It’s life, Captain, but not life as we know it
Late one Saturday evening, I was sitting in a cafe with my 70-year-old father and my 92-year-old grandmother. We had just been to the cinema, and were discussing our favourite actors over a cappuccino.
“Ingrid Bergman was unforgettable in Murder on the Orient Express. You know she’s won more Oscars than any other actress in history,” said my grandmother.
“No, I’m pretty sure Katharine Hepburn has won more Oscars,” Dad replied.
“I think you’re getting mixed up with Audrey Hepburn,” I said. “Actually, I think Bette Davis has won the most.”
I reached into my pocket, grabbed my iPhone and said, “Let me prove it.”
Ooops. Dad was right. Again!
For the rest of the evening we talked about how much the world had changed. That we could be sitting in a Bondi cafe late on a Saturday night and be able to find out almost anything we wanted to know. Dad summed it up with an impression of Spock from Star Trek: “It’s life, Captain, but not life as we know it”.
We live in a time of unprecedented change. For the first time in history we have access to the world in our pocket. The Internet has changed everything. The way we work and learn, communicate and connect has dramatically altered. And while some may argue that this is not good, it’s here and we can’t turn our back to it. How can we possibly ignore the billions of people who use social media every day?
This raises many questions. One of the most important is: how will the church adapt to make the most of this new situation to advance the mission of Jesus?
First, let’s consider our context with a few statistics.
Always on, always connected
As I write, more than 2.4 billion people across the world use the Internet.1 Most of them use it daily. While 78.6% of North Americans are online,2 where I live in Australia we have the highest rate with 88%.3 That’s not a typo, 88% of us Aussies are online!
Worldwide, we send a whopping 144 billion emails per day.4 That’s 60 emails per person. But wait for it, email is not the biggest online activity. That title goes to social media, where people spend 20% of their time online.5 In America 72% of adults who use the Internet also use social media.6
Facebook now has 1.1 billion users worldwide with 198 million in North America.7 If it were a country it would be the 3rd largest in the world.8 The average Facebook user has over 200 friends and 28% of 18-34 year olds check Facebook before getting out of bed.9 It really is that important and addictive for some people. Interestingly, the quickest growing segment of Facebook users are between 45 and 54 years old.10
Twitter has 554 million accounts and, contrary to popular belief, the fastest growing age group is 55 to 64 year olds1112 And then there’s Google+, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, and on and on it goes. There’s no denying that social media is a significant phenomenon. It is not a fad, it affects everything. It’s a fundamental shift in the way we communicate… and an opportunity for the church to engage the world like never before.
Our adaptive challenge
As always with new technology, businesses were the early adopters. They were the first to embrace social media to expand their cause. Next to jump on the social media bandwagon were the non-profits. They were slower to see the opportunity but were fast to pick up the pace.
Last out of the gates, the late adopters, you guessed it: the church. And while both the business and non-profit sectors have benefitted through social media, the church is yet to significantly expand its influence through this medium.
And here’s the number one reason.
While businesses and non-profits use social media to grow their community and share their cause with new people, churches largely use social media to talk to themselves. Just explore some of the popular church Facebook pages and you will see that this is true. In observing the activity of many churches on Facebook and Twitter it’s clear that most, if not all, are focused on themselves.
If your church is like most, you use social media to communicate with people already in your church network—mainly Christians. You post photos, embed Pastor Bob’s latest sermon, profile upcoming church events, chat with other members, share insightful quotes and Bible verses, and so on. Basically, you use social media as an online church newsletter. Sadly, even the super-popular church Facebook pages with thousands of fans talk to themselves 99% of the time.
If this is true for your church, you’re missing a great opportunity to use social media to connect with people in your broader community—people who may have never heard about Jesus or have any connection with the Christian community. We need to adapt to the challenge and take the opportunity to use social-media as another context in which we can make new disciples.
So what steps can we take in order to move our social media activity from internal to external?
Adopt a missional stance
Firstly, change the way you view social media. Start to see it as an opportunity for mission, not simply as a tool to use internally. View social media as a mission context, and approach it with a missional posture. This means prayerfully examining and listening to the context in the same way you would for any other new mission environment. It means utilizing the same mission skills and processes you would when entering any new culture.
Adopting a missional stance is a vital first step in switching from talking to yourself to engaging with the world. It will prompt you to lift your eyes to see the missional potential. As Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.”13
Enter the neighbourhood
Once you view social media with a missional mindset and move into the context with a missional stance, the next step is to act incarnationally. The missional impulse lifts your eyes and moves you into the context with a renewed outward vision. The incarnational impulse then guides you deeper into the context and creates genuine space for meaningful engagement with people beyond the church.
