Meredith Gould on Church Social Media

meredith-gouldRecently I had the chance to interview Meredith Gould, author of numerous books, the most recent being, The Social Media Gospel: Sharing the Good News in New Ways. I wanted to talk to Meredith about #chsocm, or church social media, and she had some tremendous insights and advice to offer. The woman that I refer to as “the apostle of the internet” has been living at the intersection of faith, communications and technology, long before social media was social media, tireless in her faith. And she always has something to say, generously sharing her gifts and experience with all! (If you don’t believe me, visit her website, or follow Meredith on Twitter.)

Do you want to win a book? Anyone who leaves a comment on any of the blogs where this interview is posted will be entered in a drawing to win a copy of The Social Media Gospel. Rules can be found at the end of the post.

Now for questions – and answers – about the practical and pastoral dimensions of the mission field of @chsocm from Meredith’s point of view.

As a social media minister, I’m often told by others that they “don’t have the time” for social media. The implication seems to be that #chsocm is something for lazy people with nothing better to do. What would you say to this?

After heaving a deep sigh and looking toward heaven, I’d explore this naysayer’s knowledge of what social media is and why it works well for community-building among people of faith.

I’m pretty sure I’d quickly discover that the naysayer doesn’t realize social media is called “social” media because it facilitates conversations that can lead to quality relationships that in turn lead to community.

Probing a bit further, I’d probably discover that the naysayer does not, in fact, understand the amount of commitment and effort it takes to build communities IRL (in real life). And I’d probably also discover that the naysayer is clueless about tools for easily maintaining a credible online presence to build community.

Depending on my mood, I might ask questions like, “How much time do you think it takes to develop any ministry and then get people actively involved?” Next, I’d ask, “If you had a tool that could speed up that process, why wouldn’t you want to learn how to use it?” I might also ask, “What’s really doing on? What worries you about social media?”

If I were completely fed-up with the naysayer’s resistance, negativity, and lack of coachability, I might ask, “Are you always so uncharitable toward people who are developing new ways to preach, teach, and live the Gospel?”

Nah, I wouldn’t say that.

I’d say, “Don’t want to use social media? Then, don’t but please don’t prevent others from sharing the Gospel with these tools.”

Many of us who are active in social media ministry see this as an offering of hospitality. How can worship communities use social media as a way of welcome? OK, that is a big question… let me rephrase it by asking, what are the top 2 or 3 best practices of social media hospitality?

Great question! I’m going to mention three best practices because I love the number three, for reasons that should be obvious!

1) For your church website and e-newsletter: Don’t just post social media icons/buttons. Include “teaser copy” that’s a call to action like, “continue the conversation at:” or “build community at:” or “join us in between Sundays at:” And please don’t bury information about these ways to connect in your website or e-newsletter footer.

2) When setting up social media platforms: Make sure that images, color palette, font, description and other forms of “branding” is consistent across platforms. While this might seem like a picky technical issue, this level of coherence conveys stability, integrity, and clarity. More hospitable!

3) While using social media platforms: Be inviting and gracious to newcomers; generous with regular visitors. Know when to use email or pick up the phone to reach out when online communication is devolving in clarity or tone.

Many parishes or dioceses fear social media because they see a potential for something nefarious, worrying that it might compromise safety, especially for the young. What are some assurances against this, as you see it?

We’re now experienced enough with digital to understand the vital importance of privacy and protection, especially for youth and other vulnerable populations. Every social media platform offers rigorous ways to lock down accounts for more privacy. Unfortunately, people don’t seem to be getting help or taking time to learn how to set up privacy functions.

In addition, I encourage churches at the local and diocesan levels to either create or adapt existing guidelines for social media use. I include a detailed appendix about this (Appendix B: Yes You Need a Social Media Policy) in The Social Media Gospel as well as examples. Trust me, adapting an existing policy (even from churches in other denominations) is way more efficient than making one up from scratch.

