Churches often say, “We want to grow our membership. We want to reach people where they are. We want to attract young people.”
But, rarely do we know how to put action to our intentions.
Many churches are now seeking to address these concerns by dipping their toes into the wide world of social media.
“Oh, we started a Facebook page. That’s good, right?” I once heard that comment at a denominational breakout session on social media. “And we opened a Twitter account.”
“Well,” I answered. “That’s great, but when’s the last time you updated it with new content?” Heads then dropped down across the room. Few can remember when.
Social media, like intentional and thriving relationships, takes work. It’s not something you can do once and then only pick up again when you feel like it.
Engaging in social media channels like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram takes time and attention. It takes updating pages more than once a month.
It takes a willingness to be in conversation with people that you don’t know. It takes the belief that the time and attention you are giving to tweeting and posting photos means something – not just wasting time.
Recently, while attending a social media and nonprofit workshop, I heard a panelist remind the audience that engagement in social media is all about building community.
“We cannot ignore the online world or keep pretending like it isn’t where conversation occurs,” the facilitator said. “In our current age, we create community as much through the Internet as we do through face-to-face meetings.”
My ears perked up upon hearing these words because isn’t that what life in the church is all about? Building community? Isn’t this what we say so often we want in the church – to meet people where they are?
The Protestant Reformation, which many will remember this Sunday, was a movement about placing the leadership and heartbeat of the church back in the hands of the people.
It was a movement of meeting people where they were, led by Martin Luther saying that all voices within the congregation mattered. It was a movement that said the written word of Scripture needed to be accessible to the entire family of believers.
Opposition to the movement came not only from those with theological disagreements with Luther, but from those who simply wanted church to remain an insular organization.
In many ways, the church in its current relationship with social media stands at a similar crossroad.
It would be easy at a time like this to keep looking inward or to systems of the past that worked so well in years past, like paper newsletters and bulletin boards in Sunday school rooms.
It would be easy not to value the community-strengthening discussions that can happen online, given some patience and consistency. It would be easy to say that the church could still be the church without social media.
But, I believe it can’t. If we say we are serious about community building in our physical location, we must be serious about it in our virtual locations as well.
Every day in Facebook posts, Twitter discussions or in the comment section of blogs, faith seekers exchange musings about God and the mystery of life.
Most of the time, such conversations do not happen because of a church leader or pastor. But folks with spiritual questions are talking, and they are talking to each other.
But imagine with me a world – an online world, that is – where the church not only is rich in connectivity but also an initiator of rich conversation.
Such a “reformation” is by no means a theological crisis or even an institutional one, but a shift needed in hearts and minds of us “church people” in what ministry actually looks like.
Social media pushes the church, I believe. When we choose to engage, it pushes the church back into a relevant, person-to-person posture.
It’s true, our world is constantly changing and sometimes it is hard to keep up, but at least we must try.
Elizabeth Evans Hagan is a social media consultant, minister and freelance writer currently dividing time between Arlington, Va., and Oklahoma City. She blogs regularly at ElizabethHagan.com. You can follow her on Twitter @elizabethagan.
Elizabeth Hagan is senior minister of The Palisades Community Church in Washington, D.C. Other hats she wears are as a preacher, author and executive director of Our Courageous Kids, a foundation dedicated to orphan care.