With all of the news coverage of churches using things like Twitter and Facebook of late, I’ve gotten the opportunity to talk to a lot of the members of my church about social media and the way our church is using it. What I’ve come to realize is that, for most people, their is a lot of misunderstanding about what social media really is. That is why I wanted to write this post. This post is not a how-to guide for churches that want to use social media. Nor is it meant to be an argument for why churches must or must not use a particular service, website, or strategy, though it may seem that way at times. What this post is meant to do is provide a basic background for what social media, at its core, is. I realize that it is not an exhaustive list, but I think it is a good start.
1. Social Media Is Not About The Technology
To most people, the rate at which new technologies keep popping up and changing is staggering. It seems hard, if not impossible, to keep up with the latest gadget or social network. So, it’s understandable that when people start talking about how important a particular piece of technology is, some people become immediately skeptical. After all, in the world of technology, what is here today is often gone this afternoon. Knowing this, why should any church bother using something like Facebook when it might be out of style in 6 months?
That is a very good question. As someone who makes his living with these new social media tools, I am very aware of how fast they change. I am also aware, however, of how with each change, the one thing that makes these new tools important stays the same — relationships. Relationships are the life blood of social media. Whether you are talking about MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, etc., the one thing they have in common is that people use them to connect with each other.
I’ve heard people argue “how can these relationships be real if they are on the computer?” I realize that it is hard for a lot of us to get past the idea that what people do while they are online isn’t real life. For a lot of folks, “real life” only happens in person. Social media, however, is breaking down those distinctions between what is “real” and what is “virtual”. It is quite common for relationships that begin on a social media site like Twitter, to quickly become a weekly coffee date or a group that meets at a local restaurant once a month. Facebook is being used by people to keep up with friends from the past that they knew before there was an internet. Now, those people are able to watch their friends’ children grow up from across the country. To these people, the connections being made are anything but “virtual.” Whether or not you participate in social media, it is important to realize that people are using these social media tools to share their lives with each other, and that is very real.
For churches, being able to connect with people and form relationships is also their life blood. After all, church is nothing more than an offline social network. Churches connect us with God and with each other. The relationships that are formed in church, much like the relationships formed via social media, do not stop at the church door. They penetrate every aspect of our lives. Social media is not about the technology…it’s about the relationships. This is why the church is in such a good position to use social media. Churches understand how to form relationships. It’s just what they do.
2. Social Media Is Not About Church Marketing
Imagine you’re driving along the highway and you see a giant billboard advertising a church. The billboard has a nice image of a smiling family and a warm friendly message inviting you to a Sunday morning service. From this billboard, what do you know about the church? Are you forming a relationship with the church by looking at the smiling family that may or may not even be members of that church? This is the difference between churches using social media and church marketing.
Marketing is about providing an image that invites the person seeing that image to tell themselves a positive story about the company/product/church. In other words, the point of that billboard you saw was to get you to say to yourself, “Those people look happy. I want to be happy. I’ll go to that church.” Marketing is, no doubt, a powerful tool. It is also easy to see how some people feel a bit strange about churches that employ marketing techniques.
Social media, on the other hand, is not about getting someone to tell themselves a story. Instead, it is about living your own story within a community. Think of it as the difference between a church having a billboard and a church that attends community meetings for their neighborhood. Unlike the billboard, the church that attends community meetings meets people, talks with them, and enters their lives. While the billboard allows a church to project a certain image, social media allows a church to tell its story to the world by simply being itself. More importantly, social media allows a church to begin forming relationships with people.
3. Social Media Is About Relevance
How did you find the church you now belong to? Is it the church you grew up in? Did you ask friends about what the different churches in town were like? Odds are, if you didn’t grow up in the church you now attend, that you did some “church visiting.” You probably “tried on” two or three or four churches before you found one that felt like home. Even then, you most likely didn’t join that church right away. Instead, you kept coming back to that church until you had formed enough of a relationship with that faith community to feel like that is where you needed to be. It worked pretty well, right? Unfortunately for churches today, the days of people seeking out churches are all but over. These days, it seems like the church has to go to the people.
Imagine if a single neighborhood in your church’s community grew by almost 20% overnight. Wouldn’t your church want to reach them? Of course it would. Knowing that we no longer live in a time when the first thing that people do when they move to a community is find a church, your church would want to reach out to those new neighbors. The church might decide to host a barbecue for the neighborhood or hold a movie night or…you get the picture. No matter what the church decided to do, the goal would be for the people of that growing neighborhood to have a chance to get to know the church — to begin forming that oh so important relationship. In order for those relationships to form, the church has to first be accessible.
When you realize that the growing area in your community — all communities in fact — is “online”, social media becomes more and more important for your church. No doubt, you are aware of how important and ubiquitous the internet has become. I’m also sure that you have, at least, become increasingly more aware of the growing trends toward social media. According to leading internet research group Forrester, social media usage has increased from 56% of internet users to 75% in only one year. This is a significant number of people that are connecting with each other online. Even more significant is the fact that it is still growing. Just as the church that hosted the barbecue or the movie night was making itself accessible to its new neighbors, social media helps make a church accessible to that increasing number of people who are part of the social media community.
You might say, “My church has a website. What else do we have to do?” While websites are great and absolutely necessary, there is nothing inherently social about the typical church website. Websites tend to be about sharing information. Social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc., are less about sharing information and more about conversation and connection. It is the social nature of these tools that holds their power and importance. Unlike a standard website that might provide worship times, a map to the church, and a list of values and beliefs, social media allows a church to become a living, breathing member of a new community. People aren’t just posting random thoughts and silly pictures with these new social media tools. Instead, they are sharing their lives with each other and making real connections and relationships that translate from “online” to “real life”.
When churches choose to become residents of these new communities, they become more and more available for people to get to know them. One might look at this “being available” as being accessible. It is hard to argue that churches shouldn’t be as accessible as they possibly can be. In fact, it was just that argument over accessibility that allowed for the move away from Latin as the only language we could use in church. When we talk about relevance, some may think that churches are using social media to try to seem cool and hip. However, it is my belief that one of the main factors of a church being relevant is accessibility. If a church has no way to enter the building via wheelchair, then that church is not relevant to anyone in a wheelchair. In a similar way, social media can help a church become more relevant, not by making the church into something it is not, but by making the church more accessible to more people.
Should every church have a Twitter account and a Facebook page? Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean that what is happening in the world of social media — the connections and the relationships — can be written off as “not real”. Whether or not you or your church ever uses social media, you should understand that, beyond all else, social media is nothing more than a place where people are gathering to share their lives with each other. I for one, can think of no better place for a church to be than where people are gathering.
Will Boyd is a social media and new media producer and consultant. His company, Will Boyd Media Solutions, specializes in helping faith groups and non-profits navigate the world of social media, podcasting, and technology to tell their stories to the world. He has worked with Sojourners Magazine, the Disciples of Christ Historical Society, Goddard College, the Disciples Divinity House at Vanderbilt, and others. Will also recently finished a bachelor of arts degree from Goddard College focused on the role of new media and social technologies in the world of sustainable marketing. Will lives in Seattle with his wife, a Disciples pastor.