John 1:1–18 describes how Jesus took on human form and moved into our neighbourhood. It’s clear that social media is now a huge neighbourhood. The calling is clear. Let’s follow Jesus and move there.
Create a strategic approach
Thirdly, you will need to establish a strategic methodology. Here are eight tips on how to do this.
Establish the why
Be clear about why you are on social media. Is it to communicate solely with your own members, or is to make connections with new people who are beyond the church? Or is it both? Define your end goal. Is it to be good at social media? Or is to be good at mission because of social media? There is a big difference.
Define the who
Who is it specifically that you wish to engage and communicate with? Define them. Age, gender, location, lifestyle, and so on. Where do they spend their time? What do they like? What do they find interesting? What keeps them up at night? What problems and issues can you help them solve? This is crucial information in order to establish the right strategy. The more you can define whom you want to reach, the easier it will be to answer the next few questions.
Find the where
Where will you place your community? What are the right social media platforms for your defined audience? Be careful not to spread the net too wide at first. Start with a few platforms then add new ones only when it’s appropriate and needed.
Be clear on the how
How will you talk on social media? What tone of voice will you use? Will it be casual, humorous, educated, formal? Maybe a mix? It all depends on who you are as a church and who you hope to connect with. Will you use ‘I’ or ‘we’ language? Who will be responsible for your platforms, and who are the right people to be posting?
Be strategic on the what
What will you post? This is known as your content strategy, and is one of the most important things to get right. Making sure you have the right content for your audience is the difference between success and failure. If you have the wrong content you simply won’t get an audience and you’ll end up speaking to yourself. But if you get it right, people will like it, share it, comment and engage with you.
Now don’t panic, you won’t get it right from the beginning, so it’s important to evaluate what content is getting traction and what content is not. Then adjust to suit.
Learn the when
Timing on social media is everything. If you post at the wrong times, chances are your content will vanish down the digital well with very few people having seen it. This really is a try, evaluate and adjust process. While there are standard times that are better than others, it really depends on your audience. So follow the general rules for each platform, monitor and re-jig to suit.
Engage, don’t broadcast
There is a temptation to use this platform as another place to broadcast your message. It makes sense, as there are millions of people who will potentially read what you have to say. However, there is specific social media etiquette that if ignored will turn people away. And for good reason. Social media is a social context; it’s made for two-way engagement, not one-way broadcasting.
Listen then speak
Spend some time listening to what people are liking, sharing and discussing. This will give you an insight into what might or might not be interesting for your audience. It’s actually both a strange and privileged place to be. Where else is it okay to listen in on others’ conversations? And yet on social media it is totally appropriate and welcomed with open arms.
But with privilege comes responsibility. We need to ensure that we always act and speak with respect and dignity, as if we were speaking with them in person. Unfortunately, there are too many times when people forget that. So listen, then speak. It really is the best way to build healthy connections.
Social media presents a fantastic opportunity for us to meaningfully engage with those around us. We’d be mad not to make the most of it.
- ‘Internet users in the world’, Internet World Stats, http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- ‘Internet users in Oceania’, Internet World Stats, http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats6.htm ↩
- ‘Email Market, 2012-2016’, The Radicati Group, http://www.radicati.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Email-Market-2012-2016-Executive-Summary.pdf ↩
- ‘Social Media Report 2012’, Nielsen, http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/newswire/2012/social-media-report-2012-social-media-comes-of-age.html ↩
- J Brenner and A Smith, ‘72% of Online Adults are Social Networking Site Users’, Pew Research Center, http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2013/social-networking-sites.aspx ↩
- J Sophy, ‘Facebook Keeps Growing: Now at 1.15 Billion Active Users’, Small Business Trends, http://smallbiztrends.com/2013/07/facebook-reaches-1-billion-active-members.html ↩
- ‘The future is another country’, The Economist, http://www.economist.com/node/16646000 ↩
- ‘Facebook Statistics’, Statistic Brain, http://www.statisticbrain.com/facebook-statistics/ ↩
- B Peterson, ‘Stream Social Q1 2013: Facebook Active Usage Booms’, GlobalWebIndex, https://www.globalwebindex.net/Stream-Social ↩
- ‘Twitter Statistics’, Statistic Brain http://www.statisticbrain.com/twitter-statistics/ ↩
- B Peterson, ibid. ↩
- John 4:35b NIV ↩