shared experiences, including virtually shared ones, build community.
auntie dasch said…
I actually blogged about this very thing, entire post here:
where i say, in part:
<...if it weren’t for FaceBook I wouldn’t have such deep and intimate relationships with so many people I go to church with because we’re all basically such terribly shy people. For me, navigating coffee hour chatter, even brunch cocktails, is not as nourishing as sharing our daily walk, our praise reports and our prayer requests which are so easily found in Status Updates and the knowledge of this daily walk, I feel, helps to propel each fresh meeting from chatter to "soul talk" because we’re each caught up on the little and the big things and are able to talk on an entirely different level. For me it adds a richness that "how are you, have a good week, see you next Sunday" is never going to offer. Add to this the excitement of meeting friends of friends on fire with the love of god and, on top of that, very spiritual non-churchy friends who are also FaceBook friends who participate in our conversations. I believe we have created an entirely new kind of eChurch.>

this is all, of course, in my terribly humble opinion ;-) i'm friends with one priest and i NEVER (!) comment on her wall because it's FILLED with horribly disgruntled persons whom I feel are terribly damages and just want to pick at things. but it's like Joyce Meyer says, most likely people aren't reacting to you, you're just walking through their river of pain and happened to get your feet wet.
Thanks, Auntie Dasch - so glad to have personal testimony from an Episcopalian who experiences deepened community through social media! Thanks for taking time to share.

I'm guessing though that your priest friend might enjoy reading something positive and generous posted in her wall! You might be able to raise the level of tone and discourse there!
Chad Gleaves said…
This is Chad with Get Your Church Fan Page - Great post! it's so true the number one concern I'm finding from pastors is the lack of time to involve themselves on Facebook and social media. If pastors would begin by recruiting volunteers as admin's for their Facebook page they could keep their time on Facebook to 10 minutes or less a day. I think setting up processes on daily schedules that volunteers can follow are the key to making this work. Social media in a church cannot be a one-man team.

Here is an example of how a Pastor can encourage their congregation by posting daily devotional videos with less than 10 min. of work on the pastor's part.
1. record the video 1-2 min in jing screen recorder (Free). Download from
Mic and camera are built in to most modern laptops or for your desktop most usb webcams have a mic built in.
2. upload to Jing's free site (Push One Button)
3. copy and paste the link into Facebook.
If you want more instruction on how to do this, Watch Here:
Thanks for your practical how-to's, Chad. I think priests do worry about control when making others admins, but you are right that social media in a church can't be a one-person team. I am not sure I want to sell it as "less than 10 minutes a day," though. Social media for pastors is not just about putting your videos and comments out but also reading and responding to what others are saying and doing either on your site or on their own pages. Relational ministry takes time, whether its by phone, in person, or via social media.

Thanks again for your addition to this discussion!
the parson said…
This is a very thoughtful presentation. I think your points are well taken even as I understand the reluctance which some colleagues feel, a reluctance sometimes but not always based in fear or a lack of energy/time. From where I sit, the first question to ask is, 'what are your goals for a presence on Internet?'. After you establish your goals for Internet, you can decide whether you will be best served by a web page, a presence in the social media arena, a sophisticated email manager (such as 'constant comment'), etc., or a combination of the above.

If one only wishes to disseminate information about one's community, a web page and good email management may do the trick. If one wishes to interact with one's community, then Facebook, Myspace or another or the online media sites may be needed. I suspect it is not a "one size fits all" situation. Clergy may be better served by having a church page on FB instead of, or in addition to, a personal page. Church pages can (and should) have multiple admins. On media sites, as with blogs, each cleric needs to decide if a personal page is for "professional" or "personal" use. I advocate for a more open and transparent approach for clergy in general, but I am aware of many who prefer to leave 'work' at the office, drawing a clear distinction between the personal and the professional.

My point, in summation, is that whatever a cleric decides to do on Internet needs to be the result of thoughtful and considered decisions, with an awareness of the advantages and disadvantages of each step along the way!
Thanks, Parson, for adding to the conversation. You are right and spell the differences and options out clearly. I tend to think in terms of both/and - a combination of approaches, both as reinforcement and to address the fact that different people access information in different ways. Most churches have folks who still need to get the newsletter by mail! But that doesn't mean that we don't also do other things....

I also advocate for the open and transparent approach instead of compartmentalizing, with the understanding that there are some things that I don't post or talk about online. It takes discipline to leave "work" behind for time away, but it certainly can be done. Thanks for your well thought-out comment.
Bob Sawyer said…
First, let me apologize in advance for the extremely long comment!

It seems to me that, in a time where Sunday service attendance numbers are continuing to dwindle (but not church membership or giving, necessarily), social media and even expanded worship offerings via streaming audio/video, group chats, etc. would be more desired than ever. And yet, there is that reluctance:

- "Our [older|established] parishioners won't [get it|use it|approve of it]."

- "We're not equipped to handle the technology."

- "If we use streaming audio/video, more people will just stay home and watch/listen rather than come to church."

I may be off-base but I think that, if worship attendance is dwindling as statistics seem to indicate, offering ANY sort of alternative means for those parishioners to hear the gospel is important. Furthermore, what of the virtual visitors who are unable to attend because of distance, infirmity, etc.?

I often think of my grandfather. After my grandmother died, and we'd go spend the weekend with him, he would get up on Sunday morning and turn on the radio to listen to the service being broadcast live from his church, Cuthbert First Baptist. As he became more infirm, the radio broadcast became more and more his connection to the church.

And then I think of my friend Jay, who tunes into the online broadcasts of not one, not two, but at least five different churches every Sunday. One in particular employs upwards of 60 people to handle their online media alone.

I'm not suggesting that every church aspire to that model, but that more at least consider some method of reaching out to those who, for any reason, don't make it to church each Sunday. When combined with other forms of social media, you create a vast array of choices for spreading the good news to both your actively-attending members and total strangers alike.

Coming back down to earth for a moment, I do realize that all of this takes time, money, and people-power to accomplish, all of which are harder to come by these days. If a church can make this form of outreach more of a priority, perhaps create leadership roles within the vestry or other lay bodies to oversee these projects, then I believe they can be accomplished.
Bob, no apology necessary - great comment. Your examples are spot on. You raise an excellent point about creating leadership roles among vestry, etc. We have vestryfolk overseeing other aspects of the church's life and should look to interested and appropriate parishioners for leadership in this area, too. Thanks for adding to the conversation!
Unknown said…
this video or this one (very similar but you make like the style more)

may help convince people why using social media is now a must not a maybe
Here is a great article about handling blowback on social media - when negative comments come along, what should we do? Classify first (helpful, mean, troll?) and then act. Read it here:
Communication is the greatest way to express your self but today social media use as tool to communicate to others.