|Written by David C. Bocock, D.Min.
| A few weeks ago, I discovered a rather unsettling situation: a church member had unfriended me on Facebook. For several minutes, I sat at my desk and wondered if I had offended the church member or if she was about to leave the church. Undoubtedly, my feelings were hurt. And I felt as if I had to act now or the ramifications might be irreversible. So I sent her a message on her Facebook account and simply asked, “OMG, you unfriended me?! Is everything ok?” The church member responded in about five minutes. She said, “You know Pastor, sometimes I feel guilty about some of my posts because sometimes I cuss or say things that I wouldn’t say to you directly. It isn’t personal; I just want to have some freedom to say what’s on my mind.” And I thought to myself, “Yeah, she does use some rather flowery speech,” but what I wrote back was, “You know, it really doesn’t bother me. I’ve been using Facebook to stay in touch with you and the other church members. But if you feel I am an intrusion, I’ll completely understand.” I refriended her, just the same. And she accepted. And from time to time, she still uses rather flowery language-but mostly in Spanish. I haven’t told her that I know Spanish or that I can easily translate it on iGoogle.If you are over fifty and only use the Internet for email, it is important to understand the newer phenomena of social networking. It is not a fad and it is reshaping our social interactions like never before. Social networking websites like Facebook have become the new meeting house, the new coffee house, and the new corner drug store. It is where everyone meets up, relays interesting and not so interesting things about their lives, posts pictures of their kids or pets, and writes commentary on various socio-political events. It is the place no one has to dress up to go to. And it is the place where people are congregating outside of their churches.
As more and more people access social networking sites, more and more churches are seeing it as the best new way to interact with their members-old and middle age, as well as with potentially younger or unchurched audiences. In many respects, social networking sites provide a free opportunity to interact with church members more easily and readily. These churches have also quickly realized that Facebook provides an opportunity to reach a younger segment of society that has been absent from mainline Protestant churches for nearly two generations. But younger audiences are not the only ones on the site, more and more adults and senior adults are facebooking too. For those churches and pastors who realize the significance of Facebook, it is as if they are saying, “If that is where our people are, then that is where we should be, too.”
Unfortunately, for the pastors and churches who are utilizing this new social medium, there exists a learning curve that encompasses not only the basic how-to information but also new aspects of social etiquette. Not everyone wants their pastor to see what they’re writing and to whom they are befriending. They don’t want their pastor to know that they like Hot and Sexy Bikinis or Hot Sweaty Men. Even if a pastor creates a fan page for their church, Facebook member’s posts will show up on their news threads-unless of course, they hide their history. Thank God Facebook realized this discomfort and provided a way to hide a person’s news threads without the uncomfortable unfriending.
I said as much to my church member who had unfriended me. I explained hiding the news thread functionality to her. When she accepted my refriending, I have begun to notice an absence of her posts of late. I still check her page from time to time but seldom do I write anything or let her know that I like a post. We’ve learned to get along on Facebook.
Not all Facebook interactions are so uncomfortable. I have noticed that for a few of my church members, commenting on their posts or liking a picture lets them know that I am concerned about them and that I care. In a way, it is like being invited into a person’s living room and letting them know how cool you think their decorating is. It lets those who need to have this sort of validation know that they are important to you. Some church members are reticent to invite me into their homes for whatever reason. But being invited to read one’s Facebook posts is less intrusive and a church member can post whatever they want-especially items that they want others to either know about or pretend that they know about. In a very real way, it is a great opportunity to connect and make deeper connections.
Facebook is a great resource, at least from my perspective, and a wonderful opportunity to let both my church members know I care about them as well as inviting them into my own life and psyche. More than a few members have commented that they know me much better as they read my posts (and I post often) and learn what I value and what I do not value.
But there is also a danger with oversharing. I realize the tricky road I travel on Facebook. More than a few pastoral colleagues have been burned by the wayward posts they have made. I know of pastors who have lost their jobs because of something they wrote on their Facebook pages. Given their experiences and my own (for several years I wrote a couple of blogs), I am confident that I have discerned the appropriate boundaries that I need to stay within. For example, I never post anything relating to sex (even when it’s really funny) or private conversations between church members. I avoid making harsh judgments about anything relating to politics (please note the adjective ‘harsh’). And I don’t gossip on Facebook. Ever.
Navigating boundaries within Facebook does not just include how much information or opinions I share about myself, it also includes figuring out how to interact and engage my church members, especially those who want a deeper connection and which ones do not. At present, I am taking such considerations on a case-by-case basis in the same way that I determine which church members who want me to call on them and which ones do not.
