Social Media: Being in Relationship
As church leaders and communicators, when we think about social media, we tend to focus on content. What will we post and how often? Is it original content or curated from other sources? Is it written content or visual? How can we create the most snazzy, eye-catching graphics? What posts generate the most “likes”?
But there’s another side to social media.
Lutheran pastor Keith Anderson, author of The Digital Cathedral, reminds us that behind every transaction in the digital space, behind every post, tweet, share, and smiley emoji, there is a real person, made in the image of God. Digital media, he says, is inherently relational, and illustrates this with a quote from Pope Francis, ““The great digital continent does not only involve technology, but is made up of real men and women who bring with them what they carry inside, their hopes, their suffering, their concerns, their pursuit of truth, beauty, and good. We need to show and bring Christ to others,… This is the walk. This is the challenge.”
This morning, I was making an informal survey of Facebook usage by Episcopal churches in Western Pennsylvania. It’s the week after Holy Week and there are, as to be expected, a lot of posts featuring special service times, pictures of flower crosses and egg hunts, and videos of choral performances.
But what jumps out more than accurate service times and silly memes are the posts that show glimmers of humanity, the expressions of an authentic desire for connection that exemplify the relational aspect Anderson writes about.
“Pat’s getting the grass cut here today” reads a summer post from a small church in a declining steel town. I don’t know who Pat is, but the familiarity of the post makes me smile. It sounds like something my grandmother would report when I called to ask what she and Pops were up to.
“Sorry I haven’t posted too much lately, I have been quite busy and haven’t been on the computer too much for socializing” reads another post from yet another Western Pennsylvania steel town church. I imagine an overworked church office volunteer (are there any other kind of volunteers?) who loves her church and does everything she can to sustain it. And gets around to posting on Facebook when she can.
The humanity of these unknown page administrators bleeds through the “official” church posts. What surprises me even more are the raw, emotional needs that exist in posts that are shared to church Facebook pages from other people.
“Any chance someone could bring me communion?” asks one woman, “I’ll be hooked up to an IV Wednesday-Friday.” Reading the post, which has no online response, I can only hope that, indeed, someone provided sacramental sustenance.
And this heart-wrenching post to a church in eastern Pennsylvania from a woman whose adult son had died,
“I lost my dear sweet son. (He) had congenital heart disease, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, was mentally retarded and visually impaired… He was a joyful person and everyone he met was his friend. He often told his family ‘This was the best day ever!’ Some days he woke up and told his mother, ‘This is a perfect day to be happy’…” Does it matter how many “likes” that post receives? Of course not. What matters are the ways this woman’s faith community supports her online and offline, in shared love for her son, commemorating and celebrating his life, and in shared grief with the writer, a modern-day Mary weeping at the foot of her son’s cross.
For all the heartfelt and authentic words, admittedly the post that evokes the strongest emotional impact for me is a visual image posted by a church in a community plagued by violence. The phrase “Love your enemies – Matthew 5:44”is written in marker, accompanying a child’s drawing of a battered figure, a single tear below one eye. More powerful than any slick meme, I look at this image and I wonder what the child who created it has witnessed and how, as the church, we might work for peace and reconciliation in our communities, and healing for those impacted by violence.
So what do these glimmers of authentic humanity online imply for those of us who serve as priests, pastors, lay people, communicators, or evangelists?
How do we minster to and with those whom we encounter in the digital space? How do we engage in a way that truly allows us to see the face of God in every profile picture? Here are some thoughts:
- When you engage on social media, be intentional in thinking about those with whom you interact and those who interact with your church’s content. Likes are great, but take the time to check and see WHO is liking, following, and engaging with what you post. Think of them as the unique child of God that they are, not just another click in your social media metrics.
- Remember social media is SOCIAL. It is relational. When people like, follow, comment, or engage, reply in turn. Respond to their comments – even though it takes more time to reply than to merely click “like.”
- Make sure to check posts shared by others to your church’s page. These don’t always show up on your Facebook feed or even on your church’s page unless you click on “Visitor Posts.” People who follow your page won’t automatically see these posts, so if the post tell a great story about your church, share it with a comment to provide context as needed. “We are so glad that (whomever) and their family enjoyed our Easter service…”
- Make sure that page administrators are trained to be on the lookout for pastoral issues or concerns on visitor posts and elsewhere on social media. If someone is posting on their own account or sharing to the church’s account a need that should be addressed by clergy or other pastoral ministers, page administrators need to communicate those pastoral needs immediately, particularly if it is not their role to personally respond to pastoral needs.
- Encourage all members of your parish community to look out for one another on social media, and to reach out both on and offline. Relationships established at coffee hour can be strengthened in the digital space. Encourage people to "friend" one another both at church and online!
- If someone offers a criticism or complaint, or raises a challenging issue on social media, you have an obligation to respond not just to that person but to anyone else who may be reading the thread. For simple issues, you can respond to the comment and, hopefully, consider it resolved. For more complex, inflammatory, or derogatory comments, you may have to delete the comment and reach out personally and privately to the person making the comment through an alternate “back channel” rather than the church’s public social media account. This might be an email, or more pastorally, a phone call or face-to-face conversation. Additionally, to address those who may have read the initial comment, write a brief, simple, and factual response indicating that a comment or post was removed from the page. A brief explanation of why it was removed is sufficient. Keep your explanation neutral and non-accusatory, for example, “A comment has been removed because it did not reflect the loving and respectful discourse we as a church wish to engage in.” Or if the statement needs to be stronger, “Hateful/prejudicial/derogatory comments will not be permitted.” It is helpful to have guidelines for social media accounts, so that if comments run afoul, you have something to substantiate your objections. But the most important aspect is reaching out to the person making the offending comment and attempting to bring some reconciliation to the situation.
- Use social media to reach out and engage those who are homebound perhaps because of age, illness, or their role as a caregiver. Refrain from making them feel guilty for not physically attending church, rather remind them that they are in the prayers of the community and remain a valued member of the community. Offer them ways to participate and engage virtually. Let them know they matter, even if they can’t physically get to church.
- And the golden rule - remember to treat social media communication and engagement in the same way you would treat face-to-face engagement. If you wouldn’t say it to someone in person, don’t post it. If you sense that someone needs a more personal, private space to engage, offer it. If you suspect a pastoral need, provide care.
We spend a lot of time crafting content and analyzing the resultant social media metrics. It’s easy to get caught up in the numbers. To help us always remember and relate to the people behind the numbers, consider the following prayer by Meredith Gould, author of The Social Media Gospel…
Christ Has No Online Presence but Yours
(based on the well-known prayer by St. Teresa of Avila)
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.
- Lisa Brown, Director of Digital Ministry
Our goal at Membership Vision is to help churches and other faith communities to tell their stories in the digital space. Each church, irrespective of size, has a living and active story to tell, and technology provides an opportunity to share that story in a way that is welcoming and engaging. Technology can also distract us and keep us from connecting with one another. It can be a burden to keep communications current, to engage in the many ways that members of your community connect with each other, both inside and outside of the church walls. We aim to remove technological hurdles and allow churches to communicate online in an effective and sustainable way. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (805) 626-0143 to talk about the ways we can help your church build a digital presence.