Saturday, July 16, 2011

Another Essay on Social Media and the Church

This essay was originally posted on my blog "One Cannot Have Too Large a Party" and is intended to reframe -- for reluctant clergy/church leaders - social media as a powerful and user-friendly tool for creating and building relationships both within the parish and beyond.

I have been talking with church folks about using social media for some months now and have noticed among them confusion, resistance and even suspicion about social media. People are noticing lots of conversations going on out there via Facebook, Twitter, blogs and chats, but often dismiss those conversations as shallow, uninformed, or mean.  And people do say mean and silly things online -- in addition to saying all kinds of caring and helpful things online.

I sense a reluctance to join the conversation (even to make it deeper and better) for fear of letting go of traditional notions about church and religion and communication, even though we can see, if we look, that those notions are getting very frayed around the edges.

I also frequently hear the refrain that social media is just another thing somebody has to learn, to monitor; another thing on the priest's to do list, another drain on his or her time. Everybody knows Facebook is just a time waster one plays with late at night, after work, perhaps as a guilty pleasure.  Further, many church leaders and communicators seem more concerned with potential pitfalls and gate keeping than with the opportunity to harness the incredible reach and power that social media offers.  They don't see the value.

And they don't "get" the interactive component. Who has time for that, they ask?  What if people we don't know try to join our group? (What if people we don't know try to join our church, I ask).  The pitfalls, while there, are tails wagging the dog here.  To focus on "not broadcasting all over Facebook that Fred and Sally are getting a divorce" misses the point entirely.

In fact, there is great value in social media. Consider this: social media is to the 21st Century Church as the printing press was to the reformers.  Actually, it's even better, because the printing press just allowed messages to go out.  

Social media is about messages going out and coming in, about sharing in conversation and deepening relationship.  Social media provide incredible opportunities to engage everyone in our culture, offering a window into the church community that is unparalleled in history.

Seekers, people who are lonely and lost, potential members who may be hesitant to come to the door (even though they saw the poster about the pancake supper) for fear of being rejected or subjected to something offensive or scary can see on the web what services look like, hear music and sermons, read blogs to find out what the church or the minister is really like.  They can look at pictures of folks enjoying fellowship or doing mission together.  They can ask questions.  They can get a preview of the community to allay their concerns or fears or to awaken their own longing for community and sharing in the efforts of helping others.

Social media isn't a substitute for personal connection -- it's another way of making personal connection. It's the way millions of people are already making personal connection. 

So, social media offers an incredible opportunity to create and deepen connection; to foster dialog and relationship; to make room for and provide a platform for sharing real life/real world faith stuff with and among people who are already using social media.  Plus, all pretty much free.

Further, consider the pastoral opportunity social media presents.  

It used to be that the parson was expected to stay in touch with all the members -- perhaps visiting all of them in their homes and keeping up with goings-on to be the pastoral presence in their lives. Personal visits are still expected in some places, but more and more people either catch the minister at church on Sunday, or call in, or make an appointment for a face-to-face visit.  Social media gives pastors another way of visiting with parishioners.

Ministers should be using social media as tools for pastoral care, rather than seeing it as a game to play late at night.  

Millions of people out there use social media to connect and stay connected, and ministers can do that, too.  Ministers can make time for that, just as they make time for home visits, or phone calls, or personal conversations in the office.  Those highly desirable "young people" are using social media, and so are their grandparents, so that they can share pictures and messages.  

Priests and other pastoral care types have an excellent opportunity via social media to connect with and stay connected to parishioners and people on the edges of the community -- to "visit" by going to the big public square that is Facebook and Twitter.  Social media makes it possible to offer video chat "office hours" and  to stay connected with kids who go off to college, see the pictures of grandbabies, and check out vacation photos. Ministers can even share some of their own stuff, too.

My final point is this:  If you think of Facebook or Twitter or blogs as places to go, places where your people are, then using social media is not that different from the local vicar heading down to the pub, or the coffee shop, or the park to interact with the community. 

Your people are out there!  Go visit them!

1 comment:

Meredith Gould said...

Among many great observations in your essay, this is perhaps my fave: "Social media isn't a substitute for personal connection -- it's another way of making personal connection."

Amen, amen.