The Case for Facebook and the Church
Social media and the church. It could be a match made in heaven.
Imagine a platform where you have the ability to reach people in your own backyard, across the country and even across the seas, with minimal financial investment. For social outreach and evangelism, social media, and especially Facebook, is custom-made for advancing your mission and message.
Despite the widespread adoption by many churches, many still resist or avoid using social media.
According to a Public Religion Research Institute Survey, 40 percent of Americans report that their church has an active Facebook Page. Only 14 percent of Catholic Churches have a Facebook presence. And, only about 10 percent of people post something about their church in their own Facebook updates.
It saddens me that more churches do not embrace and use social media for outreach. While I wouldn’t say that Facebook or any other social media is THE tool for outreach, it’s a relevant and low-cost way to reach out to your community and beyond.
Based on the low number of people who are posting updates about their church, it also appears that churches have a huge opportunity to engage their congregation in Facebook outreach too.
There are some great inspirational success stories out there, including this one from Judith Gotwald, How Social Media Saved Our Church. Yet, despite many proven successes, why do churches resist using Facebook or social media?
5 Common Objections to Using Facebook and What to Do About Them
- Facebook is only for the young
I’ve heard this objection frequently from church leaders. The truth is that Facebook is for the young and the older! Forty-five percent of Facebook users are 26 and older. And the fastest growing segment right now is women over 55.
I think the true issue is that in today’s mainline churches, the leadership and congregations are aging, and either don’t know how or are too comfortable in their traditional approaches to embrace new technology. They might also be reluctant to accept their younger members or disapprove of their social media behavior.
“Any church that has not turned its face toward the younger generation will simply cease to exist … We’re not talking decades, we’re talking just a few years,” says Pastor Gordon MacDonald, author of Who Stole My Church.
Nearly one-third of Millennials (18-29 year olds) in the U.S. say they have no affiliation with any religion, according to a Pew research poll. Facebook is one of the many tools to reach Millennials.
- I don’t know how to get started
LIke anything in life, just take it one step at a time. Facebook is a low-cost investment, but it is definitely not free. It takes planning, time, and resources to make it work.
Create a plan, define your audience, and spend a lot of time listening and learning from experts in the social media field, or from other churches and nonprofits that are successfully using Facebook.
At some point, jump in. Sometimes learning comes from doing. Facebook changes constantly, so just when you think you have it figured out, it will change again. For inspiration, here are a few Facebook pages from religious organizations that you can check out:
- We don’t have time for social media
Believe me, I know. Most church pastors, staff and laity are stretched thin with responsibilities. But, if it’s truly something you are passionate about, you’ll make the time.
Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate some other programs or communication channels that are no longer as effective as they once were. A few years ago, our church decided to discontinue our costly monthly 10-page newsletter that took 50-60 hours of manpower to produce every month, and focused instead on sending out a shorter weekly newsletter via email. It was also posted on our website and our Facebook Page.
That switch saved us thousands of dollars, and freed up valuable staff resources enabling us to do more effective communications. The changes had its supporters and opposers, but eventually the controversy died down, and the majority was in favor of the decision.
In the case of a very small church with limited staff, you might think about asking a dependable and reliable leader or volunteer to be in charge. Just be cautious. Make sure that you establish guidelines and expectations so that you are on the same page. Remember, they will be acting as representatives of the church, so ensure that they are trustworthy, professional and capable.
- We might not have control over the messaging
Yes, it is true that Facebook is a public medium. It does require extra diligence and forethought. Planning who, what and how you will share and connect with your online community is key.
What is the appropriate tone and voice? Who will provide the “voice”? Who will interact with your community? In what context will an “official response” be required? And, yes, who can post on your page? You may have the occasional person who posts something spammy, negative or in direct conflict with your message and mission. However, there are settings on Facebook Pages to control and moderate what gets posted, and who posts on your page.
For the most part, though, people are respectful and truly hungry for content that inspires, enlightens and encourages. Your online community will sometimes step in and act as moderators. When someone posts something negative, most people see through the person’s actions and know that it doesn’t directly reflect back on your church.
It’s all in how you choose to respond (or not respond) that affects the perception of your church. That’s why it’s really important to have guidelines or “community rules” posted in the About section of your Page. See this example from the ELCA Facebook Page. If necessary, you can even privately block people from your page.
- We have a Facebook Page, and it is a waste of time. Nobody seems to like, share or comment on anything
Oh boy. This could be a whole article in itself. I’ve come across church Facebook Pages that are wasting away. Why? Mostly because posts are internally-focused and BORING.
Think about what you are posting. Is it inspiring, funny, encouraging, and entertaining? Does it evoke emotion, laughter, tears, a lump in the throat, or give someone goose bumps? Is it something that your congregation will be inspired to share, like or comment on?
If your spouse, kids or friends don’t find your updates share-worthy, then don’t post it. It’s likely no one else will want to read it either. Are you constantly talking only about your church and what you’re doing or what you need? Are you just pushing out communications and not really conversing with your community?
This is social media. The whole point is to be social. Interact with you community regularly, and not just once a week. Be real, be authentic, and be a great storyteller. Tell the “story” of your church in images, in short videos, in snippets of song, in quotes, questions and in as many other ways as you can think of.
Share why you’re offering a particular sermon or message. Share how the baptism on Sunday was particularly meaningful. Share how someone was blessed by a recent mission trip. Give your congregation permission to “be the church.” Encourage them to share their personal testimonies, experiences and stories.
Ask and engage techno-savvy congregation members to take pictures and upload them directly to your page. Set free the incredible outreach and mission resource you have--the people, the church.
If You Find Social Media a Hard Sell at Your Church, You're Not Alone
The truth is that social media is here to stay. An entire generation is growing up with social media, and many others have adopted technology and social media as an integral part of their lives. Churches, even the smallest, rural and aging congregational holdouts, will eventually have to adapt, or may risk fading away.
Although my experience has been with Christian Protestant churches, the struggle with social media is ecumenical.
In an article from eJewish Philanthropy, authors Robert Evans and Avrum Lapin said, “… what shocked us is the alarmingly low rate of Jewish nonprofits that have embraced social media as viable communications and fundraising enabling opportunities.”
Gabriel Rodriguez writes at Policymic, “Pope Francis will have to oversee a Catholic Church in a more connected and increasingly secular world. Even though the Church has often been conservative, resistant to change, and reluctant to embrace new ways, there are some signs that the Vatican is stepping into the 21st century with regards to communication.”
An article from Arizona State University about religious groups and social media, states, “The use of new and social media cuts across all main religions from Catholics to Buddhists, and especially for evangelical churches that are often at the forefront of new social media technologies.”
The article plumbs the complexity of the relationship with social media at this point in religious circles and quotes Pauline Cheong, an ASU professor, who has interviewed many religious leaders:
“Religious leaders at times find it difficult to keep up with all of the mediated technology they have incorporated into their organizations. Media tools can lead to more members and build a sense of community, but also require an inordinate amount of work.”
All of this renewed interest in social media, or resistance to it, has been created by the need to keep followers in the flock in an increasingly religiously unaffiliated world. Will it work? No one knows yet, but churches, temples, and mosques take a risk by not engaging now. Waiting can only put them further behind.
The only relevant question now for your church is, will you resist or join in?