Prolegomena on the use of Social Media in Ministry

Over the past decade social media have taken over the world; or at least those parts of the world with access to the internet. As may appear obvious, social media are called that because they’re social; in contrast to broadcast media that seek to reach anyone and everyone, social media ‘are forms of digital communication between and among people who have some relationship to each other’.[1] Social media allow people who know each other in real life (RL) to keep in touch when separated by distance or circumstance. They also allow people who have never met each other in RL, but who are connected by common interests, to meet each other in a relatively safe virtual space.

The most widely used forms of social media include blogs on sites like WordPress, which currently hosts 74 million of them; Facebook, which has 1.11 billion users; Twitter, which has 500 million total users and more than 200 million active users; and Youtube, which has 1 billion users and 4 billion views per day. Blogs allow people to post articles, sermons, journals, recipes, stories and reflections online and receive immediate feedback. Facebook encourages people to share photos, videos and status updates, answering questions like ‘What’s on your mind?’. Twitter allows people to ‘tweet’ in no more than 140 characters while also following the tweets of everyone from the Prime Minister (@JuliaGillard) to the President of the Uniting Church (@AndrewDutney ) to the Pope (@Pontifex). YouTube hosts videos; from cats and toddlers doing funny things to peace activists being assaulted by the military. Every form of social media encourages sharing; find a blog or video that you like and you can share it with all your friends and followers on Facebook or Twitter.

Social media have been praised for their part in overthrowing dictatorships during the Arab Spring and blamed for the suicides of victims of cyber-bullying. Intrinsically neither hero nor villain, social media seem here to stay.

The theology of social media

Some commentators have argued that there is little that is particularly new about the theological issues raised by social media. Throughout its history, the church has constantly had to come to terms with new media. Books, the telegraph, the camera, the electric light-bulb, the wireless, the cinema, television and the internet have all worried religious leaders.[2] Simultaneously, religious communities have appropriate each of these new technologies as a way of spreading faith. Heidi A. Campbell suggests that those religious groups that embraced the printing press as a ‘God-given resource to be embraced for religious purposes’ have gone on to embrace each new form of media for the same reason.[3]

One difference between social media and previous forms of media is the sheer visibility, reach and speed of social media. Everything that can now be done on social media could previously be done, but not so noticeably and quickly. As Verity A. Jones puts it: ‘That friends of friends are a part of our networks is not new. Visibly mapping those relationships in a digital medium that can penetrate to multiple levels is new. Chatting in shorthand with buddies is not new. Doing so with thousands of people at once for all to see is new. Awareness of the diversity of peoples and communities around the world is not new. Building real relationships with them in real time across thousands of miles is new.’ Everything seems bigger, louder and more public on social media.

The more important difference between social and other forms of media are their very claim to be ‘social’. Christianity is a religion with a very high understanding of community and friendship. The doctrine of the Trinity tells us that we worship a God who is in God’s very self a community of love. In Jesus we have been given the model of an ideal friend. In his last night with his disciples Jesus told them: ‘I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.’ (John 15:15) The Christian community is made up of the friends of Christ, who are called to be friends of each other and, through their relationship with Christ, to be drawn into the community of the Trinity. Can social media in any way reflect these profound understandings of community and friendship?

Christianity is an embodied faith; in the Incarnation we see the theological importance and centrality of bodies. The disembodied nature of the most media has always concerned Christians: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word became flesh, not celluloid…’.[4] Can social media provide communities in which people can gather, weep with those who are weeping and rejoice with those who are rejoicing? Or is community limited to RL? Can Facebook ‘friends’ be in any way friends as Christians understand that role? The way we answer this question may determine how we engage with social media and the boundaries we place around our participation.

Many theologians argue that only RL can provide real relationship: ‘My soul is already weary of virtual relationships and constructed identities … What I really want is to know [people] and be known by them. From the day the word became flesh and dwelled among us it has been clear to Christians that this requires physical presence.’[5] For these people, social media cannot provide authentic friendships: ‘We are not likely to turn to Facebook when a loved one is dying, for guidance in vocational discernment, or for the joys and warmth of physical embrace.’[6] For many people, this seems obvious. They are likely to use social media as a way of transferring online the relationships they already have,[7] but not to form new relationships. They may value social media’s ability to increase face-to-face gatherings by helping people find others with common interests, but consider only those face-to-face gatherings as true community.

Others, however, embrace social media as a way of creating community that may be ‘virtual’ but no less important than community in RL. Lynne M. Baab writes in friending that: ‘when people use the words faux or imitation to describe relationships with a strong online component, I usually feel a flush of anger’.[8] Many people either use social media to add richness to RL relationships, or actually make friends online. Our ability to do this may depend on our generation, situation, and personality.