Bigger issue that’s too big to get into here: “privacy” vs. “secrecy.” Church has gotten into a whole lot of avoidable trouble and scandal by confusing “privacy” with “secrecy.” I discuss this in more detail in my earlier book about church communications ministry, The Word Made Fresh: Communicating Church and Faith Today.

Along those lines, how do you counter the old trope that says social media is really for “young people”?

I’d reach for high quality dark chocolate and let that flow into my system before suggesting a visit to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Data collected by the Pew Research Center puts that erroneous assumption to rest. Lately, when anyone asks how to find something online, I send them to this link.

Contest rules: Anyone who enters a comment on any of the blogs where this post appears will be entered into a drawing. The deadline for comments is Friday, July 26, 2013 at 8pm Eastern Time. The winner will be contacted for address and shipping information.

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11 Responses to Meredith Gould on Church Social Media

  1. I think it’s inescapable that social media is being used by most everyone to spread their gospel message, whether it be the Good News or Consumerism, and that the Church should certainly use social media for the spreading of the Good News, and already is.

    This having been said, we should also be aware of how social media influences the Good News and its presentation, and the Church. There is no substitute for doing something in person, especially presenting the Good News to family, friends, and strangers, and the presentation of the Good News online is not the same as the presentation of the Good News in person. Likewise, an online “Church” isn’t the same thing as a Church one attends in person.

    Social media must and should be used by the Church, for many things, including the presentation of the Good News, but we must also realize the limitations of social media when doing so.

    The medium is the message, and the internet has altered the presentation of the Good News and the Church, just as television has altered the presentation of the Good News and the Church, and these alterations are not for the better, I think, but for the worse. Users of social media, like watchers of television, have very short attention spans, and when the presentation of the Good News and the Church adapted to fit this medium’s model and methodology the Good News and the Church suffers loss, in my opinion.

    Social media is good for many things, some of which the Church as a whole has yet to realize. A recent example of this was on the news: a Catholic church effectively used social media to rescue a baby from abortion:

    Church finds family for unborn down syndrome baby – http://www.wusa9.com/news/article/266187/158/Church-Flooded-With-Calls-To-Adopt

    There’s no reason why social media, such as Facebook, cannot be used to bring women with unwanted pregnancies together with parents wanting to adopt unwanted babies. In fact, I think this will be a common future use of social media by the Church and a living-out of the Good News we proclaim.

    This is a limited use of social media, which doesn’t disempower the proclamation of the Good News and the Church, but rather: empowers it.

    We have to be careful when using social media that we aren’t allowing the Good News and the Church to be shaped by it, and that we are instead using the Good News and the Church to shape social media.

    There is always a loss that comes with each technology, and we have to ask questions about each new technology: What does it give? And what does it take away? We cannot be so naive as to think technology only gives and never takes away: technologies always take away, and usually take away aspects of our humanity and human interactions, to some degree or another, and this is never for the best, for us as human persons, but is always for the worse.

    Book TV: Neil Postman, “Technology” – http://youtu.be/KbAPtGYiRvg

    Neil Postman, Technopoly, and Amusing Ourselves to Death – http://wp.me/pPnn7-2jq

    • AJ, I will check out the links later. I addressed some of this on Facebook yesterday and I also addressed it in my comment to Cackie. I’m not sure that we will fully agree on this, but I’m grateful to be in conversation with you.

  2. Julie Ford says:

    I was so inspired by what is possible I just sent the links to this article and info on the book to my parish So many amazing possibilities! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Cackie says:

    I appreciate the viewpoint and experiences and ideas of Meredith Gould in terms of making good use of social media in ministry and evangelization, as well as the pointed question in response from ajmacdonaldjr posted above: What does each new technology give? And what does it take away? I’m not sure I’d come down quite so negatively as he/she seems to at the end of the post, but I do think we have to be aware of the tension (a healthy one?) between responding to people in their cultural reality and at the same time being counter-cultural. Seems to me that part of the counter-culture that we have to uphold is the need for building honest and life-giving relationships, and face-to-face encounter is still the best. That doesn’t mean we avoid other ways of creating community, but that we realize the limitations along the way, and find ways to move from virtual communities to living dialogue and faith sharing along the way.

