By Chuck Miller
If you thought Facebook was little more than a social-networking site for those with time to burn, think again. It’s being employed as a tool for advancing ministry at both the local and global level. It is a new venue for ministry leaders to share their experiences with others via a program designed to connect people.
Just as the current media-driven culture has changed expectations for Sunday worship, “hanging out” in the real world shares the stage with life in virtual communities. Technology impacts society through new means of communication – online chats, blogs, texting, and social networking. This change must be embraced in order to reach those whose lives are tied to online communites.
Facebook originated in 2004 as a student-only social network. (It currently serves in excess of 36 million users in the U.S. alone.) It’s a community that is a “highly social, highly viral, and highly extensible platform, according to Bobby Gruenewald, innovation pastor at LifeChurch.tv. It enables an individual to connect with old friends and make new ones, share information among a network of friends as well as their friends, and is easily built upon through an abundance of “social” applications. Connection via computer or cell phone is near instantaneous, sharing both life-changing words and the most mundane of facts.
In ministry, Facebook is being leveraged as a communication tool internally. Groups and Pages (subtle differences exist between the two) can be established for an organization and subsets within it. For instance, a group could be set up for a congregation or for specific ministries like the worship team, youth group (many teens already have Facebook accounts), men’s ministry, etc. Interested individuals join the appropriate groups or subscribe to pages as fans. When updates such as comments, pictures, or videos are posted, each person is notified. In this way, ministry leaders can keep members or fans up-to-date on what’s happening, and provide a forum for discussion and feedback.
Facebook also serve as a brainstorming mechanism and venue for planning and promoting events, keeping members and fans informed of scheduled gatherings and providing last minute information. It also allows one to extend invitations to others.
Page Reflects Ministry
For churches, Facebook can serve as a strategic outreach tool. Jonathan Herron, pastor of Catalyst Church, a Grace Brethren congregation in Kent, Ohio, says their page reflects their ministry.
“It’s e-vangelism, pointing potential first-time guests to CatalystChurch.com,” notes Herron who is one of several pastors within the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches (FGBC) who use Facebook. “It’s a free “relationship-building tool for 21st Century ministry. Churches gain instant credibility when engaging the iPod generation – its 1 Corinthians 9 contextualization of the Gospel.”
Of course, Facebook is not limited to churches as a tool for ministry. Non-profit organizations like Asia’s Hope, an FGBC cooperating ministry, are finding success in maintaining a presence on Facebook.
CE National has used Facebook to bring people together with two pages for Momentum, the annual youth conference. One is geared to the upcoming 2009 conference and the other chronicles Momentum when it was BNYC, or Brethren National Youth Conference. A key strength of Facebook, in the words of technical coordinator Steve Koontz, is that “word can easily spread through friends. If a student goes to Momentum, likes it and posts on the Momentum page, then the student’s friends will see the post.”
Keeping things fun and concise on Facebook is also important, especially for youth. CE National’s executive director, Ed Lewis, believes it’s a great way to build friendships in a casual environment, “to connect with people you do not see all the time.”
It’s been used effectively with Operation Barnabas, allowing kids to get acquainted before arriving for orientation. And, incoming students at Grace College find it a good place to connect before arriving on campus.
Facebook is being used as a means of reaching out globally, extending beyond the walls of local ministries. In Facebook for Pastors, a free-of-charge download (http://ministrymarketingcoach.com/free-e-books/), Chris Forbes contends that all pastors should be on Facebook. He cites several reasons: increased accessibility, engendering a Kingdom focus on a larger scale, breaking down the wall between clergy and laity, sharing heart and passions with others, encouraging learning and collaboration, and serving as yet another door to the local church.
A Connection on the Journey
Facebook allows you to find others who share your interests and passions and serves as a means of telling stories based on your personal journey, reconnecting with old friends and acquaintances, as well as making new ones. Ron Boehm, of VisionOhio, uses Facebook this way, seeking those might be interested in church planting.
Those who find it difficult to share Christ in a face-to-face context often find it easier in a setting like Facebook. It allows them to touch family, friends, and coworkers in a way they otherwise would not. It’s also a less-threatening environment in which to invite others to church or church-sponsored events.
Of course, Facebook has downsides. The greatest challenge is keeping content fresh and people engaged. Koontz believes “Facebook pages that become static after just a few months … can do more harm than good.”
Herron echoes the same concern. “Facebook is content-driven – if a church has regular updates of videos, photos and content, you gain exposure.”
Facebook, like many things, can become a real time sink if you’re not careful. As Lewis advises, “It can take a lot of time to connect with people … so you just need to control your schedule.”
Social utilities like Facebook can be vital tools for enhancing ministries and leading people to Christ, by engaging both technology and culture. But, it should serve as a community by extension, not a retreat that replaces real face-to-face relationships with virtual ones. Connecting with people equals more effective ministry. Facebook is simply a tool to employ in the process.
Chuck Miller is executive editor at Nerd of God (www.nerdofgod.org), a technology website for Christians and Christian ministries. He attends Southern Hills Community Church, a Grace Brethren church in North Royalton, Ohio, where he formerly served as associate pastor.