After completing two summer sessions and a fall semester at a DFW junior college, I transferred to Abilene Christian University in January 1997. While moving into Mabee Hall, I remember staring in amazement through the windows of the first floor computer lab. With drool running into the fresh peach fuzz of my chin, I gazed at the sea of monitors fully equipped with CPUs, two pod printers, and even (wait for it!): the Internet. Unbelievable!
At the time, my fiancee lived in Burleson, about 150 miles east of Abilene, and although we had resided 30 miles apart from each other thusfar in our relationship, an increase in distance, the demands of a full collegiate schedule, and no cell phone, provided significant challenges for communication.
Consequently, every night at 9pm, much like people chat or text today, we would both “plug-in” to exchange emails in real-time. Sitting in front of a computer lab 19-inch CRT with white text on a plain black background and no attachments, HTML, or pictures, for an hour and a half, I would fire off an email, wait a couple minutes, and frantically read her response.
Good times, indeed; however, we have all witnessed and participated in the seismic social media revolutions of the last 15 years. From AOL chat rooms to 140 characters, from letting your friends know what you had for breakfast to toppling totalitarian governmental regimes, alterations in the digital landscape (almost) occur in real-time requiring immediacy, an openness to change and savvy navigation.
Personally, I have been thinking and dreaming in the realm of social media for a while. The fact is that social media provides a plethora of opportunities for churches, church planters, mission teams and organizations, non-profits, community action groups, and schools. However, are we ready to embrace such opportunities; and even if we are, do we know where to begin?
First a few guiding questions:
- How can churches participate in these drastic shifts?
- How are churches navigating a world in which sending a message to a “friend” across the globe just might be easier than walking across the street to borrow sugar from a “neighbor”?
- Can churches maximize the connective opportunities available through social media?
With prayerful strategic imagination, development, and implementation, I believe we can. Below are 3 ways a social media strategy will enhance on and offline opportunities and relationships for your church.
Any writer or reader knows the importance of voice. You probably first heard about it from your 5th grade English teacher. Social media allows churches to share their voice with a variety of people. How your church communicates and shares online could reveal much to others about life in your ecclesial community.
Are you active serving the poor in your town? Do you have in-process discipleship stories? Is the Lord sparking transformation in an affinity group connected to your church? Are you uncovering life-changing reflections in the Bible that you had not recognized before? Do you partner with other ministries, organizations, or schools to bless others? Are you providing strong classes, small groups, or special interest gatherings? All of these questions (and many others) could greatly guide and contribute to your online voice.
For too long, if churches have been highly involved in social media at all, we have used the platform to “blast” messages about worship service times, sermon podcasts, and Sunday School classes. Although there are times for offering such information, that is not what I am advocating here. Furthermore, we tend to “cut and paste” updates across social networks. Although there may be a level of convenience to the method, all social networks are not the same. There is nuance and variation to the participants and utility of available social networks, and churches would do well to consider necessary differentiation.
Instead, churches could utilize available social media options for sharing thoughtful, contextual, and personalized messages allowing their followers to understand the church relationally. Speak and reveal a voice…initiate and nurture relationships.
There was a time when the Web was primarily about information; and although, the informational efficacy of the Internet has not necessarily tapered, FOX’s feature of the #cottonbowl hashtag during last night’s Cotton Bowl reveals the obvious: media is social. As we increasingly find ourselves as missionaries in a post-Christian context, churches must take advantage of this dynamic and energizing cultural situation.
For example, I am piloting these suggestions with my friends in Dallas at Storyline Christian Community. When beginning my work with @inthestoryline, I used Twitter’s Search functionality to identify tweeters based on keywords and location. As a result, I could locate Twitter users specifically in the Uptown Dallas area that were posting about any topic of interest to Storyline. Amazing…what a wonderful and easy way to connect with new people in your context!
Additionally, in regards to relationships on Twitter, your church should be tracking and tweeting with #hastags. #Hastags are helpful for following specific Twitter topics and conversations as well as letting others know what to expect from your tweets and content posts. For example, I follow #missional, #discipleship, and #burleson in order to keep up with people and conversation points concerning those three keywords. I would recommend churches do the same.
Here’s the deal: most people, new (to your church) or otherwise, will relationally connect with your church. Social media successfully expands possibilities for connecting, building, and sustaining meaningful relationships in your context.
3) Content Sharing.
Twitter users do a wonderful job of this, and as Facebook inches ever-closer toward some level of user saturation, content sharing will continue rising to the forefront of social media activities. Again, up to this point, for churches, I wonder if content sharing has mostly meant worship service invitations; however, we have all sorts of options for changing (or adding to) that. Also, as I mentioned earlier, content sharing will reveal and contribute greatly to your church’s voice. Finally, as content sharing proliferates on social media networks, convenient content sharing applications are on the rise as well.
So, the question becomes: “What should your church share?” Share stories, book quotes, trends, community partners, mission organization articles, challenging blog posts, event invitations, civic information, book reviews, biblical reflections, videos, fun stuff, and anything else you feel your online followers might find useful, challenging, or inspiring.
Michael Hyatt, avid blogger and Chairman of Thomas Nelson Publishers, suggests sharing 20 good pieces of quality content for every 1 time that you ask something of your followers. Whether you model that exact ratio or not, curating and providing quality content generated by your church, churches in your area, pastors, writers, other participants in your church, and even other sources on the web will let your online followers know what is important to your church and also generate great ways for your church to promote and encourage the creators of the content you share.
I am in the process of learning much of this “on-the-job.” Would you help by providing feedback on this post and/or the following questions?
- How are these three suggestions helpful?
- What others would you add?
- How is your church utilizing social media?