Given the challenges of Facebook, I still believe the benefits of using it for church far outweigh the negatives or the risks. It really is a great way to connect with others and it really is not as superficial as you might imagine. I know that I am not alone in this understanding. For the many pastors who use this form of social networking, it is a great opportunity to interact with ones church members. Since more people stay on the site, it’s a great way to quickly communicate or disseminate information with one or many members. Given the benefit that Facebook is free, it is also the most affordable way the church has to reach their members and intended audience. In order for the church to be successful, however, it will need to both understand the medium and take a long and serious look at itself to be successful. There are a lot angles to consider but the reward of a successful integration of this social networking site could be extraordinary both for the local church and the pastors’ who shepherd them.
Facebook: Why It Matters
According to the Facebook tracking website, Checkfacebook.com, as of May 12, 2011, there are 666,855,500 persons subscribed to Facebook worldwide. There are nearly 155 million subscribers in the U.S. alone. Of those in the U.S., 63% represent the ages 14-34. This is the target audience many churches are seeking. And, as studies about the addiction of social networking sites have shown, they are nearly all online right now. Never before has the church been privy to or able to access such a social gathering place of this magnitude or popularity. Facebook is the meeting place of men and women (although more women), young, middle age, and old, rich, middle class, and poor, and all races, all orientations, and basically all people nearly everywhere. It cannot be overstated- Facebook is where everyone is at.
What Some Churches Are Doing
I have a colleague from school that, for her doctoral project, created a church community on Facebook called the First Reformed Cyber Church. Recognizing the audience she wanted to reach, she designed a special place where videos of church songs were posted. She received prayer requests on her Facebook wall, and would offer conversation points to be answered by those who read her posts. This form of back and forth enabled the communication to be interactive and thereby utilizing what makes Facebook such an incredible community: People participated in the worship experience.
In much the same way, Don Tapscott (2008) explains in his book Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World, that it’s not enough to use social networking sites as yet another “broadcast medium,” to be successful, it needs to interact with those who use it. In his book, he compared the online campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Mr. Obama engaged his supporters in clever ways even to the extent of personally befriending them-to communicate that his Presidency would be about interaction. Ms. Clinton, on the other hand, only used it as another venue of static information sharing. As a result, while Ms. Clinton had 330,000 Facebook friends, Mr. Obama had over a million of them.
So my ministerial colleague understood that in order for her online church to be successful, it had to be interactive. Even though her doctoral project is complete, she continues to lead this worship every Wednesday night on Facebook. She had created an online community that enjoys and benefits from the online worship experience.
Another church to make use of interaction on Facebook is from Lifechurch.tv. They too engage their audiences with interactive discussions, polls, and wall-posts. They have a much larger audience than my colleague friend and their various church campuses exceed 10,000 in membership although they have over 46,000 fans of their Facebook site. Their success is marked by how they first make online connections that lead the participant to their church campuses.
Unfortunately, for many of the churches who are currently utilizing Facebook, they are only sharing church information, posting podcasted sermons (through an off-site service such as YouTube), post pictures of recent events, and share upcoming activities. These churches use Facebook as Ms. Clinton used her presidential campaign. Unless an interaction exists between the user and the church, then Facebook will never be fully utilized as it could be.
To be fair, church fan pages such as Lifechurch.tv and others who have reached such a large audience have tapped into a much more youthful segment of the population. Churches whose membership is far more grayer, the use of Facebook as a broadcast medium see its benefits as a cheap way to disseminate information rather than as an outreach to a younger audience.
Overall Lesson with Facebook
While Facebook is a great tool to managing congregational communication, it has the capability to be an outstanding outreach tool if developed and maintained as such. While there will always be those who cannot grasp or who do not care to grasp its potential, for the vast majority of persons, it can be a benefit whether the church is large or small, gray or youthful, and rich or poor.
Smaller churches can use it as an inexpensive way to share information or to stay in touch with its members, who all seem to be online all the time. Larger churches can use it to create outreach programs and interact and engage its audiences in a new and exciting way. What both churches can do is find a way to use this new medium as a way to draw its participants into its own brick and mortar campuses.
However one uses Facebook, there will always be a particular challenge. This challenge is how to engage with Facebook in a way that honors personal relationships. In an era of instant-everything (from instant messages to cell phone texts to impersonal emails to information overload), social networking sites can either intensify a feeling of alienation and impersonal communication or satisfy one’s feelings of connectedness. The keys to successful pastoral engagement are to know where to communicate what and what to communicate to whom.
Facebooking: A New Opportunity in Pastoral Care
October 9, 2011
As more and more people access social networking sites, more and more churches are seeing it as the best new way to interact with their members-old and middle age, as well as with potentially younger or unchurched audiences. In many respects, social networking sites provide a free opportunity to interact with church members more easily and readily.