Where Two or More are Gathered: Social Media and Ministry

Keith Anderson

Facebook and other social networking platforms make it easier to connect with many people at once, though debate continues about whether and how to enforce boundaries around relationships and time spent. These media greatly increase the avenues for communication, though questions persist about the content of that communication and its ability to engender faith. A vast horizon of potential new relationships unfolds; still, doubts remain about their quality and durability.

These worries have led some to wonder whether ministers should engage in social media at all. How- ever, as I speak with colleagues, I notice that much of the resistance to social media is softening. Over the last year, the sentiment has shifted from asking, “Should we do this?” to saying, “We know we need to do this – our parishioners are telling us we need to do this – but we’re not sure how.”

As the pastor of a congregation that has intentionally integrated social media into its ministry, I have become convinced that social media is an indispensable tool for communicating faith, building relationships, and extending our mission.

I first came to social media in 2006 when I began posting the manuscript of my weekly sermons on a blog. I mostly did it for my own use, an easy way to categorize, archive, share, and search my sermons.

Two years later, just as Facebook was becoming popular, our church council established four strategic goals for our congregation. One goal was to

improve our church communications. At that point we only had a basic website and relied on printed newsletters. A small group of us led this effort. I built our new church website and we pushed into social media, creating a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, and used iTunes, YouTube, Constant Contact emails, and multiple blogs to share not only sermons but podcasts, adult education programs, and the latest news from our congregation.

Still Figuring It Out

I would describe our social media experience as one of thoughtful experimentation. Some of our brightest ideas, like a blog with resources on nurturing spirituality, have puttered out, while some things we started on a whim, like our 2 Minute Bible Study on YouTube, have surprised us with how strongly they resonated. All this serves to remind us that social media is still in its infancy. So is its application to ministry. Everyone is still figuring out how this all works. So far, though, it is providing a robust plat- form to connect members, attract newcomers to our congregation, and share God’s grace.

Soon I found a role for it in my pastoral ministry as well. At heart, social networking is about cultivating a meaningful personal presence, nurturing relationships, and sharing our stories. In this way, ministry in social media does not represent a break with traditional ministry practices. It extends them.

Though these forms of communication are still new to us, they will one day – in fact, very soon – be a way everyone communicates. When I talk to pas- tors who have started congregations in the last five years, many tell me that they wouldn’t even know where to mail a letter to their members. They don’t have street addresses on file. If they want to contact them, they go to their Facebook profile or text them. This is not a matter of pastoral or congregational neglect. Rather, this is how their parishioners prefer it. Their parishioners wouldn’t want or expect a letter – perhaps because of environmental concern, but also because digital media is now their primary form of communication.

What I have learned is this: digital social media are real places where people gather – like a town square or fellowship hall – and we must be present in these places just as we would be present in any of these other physical locales. If a group of my members and friends are gathering to share their lives, wouldn’t I want to be there? That’s what is happening in these online spaces – and I absolutely want to be there. As a friend recently said, “If we are not there, then we are ceding the space to someone else.” I am active on Facebook and Twitter for the same reason that I wear my pastoral collar around town: because my pastoral presence can remind others of and point to God’s own presence.

Over these last five years, participation in social media communities has become deeply integrated into my daily ministry.

An Inbox of Struggles and Joys

Simply by having a Facebook profile, I function as a conduit for our members to connect with one other. Approximately 70 percent of our congregation is on Facebook. Every day I see new connections being made and parishioners interacting with one another. Social media ministry is not just about my activity, content, or pastoral relationships. People are also becoming much more aware of one another’s lives, their joys and struggles, and they freely offer congratulations and words of comfort. In the words of Paul, they “rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). When we gather in person on Sunday, then, we have already been in conversation with one another.

Social media is also raising the public profile of our congregation. Through Twitter, I have become more involved and recognized in my local community, staying in contact with leaders from our Library, Boys and Girls Club, and YMCA, as well as community organizers, activists, and neighbors. Because of my activity in social media, I was invited to serve on a panel with the editor of our local digital news outlet and a representative from the largest business in our city to talk about how we use new media. At a time when many churches are receding into the background of everyday life, my participation on the panel made it clear that the church continues to have a strong community role.

The way people enter our congregations has dramatically changed because of the new media.

