Content & Images © 2008-2014 - Rachel Miller, Ink Road Originals LLC, All Rights Reserved

Monday, August 22, 2011

Using Social Media in Christian Ministry

It seems the wave of the future is social media, from blogging to social sharing sites like Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, and others.  These places haven't been around very long, and Christians everywhere are still trying to figure out how to use them properly in the service of Christ.

I am always happy when I read about a useful application of social media in ministry.  I personally feel the most important place for Christians to stand is at the crossroads of society, wherever it is.  We shouldn't just wave at society as they go by, either.  This is a serious business of catching people, perhaps for the last time, and introducing them to a message that saves lives.

The three main qualities of social media are that they are instant, personalized, and constantly updating.  These can be challenging as well, because they tend to contribute to short attention spans and easy boredom.  So, on the upside, we get quick access to individual people, but on the other hand, we may have a hard time holding their attention.

The Wrong Approach to Social Media

I hear a lot of talk about how we should tailor the message of Christ to be friendly to people "where they are."  In other words, there is a common belief in the Christian community that if we come across as too confrontational or negative in one of these split-second opportunities, perhaps in the scrolling news feed on Twitter or Facebook, people will pass the Gospel by, never to listen again.

I think there is an error at the core of this thinking.  The Bible is profoundly confrontational, instantly personal, and always applicable--even in the case of modern problems.  It is the perfect counterpart for this instant gratification, bored and fickle society that social media sometimes creates.  Those looking for "new" or "challenging" things to break them out of their rut will find that the Bible can fill that absence in their consciousness.

There are things in the Bible that will offend and turn people away.  The problem, however, is not that the Bible is too hard on people; it's that people expect the truth to be less harsh than it is.  If they run away from something they know is true, that is their choice.  If they don't want to hear the truth, putting off telling them will most likely change nothing about that, and it might even make them believe we are trying to deceive, control, or manipulate their personal decisions.

Using the Platform to the Glory of God

The goal shouldn't be to try to make people feel comfortable.  We aren't selling shoes or vacuum cleaners.  In fact, we aren't selling anything (2 Corinthians 2: 16-17), but rather, we are delivering a message.  It's not even a message we have to invent, and our audience already wants it!  How simple is that?

In the "olden days" we delivered the message of the gospel from a pulpit, or a wooden crate on a street corner, or from flyers and letters.  Later, we delivered the message through a radio program, a song, or a television program.  The basic method has really not changed, though the avenue for ministry operates under stricter character and time limits now.

Here's my tips for using social media as an outreach:
  •  Tailor the message to the need. The Bible is full of answers to people's needs, so it's a matter of figuring out which things people need to hear right now.  See what people are talking about, and pray for God to reveal what need is most pressing today.
  • Speak to the perspective of the audience.  It was documented in the Bible that when Paul spoke to Greeks, he talked about their gods and how his message would meet their needs in a way their religion did not.  When Paul spoke to the Jews, he extensively quoted from the Old Testament to prove that his message was supported by what they already believed.  When he spoke to Christians, he talked about Jesus' life and ministry, and how it fit in with human history and prophecy.  He always used a two-fold approach for presenting the gospel: (1) He talked about what the audience knew, or explained what they could learn, (2) He started talking about things his audience found interesting, and related them to what he found important (the message).
  •  Be available to talk.  The difference between social media and older methods of ministry is that you can instantly speak one-on-one with your audience.  Respond to comments, tweets, Facebook chats and emails, etc.  Don't be afraid if the conversation gets off the original topic, because chances are, conversation will settle on this individual person's needs.  It is a unique discipleship opportunity, just like those days that Jesus hung out with His followers and talked about what they thought was interesting.  Social media starts as broad-scale ministry, and moves to small-group or friendship ministry.  This is the best kind!
  • Let the Bible do the talking.  The Bible offends; that has been established.  Still, the truth contained in the Bible is far more helpful and productive than anything we can try to add.  Share Scripture when it fits the topic, or base all advice and opinions on Scripture.  Never speak in these situations without trying to at least ground what you say in the Biblical truth, so that what you say can have a positive effect.  The Bible says,
"As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it." (Isaiah 55: 10-11 NIV 2011) 
To take this passage seriously in social media ministry, it is important to remember that all ministers are merely messengers and delivery men.  We speak, but God makes His words have an effect on the hearers (whether they listen to Him or not is their own choice).  If we make a concerted effort to deliver the truth consistently, rather than representing ourselves only, the ministry will be used by God.
  • Simple and straightforward is best.  With limited words (like 150 characters or less), get to the point quickly.  The message of the gospel is so simple, and that simplicity makes it intriguing.  People are used to being told to go somewhere, jump through some hoop, or master some skill in order to learn the secrets of a religion or the truth about something.  Web marketing and design cautions about this: The more times people have to click to get what they want, the more of them will walk away without getting it.  As I've said before, we aren't selling something, so people should just hear the message from us, without a lot of preliminaries.  If you have their ear today, tell them today.  They need the gospel now.  You may not get another chance to talk to them.
  • Update often.  Jesus preached everywhere He went, and often He was ministering all day.  Similarly, social media sites need to be updated frequently (how frequently is up to you).  Just remember that every new update may be another chance to reach out to someone who is watching.  Vary the topic and the approach, and keep new people coming in due to something that piqued their interest.  This is the whole point!
I grew up enjoying the after effects of a modern ministry revolution in music called "the Jesus Movement."  Some bold ministers reached out to hopeless, religiously directionless, addicted young adults, mostly based on the West Coast (California).  These people, in turn, reached out to their generation, talking about the things they knew were important to this crowd, and showing how the Bible met those needs.  They wrote simple music that pulled no punches about the truth of the Bible--you could even call it offensive and confrontational--and they released it to secular radio.  It piqued interest because it dared to challenge what was established, but it was heard because God was in it. The Jesus Movement reached many people through five minute radio sound bytes. Can we do the same for this generation?