Preaching the Social Media Gospel
Today’s church is already wired, and if your parish isn’t taking full advantage of all of these ways of touching people throughout the week, it is becoming increasingly irrelevant.
Christ has no online presence but yours, No blog, no Facebook page but yours, Yours are the tweets through which love touches this world, Yours are the posts through which the Gospel is shared, Yours are the updates through which hope is revealed. Christ has no online presence but yours, No blog, no Facebook page but yours. ~ Meredith Gould
What does it mean to do church these days?
I was talking over this question with my friend Greg Rickel, the Episcopal Bishop of Olympia (Washington), and he was sharing the conclusion that he and my own bishop, Andy Doyle of Texas, were coming to.
“It’s not about butts in the seat,” he said—the traditional way Episcopalians (and most denominations) have accounted for the success or failure of their ministry. “It’s about touches through the week.”
What Greg and Andy were talking about was a ministry that didn’t simply speak to people where they were on Sunday morning inside a church building, but met them where they were during the week—wherever they were.
It might even mean ministering to people who would never help pay your salary, who would never even set foot inside a church building.
That’s why you’ll find church leaders like Greg and Andy blogging, posting their sermons online, Tweeting, and reaching out on Facebook. For them and for many others, these online tools are not a waste of time or a distraction from their primary job; they are a distinct and necessary part of their primary job.
The church of the 21st century is already wired, and if your parish isn’t taking full advantage of all of these ways of touching people throughout the week, it is falling behind and becoming increasingly irrelevant.
I know something about this stuff, even though I’m not a formal pastor. I’ve been blogging since 2004 (first for The Christian Century, then Huffington Post), filmed a series of YouTube videos to talk about faith and political issues, and use Facebook and Twitter daily to try to engage a virtual community about the work I do as writer, teacher, and preacher. Maybe more importantly, my beloved Jeanie is Communications Director at St. David’s Episcopal Church in downtown Austin, a position that requires her to be on the front lines of social media—and often dragging the church and its leadership into the brave new world along with her. I have watched—and listened—to her for the past few years, and know it can be a huge opportunity or a huge disaster, depending on how its done.
That’s why I know that Meredith Gould’s The Social Media Gospel is a valuable step toward discussing what this new world of ministry might look like. A writer and social media guru (and a clergy spouse, another person learning from what’s going on inside the church), Meredith offers in this book a step-by-step guide to what social media can and cannot do, including a “best practices” chapter and appendices that offer checklists for planning social media, creating a social media policy, and doing a communications audit. She enters into theological and practical discussion of what this new kind of communication is all about. Most important, this book offers a ringing endorsement for what she calls “the radical power of communication” to unite and inspire (7). You will leave these pages convinced that this is something you and your community need to be doing—or doing better.
The book introduces readers to all the major forms of social media, explains what each (blogging, Pinterest, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube) does best, and even helps provide some guidance into how to create worthy content for each platform and coordinate between them and the print and preaching offerings of your parish. Where should you post sermons? Where should you make important announcements? Meredith tells you, and explains why.
Despite this, I know that some people continue to be skeptical. I spoke to a number of pastors of large and wealthy churches a couple of years ago who weren’t the least bit interested in stretching beyond their Sunday morning service; and watching Jeanie’s work at St. David’s over the past few years to integrate social media into the life of the parish, it’s clear that some people begin with the same objections Meredith has encountered: virtual communities aren’t “real,” thus nothing connected to them can be authentic; social media undercuts the physical need for “church” and so should be avoided; social media is a luxury that clergy and staff cannot afford since it takes time to learn and more time to continue (5).
But I also know from observation that each of these objections can be easily addressed—and The Social Media Gospel does so, thoughtfully and with pertinent examples from real life. In fact, what social media can accomplish is so powerful that it’s worth noting, especially if you or your parish are among those still resistant to virtual life. As Meredith writes at one point, wisely used social media can help build community, deliver important news and announcements, gather feedback from the congregation, preach the Gospel, model the values the church teaches, and share stories that “deepen faith and inspire action” (37). It’s a pretty amazing list of things churches really want to do.