Electronic Communication and Congregations

By Lynne M. Baab
published in Candour, May 2010

I recently finished writing a book on friendship in the Facebook age. I sent out emails to lots of friends, asking them for their thoughts. Along with the fascinating personal reflections I got back, I also received a steady stream of links to articles about Facebook, Twitter and other forms of online connection. I was fascinated by the pattern I observed in the articles.

A few articles were cautionary, written by people who have found themselves overusing electronic communication. A good number of other articles were optimistic, describing the ways people have connected or reconnected with old friends and family members. About half of the articles were extremely negative about online connections, using words like “faux” or “imitation” to describe relationships with a strong online component. Many of the authors of those articles don’t use online social networking websites themselves. I found myself becoming frustrated by people who are condemning something they haven’t experienced.

My interviews for my friendship book, along with my own observations of the way individuals and groups are using Facebook and other forms of online connection, tell me that many people today make a seamless transition between various forms of communication. People connect with each other face-to-face and by telephone, cell phone, email, Facebook, Skype, Twitter, websites, blogs, online photo sharing, and other forms of internet connection, with any one person using only a few of those ways to connect. Some form of electronic of communication is embedded in everyday life for most people today, but the forms vary from one person to the next.

In this world of so many diverse ways of communicating, a congregation that wants to get news out has to rely on a variety of means to do that. Congregations and Christian leaders are increasingly giving careful thought to strategic use of electronic communication to nurture congregational life. Several of my Facebook friends are ministers of congregations, and I love to watch the ways they use Facebook to post Scriptures, prayers, quotations from Christian books, and links to interesting faith-related articles available online. I have signed up as a member of numerous congregational groups and pages on Facebook and Twitter, just to watch the way congregations are using these new ways of connecting with their members.

Congregations are using Facebook and Twitter to announce congregational events, sermon topics, Scriptures for the Sunday service, the arrival of overseas visitors, birthdays of congregation members, prayer requests, and significant happenings in the wider community. In addition, Facebook and Twitter are often used to post links to new material on the church website or the minister’s blog, as well as links to interesting articles on other websites and blogs. Many congregations are using Facebook’s internal email to send messages to the people who have signed up as members of the congregation’s page or group.

I’ll illustrate how this works by imagining a congregation that has just begun to host a neighborhood food bank on its premises. The minister has written a blog post about the foodbank, and photos of the new foodbank have been posted on the church’s website. Facebook and Twitter posts provide links to the minister’s latest blog post and to the photos. The church website also has a link to the blog, and the blog post has a link to the photos on the website. An email is sent using traditional email as well as Facebook email to say that the photos of the foodbank have been posted on the website, and that the minister’s new blog post this week focuses on the foodbank. The email provides a link to the photos and to the blog.

The next week the minister writes another blog post about the foodbank, this time reflecting on generosity as a fundamental Christian virtue. The minister has found two wonderful articles online about the way acts of generosity enable Christians to grow into the likeness of Christ. The blog post provides links to the two articles. Posts on Facebook and Twitter provide links to the articles as well, encouraging the members of the congregation to read the articles and reflect on the role of generosity in their own lives.

In the next few weeks, the minister also preaches a sermon about generosity and writes an article for the printed church newsletter about generosity. The traditional means of church communication—such as sermons and newsletters—are not neglected but they are amplified through online communication. The sermon is posted on the website (either in written or audio form), and the article is posted on the website as well. Links to the sermon and article are sent out through Twitter and Facebook as well.

Notice two things about the scenario I have just sketched. First, the minister and the people in charge of congregational communication understand that a congregational event—the opening of a foodbank—is also teaching moment. Everything a congregation does has the potential to shape the spiritual development of congregation members and the life of the community of faith. Often this is forgotten, and the events are viewed as an end in themselves. Feeding people in need is a good thing, and in that sense it could be viewed as an end in itself. However, that would be a waste of a good opportunity to reflect on the nature of generosity in the life of faith. Other topics that could be stressed in connection with this event include God’s call to care for the poor, God’s invitation to engage in acts of social justice, or the connection between evangelism and acts of mercy. Leaders of congregations must always remember that congregation members usually need to have events interpreted; the significance of everyday acts of obedience to God in the larger scheme of faith formation needs to be explained.

Secondly, notice the way that online communication these days is interwoven and interconnected. Increasingly, Twitter, Facebook  and email are being used to post links to other information: blog posts, helpful articles, and new information on organizational websites. Increasingly people are realizing it’s not enough to post new photos or announcements on websites. People need to be alerted to the fact that new material has been added to the website, and different people will pay attention to different forms of being alerted. Multiple means of communication are increasingly necessary.

Overwhelmed by Communication Challenges

Many ministers and congregational leaders feel overwhelmed by the numerous communication options that need to be considered today. Who has time, they wonder, to search online for resources, to continually post things on Twitter and Facebook and to keep up a blog? Very few people do, and that’s where communication today needs to be a team effort.

Every congregation will have a few people who love the online environment and enjoy spending hours on the internet. Those people can be recruited to set up a Twitter account and a Facebook group or page for the congregation. When something new is posted on the church website, these individuals may be willing to receive a brief notice by email so they can post a link on Twitter and Facebook.

For ministers and congregational leaders who are unfamiliar with Facebook or Twitter, ask someone to show you how they work. They have similarities, but each offers something different. Two years ago, I knew nothing about either one. I got some younger people to describe to me how they use them. I assimilated that information, then I got some more young people to show me how they worked. I then forced myself to sign up for both of them so I could learn about them. To my total surprise, I enjoy Facebook a lot and frequently use it to connect with my friends. And I have been increasingly impressed with the strategic use of both Facebook and Twitter by congregations and by Christian leaders.

People who love to be online can also be asked to research topics that are relevant for the congregation’s priorities and to pass on to the minister or other leaders links to articles. Those articles can be evaluated, and if appropriate, links to those articles can be posted on the congregational website, the minister’s blog, and Facebook and Twitter.

Someone—the church secretary or a person who enjoys online communication—needs to be charged with the task of keeping up an email list of everyone who wants to be on it. Emails shouldn’t be sent to everyone in the congregation more than once or twice a week, but those emails can be very helpful, pointing members to information on the website and highlighting issues and events.

All of this presupposes that the congregation has a website, an increasingly strategic tool for congregational communication. One of my sons, who is thirty, calls websites “our new front door,” and he says most people in his generation would never consider visiting a place they haven’t read about online. Money spent on website design and maintenance is well spent.

Blogs are free, and I believe every minister should consider having a blog. Posting once a week is enough, and posts should be brief (200-300 words). A post might be a short review of a book, a link to an article, a thought that has come to mind during the preparation of a sermon, a story of something significant that happened, an alert about an upcoming event. Good blog posts are informal and conversational, an excellent opportunity for a minister to engage personally with significant topics and express his or her priorities to the congregation.

Blogs can also be used by ministries within a congregation. For example, a children’s ministries program could set up a blog with a handful of contributors who might post brief biographies of new volunteers, information about upcoming lessons, and links to articles about ministry to children.