Generation is the most obvious influence on the use of social media, with younger people using it more than older people. A survey conducted for Sensis found that ninety per cent of people under thirty used social media every day, with those over forty much less likely to use them. Interestingly, it seems that each generation worries that the social media-using generations that follow them are no longer able to relate properly to people in RL.[9] Yet no generation uses social media in a monolithic way. Lynne M Baab found ‘a pattern of individualization of communication at all ages. There are trends for all generation, but a surprising number of exceptions to the trends at all ages.’[10]

RL situations also influence the way we engage. Verity A. Jones argues that: ‘Disabled people, those who are isolated for other reasons, find significant and real community online. It would be a mistake to assume that a relationship online is not “real” and therefore excluded from the beneficial act of collecting of God’s people’. It is not only people living with a disability who find ‘real’ community online. The It Gets Better Project recognises the importance of virtual community for same-sex attracted young people who may know of no one like them in RL. The Project began with a single YouTube clip in 2010 that then inspired another 50,000 user-created videos viewed more than 50 million times. Virtual community became a way of addressing the bullying and suicide of same-sex attracted young people isolated in their RL communities.

Personality may also play a factor in our attitude to social media. It appears that introverts may be more willing to reveal their real selves online than extroverts: ‘The same person who would never raise his hand in a lecture hall of two hundred people might blog to two thousand or two million, without thinking twice. The same person who finds it difficult to introduce himself to strangers might establish a presence online, and then extend these relationships into the real world.’[11]

Some people do find a community online that they can’t find in RL. These people do turn to Facebook when a loved one is dying and for guidance in vocational discernment, if not for the joys and warmth of physical embrace. Can the church support these people and their communities, or are we limited by our commitment to embodiment?

Issues for people in ministry on social media

Given the sheer number of people who use social media, including both people in ministry and those to whom they minister, it is impossible to avoid questions about the use of social media in ministry. In some contexts social media have become ubiquitous, and people who have tried to avoid becoming part of the social media revolution have found themselves in trouble when news about them is posted online.[12] Given the speed with which items circulate online, not even those with a deliberately-cultivated online presence are able to completely control their virtual identity. An awareness of social media and the way in which they can be used is a simple necessity.

But there are positive reasons for people in ministry to explore social media. They provide us with instantly accessible resources. Almost every part of the Uniting Church provides resources online, as do many other churches, ecumenical bodies, seminaries and individuals.[13] Social media also provide us with new ways of spreading the gospel and promoting the activities of churches, particularly if they are used as social media; ‘we [should] behave on Facebook the way we do when we invite friends to church rather than as one tasked with sending an ad in the local newspaper’. Numerous preachers use blogs as a way of preaching to more people than those who made it to church on a particular day; ‘Social media enable us to proclaim the Word farther and wider, more quickly, and perhaps more effectively than ever before.’ Social media can also provide virtual communities for otherwise isolated ministry agents.

Most importantly, social media provide us with another way to build community and to pastor, if we seek to use them that way. They can help us interact more deeply with church members. One example quoted by the New Media Project at Christian Theological Seminary  is Tony Lee at Community of Hope AME Church, who saw on Facebook that a church member’s brother had committed suicide—something he would not otherwise have known. Because of that knowledge, he said, he was able to find the young man and attend the funeral. Social media can also help us to interact with people who would not otherwise darken a church’s door. Verity A. Jones argues that the growth of social networking sites suggests how deeply formed human beings are by their relationships and how much they wish to explore and expand those relationships. The church can both ask why people who are seeking connections and a commitment to causes bigger than themselves turn to social media rather than ‘flesh-and-blood Christian communities’ and use the answers to make churches more welcoming[14] and seek to meet people looking for these connections online.

Suggestions for appropriate use of social media in ministry from a social media devotee

I resisted social media for years, thinking that they were self-indulgent. I started my first blog, www.avrilatbossey.wordpress.com, when on the opposite side of the world from family and friends. I then signed up for Facebook after returning home, wanting to keep in touch with the friends I’d made overseas. I became a Facebook enthusiast after the Haiti earthquake, when Facebook helped me keep in touch with a classmate who lives and ministers in Haiti. These are a few of the things I’ve learned over the past six years; I hope they are helpful.

1.     Privacy

It cannot be assumed that anything shared on the internet is ever truly private, and people have different standards of what they believe it is appropriate to share. Always check with the subjects before posting photos online; never identify anyone by name unless you have their permission; make use of privacy settings on social media networks. Facebook, for example, will allow your posts to be seen by everyone; by all your Facebook friends (and their friends); or by a custom group. Make use of this feature! When in doubt, send a private message instead of a public post.

