Some people view social media as an unmitigated boost to humanity, ushering in an interconnected world where mass communication is at the touch of our fingers. Others are unfailingly grumpy and fatalistic about the new technology, lecturing the rest of us about how we’re destroying personal relationships and our privacy at the same time.
Both of these positions are silly. Social media is a neat tool, but like all new consumer technologies, what you get from it depends on how you use it. Social media doesn’t create new realities; it just affects realities that already exist.
In other words, for United Church congregations, social media isn’t going to solve any problems on its own, nor is it going to single-handedly destroy things we hold sacred. It is certainly not a full replacement for face-to-face outreach. But it would also be a shame to shun social media completely and deprive congregations of a potent resource.
So what can congregations do with social media? I’m no web expert (far from it), but I can think of at least two useful applications. The first is to keep conversations going within the congregation between Sunday services and other weekly or monthly activities. The second is to help attract new people to the congregation.
To put social media to good use, churches need to ensure they have a well-functioning, easy-on-the-eyes website. Many churches don’t have this, and online outreach is pretty much impossible if you don’t have somewhere to send people for more information and discussion. You don’t even necessarily need to pay for a good website; there will almost always be someone connected to your congregation who knows a bit about web programming.
In some ways, social media is perfect for the United Church. Unlike evangelical churches, which are always eager to, you know, evangelize, United Church members tend to be uncomfortable with approaching strangers and spreading the word about why more people should join their congregation. I’m sympathetic to the reason why: it feels like trying to convert people.
Social media interaction, on the other hand, provides an efficient way for people to stumble upon the United Church. And once they stumble upon it, it’s easy for them to learn more.
The initial Emerging Spirit project a few years ago, with its witty and subversive advertising, would have been perfect for the age of social media. I bet those images would have spread around Twitter and Facebook like wildfire, and people would have investigated the source. This is the sort of thing that social media is built for. Alas, the campaign came just a few years too early.
Today, there are countless ways that local churches can make use of social media networks. Plant ideas, start conversations and let them spread. Some of them won’t go far at all; in fact, many of them probably won’t. But if you do it enough, some will spark interest — and that’s how you can reach an audience otherwise difficult to find.
It’s not just local churches that can benefit from social media. This year’s General Council meeting had a fairly successful use of online outreach tools, especially the live video stream that allowed those not in attendance to follow along in real time.
There’s room for improvement, though; there were many fewer people using Twitter than what I usually see during large conferences. Still, those who were tweeting were impressively active throughout the week.
Social media should be part of the communications strategy for the church at every level. The only way to make it so is to let the imagination run wild and start trying a few new things.
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