Impact of Internet Social Networks on Church Life

Charlie R. Claywell
Screenshot of Plymouth Church Twitter Page

Churches embracing social media have found it to be a viable method of expanding their church community and outreach into the virtual and physical worlds. Churches that are successful with social media use it for communicating with current members and reaching out to new ones.

Four Ways Churches Are Using Social Media

It is not just the progressive churches that are using Facebook, Twitter and other popular social media platforms. In fact, adopting the technology as part of the church's toolbox seems to cut across denominations. Even so, larger churches are adopting it more quickly than smaller ones.

1. Communicating With Members

Churches use social media as a tool for communicating with existing members. Churches are no longer restricted to a street address or a couple of service times each week. Instead, members or potential members can access sermons, listen to podcasts, connect with other church members or view photos from the most recent church event, regardless of where they are or the time of day. In these ways, social media has changed the definition of 'local' while expanding opportunities for worship.

A few of the innovative ways churches are communicating with their members via social networks include:

  • Elderly and shut-in outreach: For years, churches have struggled with an effective way of staying in touch with their senior members, especially those who are unable to leave home. Some churches are using Facebook and other forms of social media to stay in touch with these members. Some are creating content and services geared especially toward this demographic to deliver across a social media platform.
  • Photo sharing: It's no secret that photos are popular on the Web. Churches have found sharing photos via social networks - especially photo-centric platforms like Pinterest and Instagram - to be a great option for recognizing volunteers, as well as promoting upcoming concerts, events and special services like baptisms.
  • Staying in touch with out-of-town members: Mosaic, a California-based non-denominational Christian church, found an effective method of staying in touch with its members who are out of town by streaming the service across the Internet. Members can choose from five service times and virtually participate in the worship service from wherever they are.
  • Replacing the paper bulletin: In an age of instant information, the weekly paper bulletin is not the most effective way to push out information like prayer requests or upcoming events like Vacation Bible School. So, some churches are opting to make the information available more quickly through a social media outlet.

2. Disseminating Information

One of the underlying, compelling reasons churches use social media is they can accomplish more with fewer resources. Besides communicating event-oriented content, churches can also use social media to get their message out and, in some cases, encourage open dialog. This is accomplished through a variety of methods including:

  • Tweeting a daily message or Bible verse
  • broadcasting regularly scheduled podcasts
  • Uploading videos of sermons or other spiritual teachings
  • Sharing blogs written by the minister or other church leaders

Using these tools can help to keep the church relevant to members. A study by the Hartford Institute for Religious Research noted that churches that fail to embrace the technology may be viewed as out of touch with the modern era.

3. Growing Membership

Another viable arm of social media for churches is the potential of reaching new members and generating funds. Churches that use social media for outreach walk a precarious line at times, since anonymous users can pollute online communications, forcing churches to expend resources monitoring, and at times, removing content from their sites.

For some churches wanting to grow membership, this is an acceptable risk. Even though the Pope has embraced Twitter, according to Religion News Service, the Vatican has not set up a Facebook page for him due to the complication of monitoring negative comments. There are, however, a few community pages dedicated to Pope Francis on Facebook, including Friends of Pope Francis and PopeFrancisPage.

To reach new members churches:

  • Launch contests to generate interest: This approach is a marketing technique that simply rewards users who respond to a contest by 'liking' or 'retweeting.' The goal of the church is to create interest in their social presence by giving - or potentially giving - the user something in return for their action. In an effort to keep the new users on their social media page, churches often post unique content of interest geared to new users.
  • Share resources: On Pinterest, churches are able to share examples of what they're doing that may be of interest to a broader audience. For example, if the church's education program is utilizing a unique or highly effective technique, the church can pin images of sample activities. This can also be used for classes - like college survival classes - that may appeal to church members and non-members alike.
  • Start user groups: On sites like Facebook, some churches have created special interest groups in an effort to reach a specific demographic - such as teens for a youth ministry. The group is connected to the overall strategic church growth plan and is often managed by ministers, youth ministers or senior church leadership.
  • Meet real needs in real time: Focus on the Family, a well-known church organization led by James Dobson created an outreach division called the Digital Engagement Center, or DEC. The goal of the division is to focus on real-time online communication with people struggling with family-related issues. This is accomplished through 'listening' software that searches blogs and public forums for individuals seeking advice on family problems. The staff attempts to help these individuals in their time of need, all from within the virtual world.

4. Fundraising

Churches, like other nonprofits, are finding social media is an excellent way to increase funding for ongoing expenses or special projects.

  • Provide easy ways to donate: Savvy churches are realizing that by telling a compelling story and providing a simple way to donate, users are responding with financial gifts. Methods are as varied as coordinated social media campaigns for major projects needing significant funds to simply adding images and a link asking for donations for common events like baptisms or mission-trip updates.
  • Repurpose presentations. For special events like mission trips, fundraising presentations given at churches or at local charity groups can be repurposed by posting the material to SlideShare. Using this service, referred to as the "YouTube of presentations" by SocialMediaExaminer, churches are able to expand their reach while also making it simpler for people to give.

Is Social Media Effective for Churches?

Conventional wisdom suggests that if it done correctly, social media can be an effective tool for churches. In fact, nearly half of the churches that use social media state it is their most effective form of outreach - surpassing even radio and TV. But even ministers who embrace the technology are quick to admit social media has its shortcomings. In particular, social media promotes hyper-individualism and an over-reliance on entertainment which can undermine the spiritual goals of a church. When implemented correctly, however, it can enhance the church's community.

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Impact of Internet Social Networks on Church Life