We Christians love to say “no,” especially when its to something popular culture is embracing. We love to analyze something for any possible hint of sin. If such a hint exists, we dismiss it outright, and pat ourselves on the back for catching it and helping our Christian brethren along the way. At different points in the past century, we’ve said “no” to radio, television, movies, and rock music. And now, many of us are on the cusp of dismissing social media in the same way. In my opinion, that is a mistake that could cost the Church its relevancy.
If you’re not heavily involved in social media, you may not realize the impact it is having on the way we communicate. Many are calling it the biggest shift in our culture since the Industrial Revolution. The rate of adoption of Facebook alone was faster than radio, television, and even the Internet. Not only can the Church not afford to ignore this shift, for those that choose to embrace it, social media can provide amazing opportunities. [Editor’s note: For a different perspective on how social media might affect us, check out this article by Shane Hipps]
New Tools for Communication
Every day more and more businesses are embracing social media as a way to make a personal connection with their customers. A great example of this is the Twitter account @ComcastCares, run by a team at Comcast Corporation, the largest cable and home Internet service provider in the United States. Cable companies aren’t exactly the most popular, but the team has been able to use the account to communicate with their customers directly, solving their problems and helping them feel known.
If gigantic corporations can achieve this using social media, imagine what churches can do. And let’s face it: the Church at large currently has what we public relations professionals call “an image problem.” By using social media, individual churches can tell their own stories, interact with our culture, and bypass the common view of Christians as hot-headed bigots. Social media can humanize the Church again.
Some churches have hired full-time community managers on staff to manage their digital communications, which is a great step for the churches that can afford it. But I’ve seen pastors of churches make positive steps on their own, building their own profiles or blogs and connecting with the people in their congregations on a deeper level between Sunday services. These interactions don’t replace face-to-face communication, which will always be essential for human connection, but rather supplement it by giving both parties some common ground.
Similarly I’ve also seen a few pastors use social media as a jumping off point to meet new people. Events like “tweetups” take the conversation offline and put a human face on a digital identity. Social media is the icebreaker for building meaningful relationships.
New Tools for Community Building
The most common complaint I’ve heard about social media is that it leads to narcissism. Twitter and Facebook, we’re told, are nothing more than tools for broadcasting the mundane details of your life to your friends. But what these detractors are forgetting is that social media is inherently social. The reason that people share the details of their life usually isn’t for their own benefit. Especially in our increasingly separated world, people want to connect with their friends and family through common experiences. Of course those with narcissistic tendencies will use social media for narcissistic purposes, but that could be said of any medium. Much in the way that rock music doesn’t necessarily lead to a life of sex and drugs, social media does not directly correlate to narcissism.
In fact, I would argue that social media can be a powerful tool for helping build offline communities. When I led a small group a few years ago, we used a Facebook group as a way to continue the conversations we were having about deep theological subjects, and know what was going on in each others’ daily lives. I’m positive that the same can be said of small groups across the world.
An even better example: my church recently did an experiment using Twitter hashtags. Our pastor encouraged us to look for God in our everyday experiences, and then tweet about it using the hashtag #WhereISawGodToday. Many of us participated, and it not only got us thinking about where God was in our lives, the ability to see where God was moving in other people’s lives with a simple Twitter search brought us closer as a community.
New Tools for Doing Good
A recent article about TwitChange is just one example of how social media is being used to change the world. Never before have charities been able to rally so many people to make small donations that collectively make a huge impact. And yet the amount of churches I’ve seen taking advantage of the power of social media to do good is still minuscule compared to its potential.
Social media has the power to change individual’s lives as well. One of my favorites recent stories involves an aunt who posted on her blog about her nephew, Tanner, who is dying of a form of muscular dystrophy. She desperately wanted to make her nephew’s final wishes come true, and called on those in the social media community, including fellow bloggers, to help her. The cause grew into a movement called “Tutus for Tanner,” and to date they have raise over $34,000 for tanner, already surpassing their original goal. Those who say we are in danger of “losing our soul” to social media must not be reading these stories.
Christian culture has eventually embraced every medium it once vilified. I’m hopeful that the embracing of social media will come at a much faster pace, and have already seen some great examples of this by churches I admire. Instead of raging against this change, smart churches are going to use social media to communicate the message of Christ in a new way to a receptive audience.
Caleb Gardner is a digital strategist for a public relations firm by day, and a husband, father and blogger by night. He calls Chicago home, and in winter, less flattering things. At The Exceptional Man he writes about trying to be a good example for his son, and on Twitter he writes about the things people on Twitter write about.