“There might be something more, from MySpace to Facebook and Friends Reunited enjoy all those pictures, just don’t get excited” (© Roy Stride)
I have a confession to make. I find social media frightening. I sometimes can’t stand it. There; it’s out there.. I don’t know whether you agree with me, but it sometimes feels like the world of social media is akin to the Wild West. Signing up for an account at one of the beautiful behemoths, Facebook, Instagram, twitter, Snapchat or LinkedIn can feel like entering an unkown territory, where any danger could lurk around any corner – or is it only me who thinks like that?
Most social media companies have more members than most countries have people. When we become part of one (or all) of them, we are effectively grafted into a new community and given a new e-identity. Each one is different. It may be that one feels more like home? Maybe there’s one you only use briefly, almost like a tourist? Maybe there’s one that you can’t stop looking at or checking? Social media has become a brooding prevalence in our culture and it is one that none of us can ignore. What does it mean for our churches and can we engage with it in our mission?
I cannot give an entirely depressing view of social media. There must be some good to it? There must be some positives. I think some of these positives can be found in the way that churches can use social media with regard to mission. I noticed last week that a church in South London is seeking to appoint an Online Missioner to actively ‘further parish mission through social media’ (see Church Times no 8084 for the ad). What a fantastic idea. I wish them well with this project. In our churches, we see that the use of Facebook and Twitter can greatly enhance the life of the church and the community. It is a way of expanding the boundaries of our church, to include those who may not so readily come to a traditional service or event. Social media keeps people connected and could help us be connected with new people!
Let’s explore three possible approaches to social media in our mission. I am extending the meaning of mission here to include all of our communication and interaction with those outside of our church gatherings.
The Full Embrace – using this approach could involve the employment of somebody to manage your church’s social media profiles. This could be a paid or voluntary position. The full embrace of social media would entail the creation of pages or groups on Facebook, running a twitter account with regular updates, having a fresh, creative Instagram account. Are you tired or confused yet? It is true that many people log in to social media on an hourly basis – some people log in more attentively than that; their phone or tablet becoming a chirping appendage that is always bringing them an update, a story or hashtag to follow.
There are dangers to the Full Embrace approach. Individuals can become obsessed, pre-occupied and paranoid about how their social media is – some people even forget how to walk down a street or how to eat an un-interrupted meal or how to hold an actual conversation. We mustn’t let the church get like that. We are not necessarily called to be a slick, corporate social media account – we are called to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus. If we can do that on social media, then perhaps the Full Embrace approach is for us, but.. if the Full Embrace would lead to social media becoming a distraction or a pointless, self-aggrandaising waste of time, then maybe it’s not.
The Tentative Side-Hug – is a more polite approach to social media. The kind of approach which might lead to us having a presence, but not updating it very often. This approach can also come from us not fully understanding how the social media platform works. In our experience in Warlingham, we have found that posting on the general Warlingham community pages on Facebook is much more beneficial than posting on our own pages. We can reach many more people that way.
This approach is one that many churches go with. If we have this approach, we must always remember to keep our main information up to date and ensure we have advertised other ways for people to be in touch. Maybe ask around in your church and see if someone is willing to look after your social media on a voluntary basis? With this approach it wouldn’t be too onerous. This way of engaging with social media is arguably the best way – it can lead to social media as part of our wider interaction with the community.
The Not-In-MySpace – this approach involves the snubbing of social media as a postmodern irrelevance. Our modernist ways of communicating are fine. We have a noticeboard, we have a weekly news sheet, we have a website; we do not need social media. If this is you, and your church, then I applaud you for your approach. We are free to interact with social media as much or as little as we wish – if that amounts to no interaction then that’s OK… but… it could just be that it’s worth giving it a try!
To conclude, I hope that social media has a place in the mission of your church.
St Paul says:
I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. 1 Corinthians 9:19-21, The Message
These words of scripture should echo in our communities. It could be that they are relevant to how we use social media. Whatever your current approach is, social media is something that we cannot ignore. It is here to stay, so we ought to take the words of St Paul, and find our approach. Perhaps we will be surprised as to where God takes us on social media. Perhaps he will show us new ways in mission. Perhaps social media will help us reach more people with a positive message of what God can do in their lives.