    • There was a little conversation about this on my Facebook page yesterday, perhaps you saw it. I do think that AJ is strong about this. I understand his POV, I think! However, in my own experience, the virtual has led to so many real life-real presence relationships and transformations. Speaking only for myself, the use of technology as a means of connecting to other human beings has been so powerful, in real life and online. Honestly, I think of you, someone with whom I have some limited FB contact, but I also think of how many Bible studies I facilitated, and with your knowledge and wisdom! And we are today in this conversation.

      Via my own presence online as a Catholic blogger on our local newspaper’s blog platform, I have had numerous emails and conversations with people who have been hurt by the faith, rejected, those who want to come back, those who knew have not known church but who want a safe space in which to explore. Something is happening.

      Next week I will travel to London with my family and have lunch with someone that I met via a circle of Episcopalian bloggers. And I have met countless online friends here in the US – so many that is is almost unbelievable! We connect online through shared interest, prayer and relationship. None of this is ever meant to take the place of real presence, and there are many limitations – but for the most part it is good. True human interaction is always the optimal, but I think that social media ministry offers us new pathways to that goal.

      Thanks for commenting! Because of our work “together” (very virtual!) with Bible studies, I feel honored to have your thoughts and words here today. Peace.

      • Cackie says:

        Thoughtful response and I appreciate it, Fran. I have had similar experiences of “meeting” folks online and then, having shared much in that venue, have plenty to build a fruitful relationship and face to face when possible. I do think social media can offer a few new pathways. One thing that is really not addressed very often is the disparity between those who have access to technology and that whose living situations keep them completely out of the loop in that regard. Perhaps an opportunity for our communities of faith to bridge the gap!

        Enjoy London!

      • Cackie, I love this: “One thing that is really not addressed very often is the disparity between those who have access to technology and that whose living situations keep them completely out of the loop in that regard. Perhaps an opportunity for our communities of faith to bridge the gap”

        True true true – thank you for pointing that out… I will be more mindful of that going forward. And thanks again for the interchange here!

  4. Quick observation: Everything moves so quickly these days, in great part because of what digital technology makes possible, that it’s tough to define “counter-culture” with any authority. And I say this as a sociologist! I’m working on a talk about change — cultural, social, and technological — and what all that has to do with sharing the Gospel.

  5. vidajay says:

    Fran, thanks for this post …and great observations and tips from Meredith.

    I get dismayed every time I see a church use a FB or Twitter account simply to broadcast Bible verses or prayers without also engaging with their communities–both within and outside the church.

    Social media provides the means “to meet” people one would otherwise not have the opportunity IRL. Even as an introvert who does not engage in much chatter on SM, nevertheless my online presence has led to fruitful relationships IRL with others on behalf of the common good.

    With regards to AJ’s comments about the de-humanizing effects of technology I would ask: what aspect of our humanity did the printing press take away, or for that matter, the telegraph or the telephone? I’m not sure to what extent we can shape a technological tool, but we certainly need the gospel to penetrate us more deeply…allow Christ to humanize more and more so that when people meet us on the street or on social media they are meeting a genuine human being who has been touched by pain and sorrow and still knows how to laugh, rather than someone simply peddling Jesus–passing out tracts or posting lifeless messages from Texts. Pope Francis, in a recent homily exhorted priests to be pastors first…shepherds who are close to the “smell of the sheep.” Conversely, those who visit our churches online need to at least get a whiff, now and then of the person or community behind the tweets or posts rather than be met with a string of texts divorced from the human persons and community that give them life (my Catholic roots are showing here). I appreciate the Roman Catholic imagination which views the world as sacramental. Everything, including technology, has the potential to disclose God’s sustaining/saving/liberating grace.

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