By Jason Karpf
“We need to use social media.”
And God’s people said, “Amen.”
It’s easy to sermonize on a subject that has wide acceptance, and few can argue with the call to social media. The past decade has seen the emergence and rapid adoption of Web 2.0 and the broad range of social media that allows individuals and organizations to publish content, receive feedback, and form online communities with others who have common interests, experiences, and needs.
The mutual mission of community building makes churches and social media a natural fit. At the same time, churches never have a shortage of great things they should be doing. Church leaders must routinely look beyond the initial merits of new ideas to assess feasibility and expected results. Therefore, social media must be treated like a proposed ministry or capital improvement project and subjected to important questions in advance, such as:
(1) What are the goals of our social media program, and how will we measure them?
(2) What will social media allow us to do that we are not accomplishing currently?
(3) What resources will we need (time, talent, treasure) to launch and maintain a social media program?
(4) How we will honor God with our social media program?
Major Social Media Platforms
Facebook, the leading social media site, boasted more than 800 million members in the fall of 2011. The recommended Facebook presence for a church or ministry is the Facebook page. People connect to such pages via “likes,” which give them the ability to post their own information on the page and receive page updates in their Facebook news feeds. A Facebook page provides an “Insights” function to page administrators that tracks traffic and engagement.
Twitter, the leading “microblogging” site, provides a platform for brief posts (140 characters) known as “tweets.” Twitter is frequently used to share links to websites, blog posts, event announcements, and news stories. Some churches use Twitter during services by having attendees tweet comments and questions via their mobile devices, prompting live spoken response from the minister who is following the tweet stream at the pulpit.
YouTube, the leading video-sharing site, allows users to post, locate, view, and comment on videos. Users can create a “channel” on YouTube, a homepage that centralizes their uploaded videos. YouTube also acts as a video server, allowing users to post videos easily to their other social media pages and websites after uploading them to YouTube.
Blogging is one of the earliest and most prevalent forms of social media, dating back to the late 1990s. Blog stands for “web log,” an online journal that typically features entries in reverse chronological order. A blog can include text, photos, videos, and audio recordings. When a blog is built into a church’s main website, it can help the site’s search engine optimization (SEO) through its natural supply of keywords, terms that are most commonly used in online searches. Major blogging platforms include WordPress , Blogger, and Tumblr, a platform with half its users under age 25.
Podcasting is the creation of audio content that can be accessed and shared online. Recorded sermons are a frequent source of podcast content for churches. Blogs are another opportunity for podcasting as a post can be an audio entry instead of a text communication. Numerous programs and sites exist for the production and posting of podcasts, such as Audacity and Podbean.
Launching Your Church’s Social Media Program
Social media must complement and enhance your ongoing communications and methods of outreach. Within your current activities, you will have identified your key audiences, the messages you send them, and the desired responses to those messages. Use this existing knowledge as the foundation of your social media program. What social media should your church use? Only those that reach your targeted audiences and can be executed with available resources.
Your Social Media Team
Some churches are large enough to employ full-time communications staff. Smaller churches may have to delegate social media duties among existing staff including ministers and office personnel. Volunteers from the congregation may have to be enlisted. Just as anyone can minister, anyone can manage social media, if he or she follows a few guidelines.
Social media must be frequently updated. Make sure the people assigned to create content can maintain a regular schedule.
Social media must be authentic. It must “sound like your church.”
Social media must be open. It is designed for feedback. This feedback may not always be positive. Do not arbitrarily censor social media (offensive and inappropriate comments not withstanding).
“Give your staff clear social media guidelines and expectations, without trying to control it too much—it is social media and needs to stay genuine,” says Jud Wilhite, senior minister of Central Christian Church in Henderson, Nevada. “Keep your social media presence simple and clear and, if you can, allow it to be carried by a team of people.”
Content and Scheduling
Social media should be an extension of the communication and discussion your church regularly provides. Churches should post to social media whenever they have relevant content. Infrequent contributions make social media stale (an underused social media site is worse than none at all), and over-posting (particularly for Twitter) can cause your audience to tune out. Here are some general guidelines.
Blog once a week. Write 200-500 words per post.
Update your Facebook information two to three times a week. Include images in your posts when possible.
Tweet one to two times a day. You can use Twitter more, but only when you have particularly worthy tweets.
Ken LaMont, lead minister of Newbury Park First Christian Church in Newbury Park, California, finds that keeping content current is the biggest social media challenge. “It requires scheduling time to update posts,” he advises. “A church needs people who are regularly checking posts, removing outdated information, and making sure posts are appropriate.”
Creating Social Media Success Stories
Social media can foster a deeper understanding of God’s Word by allowing people to talk more freely than they would in live settings.
Jud Wilhite explains, “People ask questions about the Bible or their faith, and often others share their thoughts or experiences. And we can also chime in on what we believe. Some people are too embarrassed to ask questions face-to-face and being online takes some of the pressure off of them.”
Social media can serve as an online welcoming committee. People seeking a new worship home can get a glimpse inside your church through its social media presence and make early connections with staff and members.
“It’s a lot less intimidating to go online and experience a church than it is for people to walk through the doors of one,” says Jud.
Social Media—A New Expression of an Ancient Covenant
God’s people have always sought community. When Issac blessed Jacob, he made the mission clear for his son: “May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and increase your numbers until you become a community of peoples” (Genesis 28:3).
Social media represents a technological and sociological transformation, but at its heart, it is merely a new expression of an ancient covenant—to build community. Churches are correct in considering social media but like all good things, it must be administered carefully and constructively. It is not a cure-all for a church’s communication and development issues. It is simply a remarkable tool that when used well can bring God’s people together.
Jason Karpf is a public relations/marketing consultant and college instructor in Thousand Oaks, California.
Four Ways to Use Social Media
in Your Church or Small Group
1. Create a group blog, Facebook group, or message board for members of a Bible Study (or several Bible studies) to discuss what they’re learning.
2. Build a confidential blog, Facebook group, or e-mail group where church or small group members can share prayer requests and give updates throughout the week.
3. Blog to get feedback on upcoming sermon or Bible study ideas.
4. Set up lists and groups on Facebook to communicate with small groups and your entire congregation.