Storytelling is central to every congregation’s life. And in the digital age, congregations grow as they learn to tell their stories well online, especially on social-media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
That was the premise for a November 8 workshop at First Unitarian Church of Providence, Rhode Island, where 60 lay and ordained leaders — mostly middle-aged and older — gathered to learn how surfing and scrolling can lead to meaningful involvement in a worshiping community.
As it turns out, people are sometimes screening themselves for membership when they follow a church’s feed, so messengers need to keep it interesting and engaging.
“Every one of our congregations really needs to be in the media and social media business,” said Peter Bowden, a Boston-based consultant with Leading Congregations, which advises churches on outreach strategy. “We need to really have that be a core part of our ministry if we hope to minister to people who are of the world, where this is increasingly the norm.”
More and more, surveys show, online is where stories of faith are told. One in five Americans share their religious faith in an average week, according to a November report from the Pew Research Center. Half of all Americans see someone else share their faith online in a typical week.
Among Episcopal congregations, membership tends to grow when parishioners recruit newcomers, whether online or in person. Forty percent of congregations that recruit “quite a bit” or “a lot” are increasing attendance, versus less than 10 percent of those that do no recruiting at all, according to the 2014 Survey of Episcopal Congregations, released in November.
At the workshop, most participants were from New England churches of the Unitarian Universalist Association, a small liberal denomination (161,500 members) that has bucked national trends by adding members in 28 of the past 32 years. Several said their congregations and small groups already have Facebook pages, but confessed they need to be wiser about how to foster steady engagement.
“We get new members all the time, and we have members disappear all the time,” said John Wilhelm, co-chair of the membership committee at First Unitarian of Providence, where upward of 200 worship on an average Sunday. “To keep people here is another challenge.”
It’s a problem felt especially with young adults, who can be quick to break ties when they’re not satisfied.
“Looking at the trends across denominations, we see religious organizations are losing youth once they reach a certain age,” said Kali Fyre, membership chair at Unitarian Universalist Church of Manchester, New Hampshire. “Is there something we can do through social media to help with retention of youth and young adults?”
Bowden said that social media is indeed the water where many young and middle-aged adults live, stay in touch, and forge new connections. He cited Trinity Church Boston as a model in managing online reviews, saying that Trinity inspires numerous young adults to write positive comments on Yelp.
Bowden spelled out why this matters: churches that do not generate good reviews (either from members or visitors) can be tarred by one or two critical comments that pop up every time someone searches online for churches in a given area.
In terms of outreach, social media places the introverted masses within reach. It gives congregations channels to reach thousands who find it far easier to watch a video clip or listen to a sermon podcast than visit a church for the first time. Some will visit eventually, but only after they’re certain what to expect.
“Because it’s often such an anxious experience to visit a church, people do everything they humanly can to make sure it’s the right match before they visit,” Bowden said. “They’re using all these communication channels to prequalify themselves for membership. … This means we have an increasingly small number of visits from them to help finalize that this is the place for them.”
Bowden prescribed a few core steps for congregations on the way to social-media success. He said lots of platforms are worth exploring and using, from Pinterest to Google+, but four are essential: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a blogging platform such as Tumblr or Blogger.
He urged churches to experiment without assuming that all platforms are alike. Sending out 140-character tweets every hour or two can be effective, but posting hourly on Facebook would grow annoying fast. Posting a couple of times a day on Facebook is plenty.
Like gadgets in a workshop or kitchen cupboard, different media serve different functions. Because full-length homilies usually work better in audio than video format, it’s wise to use YouTube for other purposes, such as a short, fun teaching moment on a specific topic. Rules of thumb for YouTube: use a tripod, attend to lighting, keep it lively, and edit to one minute or less. Shooting video with a smartphone is fine, as is editing with software that’s standard on a desktop computer.
In deciding what and how to post, congregations need to remember the overarching goal: share who they are in ways that make others want to engage with them. Whatever they post should deliver inspiration, information, or conversation because those are the benefits viewers expect and need from a church feed.
What if a church is in transition or unclear about its mission? That’s no reason to put off diving into social media, Bowden said. Such churches still have stories to tell about what they’re doing week to week, and they should be sharing it.
When posting, think: we’re unfolding a story here in stages with emotionally resonant touchstones. As events are coming up, a church might post a sequence over several days. Followers would see photos of people getting ready, announcements of new developments and friendly, open-ended questions like How will you observe Advent this year?
The importance of photos cannot be overstated, Bowden said. But congregations often forget to develop images or graphics, relying instead on layers of text that scanning eyes might not read.
“Congregations are not usually in the visual business,” he said. “It’s a real learning curve to figure out how the things we’re sharing [can be] beautiful, interesting, engaging, cute, whatever. … Because if your stuff looks like it’s going to be boring, I’m going to assume it is boring.”
Outreach isn’t finished when posts are online. After worship, trained greeters should make sure newcomers are neither ignored nor smothered, Bowden said. With first-time visitors, he said, the goal is to confirm that what they have learned online is true — is there really ample parking, and a clean, comfortable child-care area? — and keep anxiety levels low. A second visit should lay groundwork for new friendships and meaningful ties with the congregation and its initiatives.
“This has nothing to do with technology and gadgets,” Bowden said. “This has to do with relationship and making it easier for people to find their ways into your congregation’s life and heart.”
G. Jeffrey MacDonald