People used to visit our congregation on Sundays to see what we were about, meet the pastor, receive a visitor packet, and decide whether to come back. It’s different now. Through our website and social media presence, people are able to research us, learn our story – not just our history but our rhythm of life, what we hold as important in our life together. They come on Sunday to confirm what they’ve already seen online. We welcome people with the assumption that they already know a good deal about us. This allows us to forego the all-about-us data dump and focus more on the newcomers themselves.

It is a paradox of social media that people will share very intimate things in such a public forum. Break-ups, divorces, birth and death announcements, health news, and personal location are all shared online. As one of my parishioners recently posted, “For anyone that can’t make Mom’s services tomorrow. We will be having another memo- rial service in Woburn this coming Saturday. Sorry, but Facebook is the fastest way to get the word out there.”

Social media’s very public nature can serve as a good leading indicator when something is amiss with someone. If we can login, pay attention, and listen with heart and mind as people share their lives, we will become aware of things we would not know otherwise. Depending on the need, we can comment, direct message, email, call, or visit in person. Facebook also makes it easy to mark mile- stones like birthdays and anniversaries, changes in relationship status, new jobs, moving. People deeply appreciate these digital expressions of pastoral attentiveness and concern.

A New Homiletic

Sermons are inspired by all sorts of things, but, in my own experience, the most successful sermons are those inspired by conversation. Whereas in the past I might only have had a few conversations during the week that would influence my sermon, I’m now connected to hundreds of conversations through social media. And these conversations occur not just with my parishioners, but also with colleagues and friends around the world – people who share my faith and those who don’t. At times, I initiate the conversation by inviting others to post an idea, or I’ll share an image that’s inspired me, or a sentence I’ve written for an upcoming sermon. I might post the key Bible verse of the lectionary week or pose a question. Thus, when I preach on Sunday, the sermon is a collaboration of the entire community, not just my own.

On Monday mornings I post my sermons on our blog and the audio podcast on iTunes. In this way, the sermon and the conversation that gave it birth can continue. I get much more feedback on my sermons through comments on my blog, Face- book, and Twitter than I do after church on Sunday morning. Gauging the feedback – how much and from whom – gives me a vivid new way to evaluate my sermons.

Online Ministerium

We are also finding ways to apply new media to traditional study. God knows I’ve tried to get people interested in studying the Bible, and God knows it’s not easy. Earlier this year we launched a new kind of Bible Study – on YouTube. I began it on a whim, but it has become our most popular social media content: a short, sometimes funny, hopefully poignant, personal, bite-sized Biblical message. In the 2 Minute Bible Study series, I give a very brief reflection on the upcoming lectionary readings. The videos appear on our church’s YouTube channel and website, and we share them on Facebook and Twitter.

Placing all this content on these social media platforms allows our members to easily engage and use it within their own social network. They can share a sermon, 2 Minute Bible Study, or blog post, or RSVP to events, or post pictures, and leave comments. When all these activities are seen by their family, friends, and colleagues, God’s grace is shared and our story is extended.

Finally, one of the great gifts of social media to pastors is the ability to stay connected to colleagues across the country and around the world. The ease of keeping up with seminary classmates, following and engaging with church leaders, and getting ideas from people doing excellent ministry all makes

digital media what one friend has called an “online ministerium.”

For many pastors, new media represent just “one more thing” to squeeze onto an already busy schedule. I also wonder about the amount of time I spend on it. However, when a homebound member talks about drawing strength from reading my sermon blog each week or a newcomer talks about seeing the 2 Minute Bible Study and that’s why she decided to visit our church, it confirms to me that this is authentic ministry and a good use of my time.

This profile of our digital ministry is very much a snapshot in time. Technologies will evolve and our practice will evolve with it. Strategies and content that work today will eventually run their course, and new ones will emerge.

What will not change, however, is the need for our churches and ministries always to respond to the always-urgent question of how we relate to one another. Whatever media that involves, we have to become fluent in its use. Whatever form social media take in the future, they have already profoundly altered how we connect, where we gather, and how we share our lives – all matters of ministry and faith. 

The Rev. Keith Anderson is pastor of Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Woburn, MA., and co-author of the forthcoming book, Click2Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012). He blogs about social media, spirituality, and church at www.pastorkeithanderson.net.