Social Media & the local church: building relationships #digidisciple @grahamrichards

When it comes to using the new social media, churches have a lot to gain from it, as long as they can get over the fear that it “Isn’t holy or it distracts us from the real world and real issues”. In response to such comments or thoughts, I’d just like to start from where I stand and see social media.

In Colossians 1.20 we are told that:

Through the Son, then, God decided to bring the whole universe back to himself. God made shalom through his Son’s death on the cross and so brought back to himself all things, both in heaven and on earth.

My understanding of this is that under Christ, whatever we do or whatever we are as Christians, we can choose either do it for our own ends, which is not acting in accordance with God’s desire, or we can bring it under Christ’s act of shalom, enabling creation to be knitted back into wholeness.

This means that everything can be part of God’s plan for creation, if used accordingly. The risk is that as fallen beings, we can go off on our own tangents at times. But just like music, social media isn’t something that’s “of the Devil”, it’s just how you approach it and use it that defines what it is. There certainly is a lot of internet use that is very negative and unhelpful, but the internet is not evil in itself and there is plenty of evidence to prove it is a wonderful tool that brings help to millions of people across the globe.

So, back to social media and the Church.

For me, social media is primarily about relationships. Now isn’t that what is at the heart of the Gospel? For example, as someone who works from home, I see Twitter as something like working in an open plan office. You know the sort of thing, you sit at your desk and whilst you work you engage in little snippets of conversation with your colleagues. For example, you might ask a question; share a laugh about a TV programme you saw last night; tell them about something that’s concerning you, etc.

Using Twitter I do the same, but over great distances. My “colleagues” might be in London, Bristol, Boston USA or Australia (although I’m usually asleep when they’re online!). I’m sitting here in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, but the distance is not a problem.

I’ve also discovered, over time, that even using social media like Twitter, it is possible for people to get to know the real me. If used honestly, virtual relationships are no less real or meaningful than face to face ones. At a recent face to face meeting with a curate I’ve only known through Twitter and her blog, she made the comment: “This is strange, but I feel I really know you, even though this is our first meeting.”

However, Twitter is just one application. There are many more social media applications that we can harness for our various needs and uses and the best thing is, they’re virtually all free!

The key thing is to look at them and, at the same time, look at your specific needs. Then you can decide which is most appropriate for your use. Some examples include using a Facebook page to promote your weekly church activities; setting up a Yahoo group forum for the PCC to enhance communications; sharing news about what’s been going on at your Church via Twitter, or putting photos of church events onto Flickr or You Tube (with written consent being given by those in them, of course!)

It is worth saying that social media is not an “instead of” more traditional means of communication, it is complementary, adding to what already exists. Those who are not IT active must also be catered for, lest we create an underclass of people.

Some clergy are writing blogs, although this is a personal thing, rather than being representative of their church or organisation. However, it is a great way to get theological reflection “out there” for a wider audience to consider. (You must also be prepared to get feedback via comments, which might not always be the sort you want to hear! However, it is still another good way of engaging with people, even if they disagree with you and you then have the opportunity to further engage with them discussing their comments.)

I have recently got involved with the Social Media Surgery movement. This is a group of people who are experienced social media users, who are prepared to give up their time, free of charge, to run surgeries for local voluntary organisations. These groups come along and share what they are trying to do to with a “surgeon”. The surgeon then helps them look at social media options; think through the basis of a social media strategy and show them examples of using social media that they could employ for their own needs.

Now if churches have a wifi connection and people in their congregation who are experienced users, why not set up a social media surgery for your parish or local community? It’s not only voluntary organisations that could benefit. Individuals and small local businesses could also gain from this. It only costs volunteer time and provides you with a common denominator that will get you alongside local people and groups, breaking down barriers, etc. It may not be an “evangelistic” moment, (that would be highly inappropriate), but it is longer-term relationship-building, like social media itself.

At the end of the day, who are we to limit God and the ways he is able to connect with and communicate to the people he has created?

If you would like to follow me on Twitter and see who I follow, my Twitter name is: @grahamrichards I also have a blog dedicated to theological reflection and social media.

About Graham Richards

Graham is a part-time Archdeaconry Children’s & Youth Work Adviser; a freelance legacy fundraiser and runs Serentwitterpy, a social media mentoring and training service for charities and small businesses.