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How Important is a Presence on Social Media to Thriving, Impacting Churches Today?
By Daniel Granderson
This article first appeared in the July 2015 Visitor
At the nexus where religious tradition merges with 21st century technological omnipresence, the gospel has been officially hashtagged. According to social media pundits in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Facebook, Twitter and the like are the modern-day gathering places for members to strengthen congregational ties.
“[Our church] is actively using social media to promote events and share pictures and videos with members that they might have missed if they were traveling or homebound,” says Jason Lombard, associate pastor of Chesapeake Conference’s Spencerville (Md.) church, who is also responsible for media. “We also promote our sermons after the fact. ... Some of our best traffic has come from cell phone video of some of our musical events posted on Facebook.”
Richard Castillo, pastor for media and outreach at Potomac Conference’s Sligo church in Takoma Park, Md., regards it a blessing to work the “frontlines” from a church where he can recruit young people to help tell stories through videos he shares on Facebook, YouTube and Vimeo. This, he says, helps expand the church’s brand to other denominations.
Those visiting Potomac’s Williamsburg (Va.) church just may find Pastor Heather Crews busy taking photos. “As a pastor, I carry my phone everywhere and snap often,” she says, and adds that even her sermons are social media fodder. She might take 20 pictures before choosing the one she’ll post on the church’s sites, then invites congregants to take a look.
Less than half a year into his tenure at Sligo, Castillo already sees how the social media ministry is energizing the church and building morale among members, especially as they ask to participate. “I’m proud to be a part of this era of Adventist ministry and [excited about] some of the things I and my fellow colleagues will be able to accomplish in Jesus’ name in the coming years,” he says.
In addition to young families and professionals, many Adventist churches are finding social media to be an effective way to reach a variety of age groups, even seniors. Ingrid Forss, social media coordinator at New Jersey Conference’s Parkway South church in Marmora, comments, “Older people really appreciate how much social media helps them stay connected. A few of our retired members who go to Florida for the winter love the fact that they aren’t disconnected from the church. They can keep in touch and see what’s going on. They still feel very involved even when they’re not here.”
A New Kind of Pulpit
Kasper Haughton Jr., technical director and youth pastor at Ohio Conference’s Kettering church, believes social media is also its own type of pulpit, where the church can preach to the world a personalized narrative about who Adventists are and what they are about.
“As a church, we can really work to tell the story of Adventists as people, as neighbors, as believers at next-to-no cost since social media is essentially free,” says Haughton. “As we begin to acclimate to the social media sphere and understand how to interact with it and interact within it, the archives of the narratives we have will be positive and people will have a positive association with us.”
Milli Mike, communication leader at Potomac Conference’s Community Praise Center in Alexandria, Va., says her church’s sermons are live-tweeted and video clips are shared online. “If you want to continue to share the gospel of Jesus, join the conversation. That’s what social media is and can be, a way to share Jesus,” she says.
“You never know who your message will reach or how it can bless. It’s another way to build your community and further God’s kingdom,” she adds.
Noah Washington, senior pastor of Allegheny East Conference’s Bladensburg (Md.) church, is more frank. “Any church that doesn’t have a Facebook page may not be doing relevant ministry,” he asserts. Bladensburg has a weekly attendance between 375 and 400, but their Facebook page has more than 1,200 fans. Pastor Washington reports that the church’s social media efforts have had a tremendous impact. “We’ve had people attend service because of our Facebook and Twitter accounts,” he says.
Pastor Lombard says his church has also witnessed a virtual impact. “When we look at the analytics, we see a social reach that extends far beyond our immediate congregation,” he shares.
According to the Pew Research Center, on any given week, one out of five Americans share their faith online. Even more intriguing, 46 percent of American adults notice someone else share their faith online during an average week.
What’s more, with greater than 72 percent of online adults using social media sites but only 37 percent going to church weekly or more, according to other Pew studies, it’s clear that social media has granted churches unprecedented access to people—that is, if they are willing to take advantage of the opportunity.
“If people aren’t interested in coming to church, we need to bring the message to them,” says V. Michelle Bernard, digital media coordinator for the Columbia Union Conference. “All of our ministries should seek to meet people where they are and fulfill their needs. Why not meet them where they spend a good deal of their time?” she proposes.
Pastor Crews believes in the mantra that a church without a social media presence essentially doesn’t exist to the rest of the world. “Coming to Williamsburg, a college town and vacation location, we realized that we needed to up our game if we want to reach young professionals and visitors to the area,” she says. “Our mission in social media is to share who we are as a vibrant, active and engaging Adventist church so [that] young families and professionals will want to join with us in our events, and along with this, [to] build brand recognition in our community.”
Personal Interaction is Still Key
Although it’s possible to post the best content, videos and graphics online, churches can still miss the point of social media—social interaction. “The use of social media as a means of outreach is important, but I don’t believe that it is ‘key’ to shepherding people into the church,” says Lombard. “I think the key is intentional, Spirit-led, in-person interaction. However, social media can play a role in facilitating those interactions.”
Bernard agrees. “Would you continue talking with someone who never acknowledges you?” she asks. “It is important for ministries and members to engage with ‘fans’ on social media and start building relationships that can hopefully grow in person.”
While technology has made the world a smaller place, church leaders are concluding that social media is a mere conduit to the reality that face-to-face, loving interaction is the true heart of ministry.
5 Best Uses of Social Media in Ministry
Realize target audience differs by social site. Facebook reaches the largest generational range. Instagram and Vimeo are best for the younger crowd.
Recruit help from within church: Big or small, your church likely has members with the talent and passion to contribute to a social media ministry.
Have a plan. Coordinate frequency of posts and carefully generate original visual content to share with followers.
A picture is worth a thousand words, but video is worth a million. Short videos get the best response, followed by pictures, then audio only.
Keep posts current: Photos from a church event even a few months earlier will have minimal appeal for most church members, and almost no appeal for visitors.