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Social media revolution

Technology Update:

Social media creates ‘fans’ and ‘followers’ of Christ

By Matt Horan

At 3:26 p.m. on January 16, 2009, U.S. Airways Flight 1549 took off from LaGuardia International Airport in New York. Seven minutes later, it landed on the Hudson River in what is now being called the “Miracle on the Hudson,” as all 150 passengers and five crew members survived the crash.

Seventeen minutes later, the first photo of the plane was on the Internet, but it did not come from NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox or CNN. It came from a passenger on one of the first ferry boats on the scene. He took a picture of the plane with his iPhone and posted it on Twitter.

My brother was married last year. In times past, your soul mate lived in the same town as you, but not anymore. My brother met his wife because they were both “fans” of Steve Irwin, “The Crocodile Hunter,” on MySpace. This connection led to messages sent back and forth, followed by phone conversations, followed by visits, followed by marriage; but it never would have happened without social media. My brother was serving in the Army at the time he met her, stationed in Iraq. His wife is a police officer in Australia. And now they’re married.

It would be wrong to say that this sort of interaction is the wave of the future. It is not. The wave is here, and it is time to surf.

Church listening

Church leaders already know that one of the most powerful urges humans possess is the desire to be understood. We teach the practice of “reflective listening” to engaged couples, so that they can develop skills in getting to a place where each understands the other. An argument suddenly loses steam when one can tell the other, “Okay, I think you understand me.”

Look at the explosion in the tattoo industry. Somewhere in the U.S. a new tattoo studio opens up every day. A tattoo is an opportunity to express something in a visible way. It is not difficult to get someone to explain their tattoo to you so that you can understand.

Bumper stickers

Consider also the company that first invented the bumper sticker. It started in the 1930s, and so far just that one company has sold more than one billion stickers expressing everything from the drivers’ political affiliations to their favorite radio stations to their alma maters to their love for their pets to their favorite obscure rock bands.

It is this instinctive human desire that fuels the “social media” phenomenon. Now our goal is not to judge whether or not this is a healthy development. That remains to be seen, as social media is just a few years old. We’re to explore what this means for the church and how church leaders should respond now that hundreds of millions of people are now interacting online. After all, people have hundreds of “friends” on Facebook, hundreds of “followers” on Twitter, and might also have a growing readership if they have a “blog.”

Like a fishing trawler, people have many nets cast with which they capture information. They still have a mailbox outside. They have an answering machine or voicemail. They have an email address. The church is pretty good at getting itself into these nets. But now, there are new nets like blogs, Twitter and Facebook; and people are starting to check these nets as often, or even more often, than the others. When they do, it won’t be a bad idea to make sure that your church is in those nets too.

The shift that churches may undergo in response to this trend is detailed superbly in Seth Godin’s book, Tribes. Local congregations tend to measure themselves by their membership but the day is soon approaching when that will not be an accurate portrayal of a church’s reach. As people display themselves on social networking sites one element frequently expressed is their allegiances, or as Godin would describe, the “tribes” to which they belong. A new measuring stick may also be the size of your church’s tribe.

People choose tribes to which they’ll belong based on a couple different criteria. First, they’ll join a tribe full of people that are committed to a similar cause. Is your local church a cause or a movement that is accomplishing something significant enough for people to want to express allegiance to it? If not, it will need to become one soon — for reasons far larger than gaining a social media foothold. But perhaps this issue might drive congregations to think about whether or not what they do entices people to offer their allegiance.

Second, they’ll offer allegiance to the tribe if it’s a useful resource for them. Does it make their life better in a significant way? Once again, if your local church is not a useful resource for people in their spiritual journey, the reasons to become so are bigger than the aforementioned social media phenomenon. Once again, however, if your congregation is driven to become a more useful resource to people as they become closer disciples of Jesus Christ because of it, then it’s clearly time well spent.

Worthwile work

If your congregation is a cause that is accomplishing something worthwhile (like, say, growing the Kingdom of God), and if your congregation is a useful resource to people (helping them grow as disciples of Jesus Christ), then growing your tribe is pretty easy using social media.

On Facebook anyone can create a Web page for their group, cause, company, local church and so forth. On this page people can click a button that says, “Become a fan.” Once they do that, their personalized Facebook page will announce to all of their hundreds of friends that they just “Became a fan of (insert your cause here).” In addition, they can invite their friends to become fans.

Twitter is different. The amount of information shared on Twitter is 140 characters at a time. But once again, if you use those 140 characters to share something useful or inspiring or entertaining, more and more people will become your “followers,” meaning that they are sent your 140 character presentations whenever you compose them.

Far more important than your church’s Internet presence is the health of your church. If your worship services are not making disciples of Jesus Christ, work on that first. If your congregation is not making a hope-filled difference in the community where it resides, work on that first. If there is a lack of prayer, study of the Scriptures, generosity, or service, work on that first. People will be drawn to healthy churches by the power of the Holy Spirit at work through your people more so than through Facebook or Twitter.

At the church where I serve, we’ve spent a great amount of time investigating how we should use the Internet as a part of our practice of ministry. We have a very effective and user-friendly Web site with information about how to become a part of what is happening at the church, how to grow in your relationship with Christ and how to contact someone if you need more information.

Further, there are links on our Web site that allow people to “Follow us on Twitter” or “Find us on Facebook.” We can be followed on Twitter and have five to six designated people who post items regularly to our Twitter account right from their email. Our Facebook fan page has several hundred fans, most of whom were invited by a friend and others who found it from our Web site. We put all of our upcoming events and announcements on Facebook, which then informs all of our fans.

Also, we have a church blog. While the Web site shares easily accessible information, the blog is where people share stories of their experiences with our church. Whenever someone posts a new blog article, a link to it is automatically posted on our Twitter account and sent to all of our followers. The blog is accessible on Facebook as well and funnels people to our main Web site for more information about the church.

Hopefully, as we gain “fans” and “followers” through Facebook and Twitter and our blog, we’ll see the tangible results that we’re called to see — people becoming fans and followers of Jesus Christ.

Matt Horan is associate pastor at Hyde Park United Methodist Church, Tampa, FL, where he blogs about taboo things like religion and politics. [ www.reemergentchurch.com ]

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