2.     Slow down

Social media is fast. We can respond to a post online as quickly as we can speak, but our response is then preserved for ever and ever. It is very tempting, but not necessarily helpful, to ‘answer back’ to something with which we disagree, or passionately agree. Don’t. Read through everything twice before hitting post, publish or tweet. ‘Careful communication always matters. Thinking before speaking, good advice through the ages, carries over to the world of electronic communication.’[15]

3.     Remember the limits of online communication

Most online communication is conducted in writing. It does not include body language and tone of voice. While Lynne M. Baab points out that: ‘letters lack the same features, and no one has expressed a lot of concern about them,’[16] it can be helpful to indicate when something is meant humorously or sarcastically. Emoticons, combinations of letters and symbols that can be read as a facial expression, may seem unbearably cute but they do serve a purpose. If you mean something sarcastically, say so.

4.     Decide who you are online

Are you going to be known as a ministry agent online, or will you be a ‘private person’? Will you use social media to communicate with the people to whom you minister, or is it completely separate from your ministry? The answer to these questions will in many ways this determine how you use social media.

If you are known as a ministry agent online you may find yourself pastoring people who have left the church but still feel the need for a spiritual connection. As someone known to pray, you may be asked to pray for people you’ve never met in RL in their times of joy and sorrow. Two years ago I was asked to write a prayer to be read at the funeral of the mother of a woman living in the USA. I knew the daughter well, despite never meeting her in RL, and had been praying for the mother in her last illness. My virtual pastoring continued to the funeral and beyond.

And if you are going to use social media as part of your ministry Amy C. Thoren has three very helpful suggestions:

  • When posting on parishioner profiles, spread the posts around. Keep an eye on the disregarded, the vulnerable, and the troubled.
  • To the degree that it is possible online, rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep, but set time limits for social networking at work.
  • When you leave a congregation, make your future online habits clear to parishioners.[17]

5.     Talk to others

There are many ministry agents online already. Talk to your colleagues to discern good practices. Learn from their mistakes.

In fact, learn from a couple of mine:

  • Remember the many different audiences to whom you are speaking online. Your impassioned post about a social justice issue may play well with Uniting Church members, but not so well with other Facebook friends. Think about whether you want to have that argument with them before posting.
  • It is almost impossible to have a reasoned theological argument in 140 characters. Twitter is generally not a good place to discuss theology. It may be used to refer people to longer articles in blogs, but I suggest that you don’t try to convince someone of the best way to read the Bible by tweeting them.

6.     Some further reading

The New Media Project at Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis. Accessible at http://www.cpx.cts.edu/newmedia

Baab, Lynne M. friending: real relationships in a virtual world. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011.

Campbell, Heidi A. When Religion Meets New Media. London: Routledge, 2010.

Thoren, Amy C. “The Pastor on Facebook: Boldly Going Where Everyone Else Goes”. Word & World 30 (2010): pp. 272-280.


[1] This definition comes from Verity A. Jones, director of the New Media Project at Christian Theological Seminary, an independent institution associated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Indianapolis. The New Media Project can be accessed at http://www.cpx.cts.edu/newmedia

[2] Jolyon Mitchell, “Questioning Media and Religion.” In Between Sacred and Profane: Researching Religion and Popular Culture, ed. Gordon Lynch (London: I.B.Taurus, 2007), p. 35.

[3] Heidi A. Campbell, When Religion Meets New Media (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 21.

[4] Malcolm Muggeridge in Christ and the Media (1977), quoted in Mitchell, “Questioning Media and Religion,” p. 36.

[5] “Facebook tsunami”, Christian Century, March 6, 2013, p. 35.

[6] L. Gregory Jones, “My Facebook friends”, Christian Century, July 15, 2008, p. 35.

[7] To quote Agnieszka Tennant, “A Fishy Facebook Friend,” Christianity Today, October 2007, p. 102.

[8] Lynne M. Baab, friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011), p. 38.

[9] Baab, friending, p. 19.

[10] Baab, friending, p. 61.

[11] Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, London: Penguin Books, 2012, p. 63.

[12] For example the President of Princeton Theological Seminary, M. Craig Barnes, found that his appointment was announced through Facebook long before he was able to tell his then congregation himself. “Facebook tsunami”, Christian Century, March 6, 2013, p. 35.

[13] The Text This Week at http://www.textweek.com/ is a good place to start looking for resources online.

[14] Adam P. White, “Pastor on Facebook? We might learn something”, Word and World 30 (2010): p. 330.

[15] Baab, friending, p. 71.

[16] Baab, friending, p. 67.

[17] Amy C. Thoren, “The Pastor on Facebook: Boldly Going Where Everyone Else Goes”. Word & World 30 (2010): pp. 272-280.

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