Much of what is written on the Internet about churches and social media is targeted toward big churches, big enough to have meetings about “branding” and “marketing.” Big enough to hire pros to help with their branding efforts.
Most Churches of Christ are 200 members or less and have only one or two ministers on staff. These churches aren’t trying to be Saddleback, but they have needs that social media can help — and can help very inexpensively with only a modest investment of staff and volunteer time.
And so, for the normal church, I’m going to make this really, really simple.
1. Twitter. Don’t use it. Period. Unless your name is Patrick Mead and, like Patrick, you’ve been gifted to fire off hilarious one liners at a pace of 25 per day. That gift is so rare that I can confidently say that preachers other than Patrick have no business posting on Twitter. But you may use it pastorally, as I’ll explain. But that’s all — and no exceptions not named “Patrick Mead.”
You see, it takes time and a lot of work to say worthwhile things in 140 characters or less. (I am obviously not remotely capable of this.) And it’s just not the job of a preacher to be entertaining 24/7.
No one really wants to know your opinions on sports, politics, the latest TV show, or cats. You are not a celebrity. You should not desire to become one. Do not tweet about such things.
However, for the younger members of your church, Twitter is beginning to replace Facebook. You should subscribe to their feeds so that you can know when they get engaged, fall ill, or file for divorce. Most people nowadays choose to announce these things on Twitter or Facebook, and pastorally, you need to know.
And certainly you should respond and correspond at a personal level to these kinds of events. And it would be okay to publicize church events or major events in your own life. But don’t make your congregation have to read your views on politics, sports, TV, or cats as the price to pay to be pastored by you.
But for a contrary view:
1A. Use Twitter. But remember you are speaking for the church even if it’s a personal account. No politics. Follow others’ tweets. Answer questions simply and honestly and kindly. Try to build a following. You can reach the entire world for Jesus through Twitter!
And then for rebuttal:
1C. Are you kidding? What preacher who does the job he was actually hired to do has time to devote to developing a massive Twitter following on the off chance that he’ll convert someone in Poughkeepsie to Jesus 140 characters at a time? Invest the same time in face-to-face relationships and the results will be far greater.
2. Facebook, Google+, MySpace. I’m not sure that Google+ has a big enough audience to really matter. MySpace has been passed by. And Facebook is about baby pictures of the grandchildren, which is great, and therefore if you’re my age, you have to be on Facebook.
You should also try to connect with the other members of your church via Facebook — for pastoral reasons. If you don’t, the rest of your congregation will learn that a family in your church is moving out of town days before you hear it. People post these news items on Facebook (or Twitter) and just assume that everyone reads them.
Around here, you have to keep up on Facebook to learn about adoptions, pregnancies, divorce filings, family deaths, illness, lost jobs, new jobs, job transfers, engagements, break ups … all the things that you need to know pastorally.
Facebook is also an opportunity to wish the members a happy birthday or comment on their concerns. It’s a powerful pastoral tool because it’s an easy way to speak with your members. And if a member chooses to share a grief or heartache on Facebook, they’ll surely be glad to receive a comment back from a minister or elder.
But also —
* No politics. No sports. No TV. No cats. If you want to talk about cats or your favorite TV show as a hobby, set up a separate account just for that. Members should know that your Facebook posts are worth their time to read. They won’t filter relevant from irrelevant. They’ll just stop reading your posts.
* Block distractions, such as notices from friends about the Words with Friends scores or their 10K jogging times. You don’t need to know. Block these messages.
* Also block all games. Playing games with member on Facebook is not relationship building. Don’t do it. Take them to lunch instead. Talking is relationship building.
Remember that the goal isn’t to have 5,000 “friends.” It’s to get to know about your fellow church members and to care for them when they need it.
Moreover, your congregation should have a Facebook page (not a personal account). It might be very simple, designed mainly to refer members to your website. But even as a very simple page, it can be used to invite members to events, to send reminders, to issue notices — it’s just a great communication tool.
You probably don’t have budget or time to maintain a very elaborate Facebook presence, but do something so that if someone looking for a church home does a Facebook search, they’ll find an attractive page describing a congregation they just might want to visit.
Keep it current. Post pictures. And don’t forget to specify your city, address, and phone number; it’s astonishing how many churches forget the obvious. I’ve even seen very nice church pages that fail to give the church’s city and state!
3. Blogs. If you as a preacher decide to blog for the benefit of your congregation, you should be talking about life in your church. This is not the right place to prove your theological genius. Rather, you are talking to your congregation, and so the conversation should be about what’s going on in your church, what’s coming up, and such. Any theological stuff should be directed at present, tangible needs. (Save the rest for Bible class.)
That is, a preacher’s blog should be useless and boring to someone not a member of your church but intensely interesting to a member, because all you talk about is the life of the congregation.
On the other hand, if your elders are happy for you to get on the Internet to teach a particular point of view or to benefit the church-universal, by all means, blog away.
Maybe a better way to say it is this: only blog if it furthers what you were hired to do as a preacher. If the elders support you in blogging for the benefit of a larger audience than your congregation, go for it. But if you aren’t careful, blogging can be so time consuming that it keeps you from higher priorities.
If you blog, follow these tips —
4. Website. Your church must have a website and a URL that uses the church’s name (something easy to remember, such as “westsidecoc.org”). Even people my age no longer use the Yellow Pages to find a church. We all use Google, and if your church doesn’t have a web presence, then it doesn’t exist so far as visitors are concerned.
The website — especially the home page — needs to be designed for visitors and newcomers to town. It should include a map, street address, church phone number, E-mail address for church office and each minister, and a contact form.
It’s astonishing how often a church fails to post its phone number or street address or set up a map.
Set up a Members Only page so that you can post the church directory and other information that you shouldn’t share with the world.
5. Email and texts. When I became an elder, I was quite the Young Turk because I insisted that we be able to communicate by email. (You should have seen their expressions!) Now we also communicate by text messaging. We are quite the modern eldership! And this greatly speeds up getting word out about a death or other pastoral needs.
Everyone on the church staff should have an email address tied to the church’s URL (“firstname.lastname@example.org”). (AOL or Gmail addresses for professional staff is, well, unprofessional — and the cost is trivial.) No numerals in the name! And no email addresses shared between husbands and wives. Shared email promises a lack of confidentiality and requires the husband to turn in his man card. (The same rule applies for Facebook — Don’t embarrass yourself by sharing a page with your wife.)
Elders should have a cell phone number (with text capability) or email address posted on the church web site and in the church directory, as should ministers. Yes, the church should make sure the ministers are equipped with phones that text, especially youth and campus ministers. That’s how you talk with teens and college students these days.
6. Presence. Many years ago, I heard a sermon, by Patrick Mead, in which he explained that one of the greatest gifts we can give a friend or family member is our complete presence. Nowadays, we are so often interrupted — by the phone, text messages, emails, and other such things — it’s become rare for someone to enjoy our entire, truly undivided attention.
So here’s what may be the best way to use social media: when you meet with a friend or church member, pull out your phone, hit the “off” button, and be truly present.
Conclusion. The key is to only use social media to do those things that it’s best at. Don’t let social media replace home visits and phone calls when those would be better. And don’t let your blog do what Bible classes and sermons do better. Don’t fill your work hours with social media to avoid the challenges of day-to-day ministry. And don’t let social media interfere with being truly present.