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Faith and Facebook: UM churches finding their way with social media Mike Baughman, Mar 5, 2012
Brady Hobbs, left, watches as June Jensen explores Facebook in a class offered last year by Christ of the Hills UMC and Mountainside UMC in Hot Springs Village, Ark.
By Mike Baughman Special Contributor
DALLAS—Kathy Durham, a doctoral student at Georgetown University, talks to members of her congregation in Garland, Texas, just about every day. She doesn’t call them on the phone or visit in person. She checks in, shares ideas and reads what others think on Facebook.
Her congregation, First United Methodist Church in Garland, is studying the New Testament—a chapter a day for the whole year. The church has actively encouraged its members to take advantage of social media to connect with each other as the congregation journeys through the Gospels and other books.
Some days are quiet but other days the church’s Facebook page is hopping with comments.
“We’ve had a Facebook page for a long time,” explained the Rev. Fred Durham, senior pastor at FUMC Garland and Ms. Durham’s father. “But this is the first time that our congregants have really started to use it.”
Facebook already boasts nearly 900 million users around the globe. The research firm, iCrossing, anticipates that Facebook will have over 1 billion users by August 2012.
Tony Jones, author on the emerging church and co-founder of Social Phonics—which offers social media tutorials to churches and other nonprofits—tells churches that “Facebook is too big to be ignored. No other platform in the world engages that many people. For a lot of people, Facebook is the Internet. If you’re not on Facebook, you’re not on the Internet.”
Gavin Richardson, youth minister at Good Shepherd UMC in Hendersonville, Tenn., and communications consultant for gavoweb.com, agrees.
“Congregations always have to ask themselves, ‘Where are our people? Shouldn’t we be there?’” he said. “There’s no excuse to ignore Facebook, unless you want to be just the church that’s open on Sunday. If you’re a vibrant part of the community, you ought to be doing things where people are and they are on Facebook.”
Facebook’s success isn’t limited to urban or suburban contexts. The Rev. Greg Pimlott is pastor of Mohawk UMC in Mohawk, Ind., a town so small that it doesn’t have a post office.
“Facebook has been our most effective means of communication,” said Mr. Pimlott. “When we post information on Facebook, it takes the information to the members of our congregation. . . . They might check the website once a month and the newsletter every couple weeks but they’re on Facebook every day.”
A search on Facebook revealed 22,000 users in the ZIP code that Mohawk shares with a few neighboring towns.
“That’s got to be about everyone,” marveled Mr. Pimlott.
With the potential for such reach, a lot of churches have claimed a page on Facebook. Mr. Richardson questions, however, how well most United Methodist churches use their Facebook pages. “I’d probably give most churches a C. They’ve started something and done a bare minimum of work, but they’ve missed the big idea behind it all.”
What is it that most churches miss?
“That social media is social. Most churches treat it like an online version of their newsletter, like Facebook is a way to just tell people about events,” Mr. Richardson said.
Mr. Jones added: “If your Facebook page is static, it’s just a different version of your website. People go to Facebook to interact. When churches forget that, their members stop going to and getting information from the church’s Facebook page.”
What many Facebook users miss is what happens behind the Facebook curtain. The social media giant is always tracking information to see what kinds of stories interest individual users. It then uses that data to determine what information is given to each user.
If one user interacts regularly with her church Facebook page, then wall posts from that page are more likely to show up in her news feed. If she never interacts with her church’s page, then stories from her church automatically move lower on the news feed or do not show up at all.
Help with sermons
So how can churches encourage congregants to interact with their church’s Facebook page? Here are some ways churches have engaged people through Facebook:
• Custer Road UMC in Plano, Texas, hosted a competition for its college students who attend universities across the country. “Post your stories of the worst possible roommate experiences. The best worst stories will get a $10 gift card.” In the next two weeks, the church’s college students posted more than 100 comments and stories.
• Several church youth groups report using their Facebook page for “scavenger hunts.” Youth have to find something or record their group doing something. They post it on the Facebook page where the youth minister can then tally points. In the process, the youth are sharing their youth group activities with all of their Facebook friends, since every video shows up on their profiles as well as the church’s Facebook page.
• The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, pastor at House for All Saints and Sinners, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America mission church in Denver, Colo., posts on Facebook while preparing sermons. Sometimes she seeks stories; sometimes she wants to know what people think about the lectionary text for the week. Facebook and Twitter afford the opportunity for her congregants and friends to contribute to her sermons.
• Good Shepherd UMC, Mr. Richardson’s church, posts an abundance of pictures from church events on Facebook and tags its members. Not only does this then show up on church members’ walls for all of their Facebook friends to see, but many of their members have used the photos as their profile picture, linking their online identity to their church.
• Bed Start, a ministry that helps low-income families in Plano, Texas, uses Facebook to mobilize volunteers to address immediate and unexpected needs.
• White’s Chapel UMC in Southlake, Texas, uses Facebook as a primary means for communication with its local and online congregation. The church advertises across North and South America, welcoming Brazilians, Canadians, Chileans, Hondurans, Venezuelans, Americans and others into online worship several days a week.
• Multiple church youth groups report using Facebook to give updates to donors, parents and congregation members while they serve on mission trips and choir tours.
• University Park UMC in Dallas posts close-up pictures of parts of their building and challenges members to identify the subject.
• Lake Highlands UMC in Dallas spent minimal amounts on Facebook advertising for its Christmas Eve worship services. The ad appeared on screens in the church’s ZIP code 1.4 million times. About 400 people clicked for more information.
But does all of this online interaction actually further the missions of congregations?
The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project released 2011 data that challenges many assumptions of social media critics.
“The findings suggest that there is little validity to concerns that people who use social network sites experience smaller social networks, less closeness or experience less diversity,” the Pew report said, adding that frequent use of Facebook is associated with having more overall close ties.
Using independent metrics, the study further established that Facebook users have stronger total support, emotional support and companionship. Social network site users are half as likely to be socially isolated as the average American.
Still, many churches are hesitant to jump into the social media world. Pastors can feel overwhelmed by what they don’t know and never get started.
Mr. Richardson dismisses the excuse. “Just about every church has someone in it who knows the basics of Facebook,” he said.
The Rev. Dusty Craig pastors an online community through White’s Chapel UMC. Roughly 1,000 people attend the church’s online worship services each week—most of them never having set foot in the White’s Chapel building.
His congregation’s connections revolve around and depend upon social media. Mr. Craig humbly admits that his church hasn’t figured everything out about how to “do church” online. Still, the opportunities are abundant.
The United Methodist Church is “dragging our feet wondering if this Facebook thing is going to take off and all the while we have unreached people in digital space. People say, ‘things are changing’ but I have to correct them that ‘things have changed.’”
The Rev. Baughman is an ordained elder in the North Texas Conference and has helped lead workshops for Social Phonics.