There are more than 750 million active users on Facebook. As of January 2010, the United States alone had almost 95 million active users (about 14 percent of the total population), half of whom are over the age of 35. Facebook is not just “for the kids.”
Twitter users number more than 100 million, with people signing up at a rate of about 300,000 per day. New apps that allow people to share their locations and photos with others are also on the rise. Social media allows people to communicate with, and follow the details of, friends, family, organizations, celebrities, and almost anything else you can possibly think of.
For the most part the church in North America has been slow to use social media. This apprehension makes sense. Describing the early church, Acts 2:46 says, “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.” Given this picture of the early church, a natural fear would be that social media would replace face-to-face interactions and destroy the community that is essential to the church.
How can social media aid our efforts to disciple believers and introduce people to Christ?
And that’s not unfounded. Think about the effort you put into a relationship depending on what medium you’re using. What’s easier, texting someone to ask how he is doing, or calling him? E-mailing someone to ask for help, or inviting her out for coffee? We like our personal space. But by relying too much on the newer forms of media, we can also trap ourselves in our own comfort zones, limiting our ability to minister to others.
On the other hand, people in 1885 probably expressed similar concerns when the American Telephone and Telegraph Company established the long-distance network, connecting people all across America.
Times change. Everything changes, and some people resist that. It’s a natural part of life. Only one thing does not change: the truth that God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to die on a cross and rise again so that everyone may have life.
Sure, the gospel message’s audiences change, its locations change, its languages change, even the ways the message gets presented change. But the message does not change, and we are called to make that message known to the ends of the earth.
So instead of avoiding social media, let’s ask another question: how can social media aid our efforts to disciple believers and introduce people to Christ—because isn’t that what we’re all about?
If You Build It . . .
In the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner’s character hears a voice telling him, “If you build it, they will come.” He interprets that to mean he should build a baseball diamond. And once he does so, Shoeless Joe Jackson and seven other deceased players from the 1919 White Sox show up.
We’re familiar with the story. Unfortunately, we’ve employed similar tactics for implementing new ideas in the church. But the church is a complex entity with different age groups, socio-economic groups, cultural groups, and more.
In order for changes to stick, notes church consultant Bob Whitesel, we need to agree on exactly why we are implementing something new, carefully plan for how the change will fill that need, and use measures to evaluate the new practices (Preparing for Change Reaction: How to Introduce Change in Your Church, Wesleyan Publishing House, 2008).
There is no replacement for the community described in Acts 2 or the benefits that go along with it, and I wouldn’t dare tamper with the model created for us. What we do need to explore is how we can use social media to enhance current practices.
So if social media can’t take the place of community, how can it enhance that community? There are plenty of ways, starting with something that all church members share: the worship service.
The typical message from the pulpit is 20-30 minutes in length, which is just not enough time to dive deep into the Scriptures and application of the lessons. A Facebook page could be a great place to host resources such as devotions based on the message or study guides for group discussion. Eastview Christian Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, recently began posting weekly video discussions between the pastors that address questions from people and also dig deeper into topics the pastors felt they could not address thoroughly from the pulpit.
A Facebook group could also be a great place to start a prayer board. Using a group page could help alleviate people’s privacy concerns, as group members must be approved and could be limited to church members. Third-party developers have also come up with unique apps that run through Facebook, including those that allow people to post prayer requests, decide who sees them, update people on answers to prayer, and more. This is modern technology’s version of the “prayer chain,” in which one person calls another, who then calls another. Using a medium to which most people have access can alert a massive number of people in a short amount of time.
Of Water-Skiing Squirrels and Outreach
Social media is not only relevant to people in the church, but also to those outside it. Before people visit a church, there’s a good chance they will check it out online. It’s important that your church’s vision permeates your online presence, so people can get a clear understanding of what your church is all about.
Think also about the way things spread virally over the Internet. Did you know that more than 1.6 million people have tuned into YouTube to watch a squirrel water ski? Almost 400,000 people have watched Francis Chan’s famous “Balance Beam” message. Your church may not have a speaker as gifted as Chan (or a squirrel as talented as Twiggy), but posting on YouTube does put something out there for people to see. Try posting videos of community events, worship services, or youth events to generate interest. Indiana Wesleyan University recently hosted the Outreach in an eWorld conference, dealing with these same topics.
Podcasting is also a great way to reach people who can’t always be there on Sundays or who prefer to check you out from a distance first. Consider posting audio of weekly sermons online. (Note that podcasts are different from simply posting sermon files on a website.) A podcast is more user-friendly because it uses a program like iTunes that allows people to automatically download new podcasts.
Taking things a step further, Joel Hunter, a church planter and senior pastor of Northland Church in Longwood, Fla., describes how instead of writing a letter to the congregation, he addresses everyone directly in the form of a webcast (Pulliam, S. “The Art of Cyber Church,” Christianity Today, September 2009,pp. 50-53).
Getting It Right
From speaking with fellow students and friends in ministry, I find that people accept the use of social media by churches when it’s done well. When we fail it is because we didn’t plan for and execute exactly what we wanted to accomplish.
The churches most successful with social media seem to have a small number of people in charge of updating the content. In addition, leaders of such churches are comfortable with posting content of their own preference. For example, a local outreach pastor may post thoughts on a recent article on engaging postmodern culture, while a worship pastor may post a video of a new song the church is going to try. Whatever the material, it should be relevant to the poster and to the audience.
In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 the apostle Paul writes,
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
As Christians, we need to examine the elements of culture and continually adapt our strategies so the good news of Christ can be heard by all.