Social media is here to stay.
Whether your church is active on Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, or even TikTok, there’s no question that social media isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. You just can’t put the genie back in the bottle, no matter how much you may want to.
That being said, the relationship between social media and the local church can be increasingly acrimonious. It’s a love-hate relationship: We see the use cases for it in everyday life, but we also see the very real dangers that it can present.
So, how do we manage it? How do we live in a world where nearly half the population is an active social media user?
I think the answer lies in what God told Adam at the very beginning. Placing him in the garden to “work it and keep it,” God then told Adam to “have dominion over it.” He rules it, in other words, not the other way around.
It’s very easy for a local church to misuse social media and become a slave to it. As long as we remember that it is nothing more than a tool, the conversation becomes a lot simpler.
How is Social Media Affecting the Church?
You probably have your own list of pros and cons as to how social media has impacted your own local church. Here are some of the most common.
Hebrews 10:24-25 has long been championed as a text that clearly illustrates the value of in-person assemblies, but that’s confined to the local church that you’re a part of.
But what about members of the church that you’ve never met in-person, and yet are friends with online?
I can’t count how many times I’ve seen a Facebook status on my news feed from a Christian I’ve never met, that has nonetheless impacted me deeply. As members of a universal church, that community has always been there, but social media has allowed me to actually have at least some kind of a relationship and gain a similar type of encouragement that Hebrews 10:24-25 talks about.
People are using social media to attain many of the same things we do in everyday life. The challenge is making those relationships real, not superficial.
In some cases, I’ve even been fortunate enough to eventually meet these people in real life. Because I met them online previously, the in-person connection was even stronger.
Of course, redefining your community has also given new opportunities for the devil to do his work too. Old flames have reconnected over social media, wreaking havoc in a home, and predators can find their way into children’s inboxes. It’s a constant battle to maintain an online community that strengthens you and your family, rather than tears you down.
Extended Reach for Evangelism
I remember when knocking on someone’s door was the primary tool for evangelism. As a kid, I’d meet up at the church building the Saturday before a Gospel Meeting, lace up my roller blades, and ride down the nearby streets, putting flyers on every door I could find. Even today, preachers still knock on doors asking if the person is interested in a Bible study.
This tactic still works. There’s a reason that Mormonism is the fastest-growing religion, after all, averaging nearly 700 converts a day. (Although I would argue that’s a case for simply having any kind of plan for evangelism at all.)
The point is though…you don’t need to. People aren’t as receptive to opening the door to a complete stranger as they used to be, and besides, most people are online anyways. We go on social media apps to consume content, interact with others, and embrace our hobbies.
If you still want to knock on doors, go for it. I’m in your corner. But there’s simply no reason to exclude social media as a logical place for evangelistic conversations to occur.
Not only has social media changed how we evangelize, but it’s also changed the type of content we use to evangelize as well.
We sometimes think we need to have a long, drawn-out conversation with someone to get them from point A to point B, much the same way that Philip did with the Eunich. They sat in the chariot, talked about Isaiah 53, and by the time they saw some water, the Eunich was ready to be baptized.
That’s an atypical type of conversion. People today won’t usually give you hours of their time for you to talk about Jesus. What they will give you is a like on a verse image that you post on social media or quick comment. Anything that takes them a few seconds to interact with.
Utilizing short-form content just makes sense. There is simply too much material online — 570 million blogs, and counting! — for any one person to consume it all. We scan, hit the highlights and move on.
That’s why writing online content looks so different than written content. Notice how the blogs on this site include a lot of headings, subheadings, short paragraphs, and images? People love to scan, and I want them to be able to read quickly if that’s what they want to do.
Social media content has to be short to survive. Status updates on Facebook work better when they’re shorter. Twitter has a 280 character limit. TikTok is based completely off of short-form content. Images, infographics, gifs — they all get shared like crazy.
If you can find a way to condense your spiritual thoughts into a few sentences, you’ll be much more successful than posting an entire bulletin article online. It’s just facts.
We’re all called upon to be evangelists in one way or another, and user-generated content is a great way for someone to engage the world with their faith in a comfortable way.
Jesus spoke about the value of this short, staccato-type of evangelism in John 4:37-38: “One sows and another reaps. I sent you to reap what you didn’t labor for; others have labored, and you have benefited from their labor.”
Instead of focusing on the silver bullet that will convert a person in one sitting, look for multiple touch points to introduce people to the Gospel. Social media gives us that opportunity, reaching people not only through a church page, but via individuals’ status updates as well.
Showmanship Over Substance
The church has always battled people’s desires to entertained than to be spiritually fed. 20 verses after miraculously feeding five thousand people with a few loaves and fishes, Jesus chastised those same people.
“Truly I tell you, you are looking for Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you at the loaves and were filled. Don’t work for the food that perishes but for the food that lasts for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal of approval on him.”(John 6:26-27 CSB)
To be fair, people go on social media to be entertained. We want to be distracted, we don’t want to be challenged. If I can watch a few videos that make me chuckle, and see a breaking news update, that’s a successful social media visit.
Churches aren’t immune to this. In an attempt to gain followers, likes, comments, and shares, we can be guilty of hiding the real substance of the Gospel in favor of funny memes and inspirational quotes. When you factor in that most churches have entire social media teams dedicated to producing this content, it can be tempting to think that we need to compete.
But the church has never been about vanity metrics and passive thumbs up — we’re into saving souls. There’s nothing wrong with inspirational quotes and short videos, but don’t give into idea that you need to save the hard stuff for after people have shown interest in the Gospel. In some cases, that may be exactly what they’re looking for.
How is the Church Affecting Social Media?
This is the real question, isn’t it?
For centuries, we’ve preached that the church should be the one impacting the culture of the world, not the other way around. And even though it may seem naive to believe that the church can affect real change in the way that social media platforms operate, social media platforms have still adapted to the needs of individual churches.
In August of 2021, Facebook rolled out a new button inside of faith-oriented groups. Instead of commenting “I’m praying for you,” people were able to click a button that automatically displayed that response.
It may seem like a minor change, but it’s one that was both (a) needed and (b) controversial. Proponents argued it encouraged online interactions, while detractors said that it discouraged actually telling the person that they were praying for them.
Facebook Faith Department
Faith isn’t new, but Facebook has finally realized that they constitute a core part of their audience.
Because of this, Facebook has rolled out an entire new devision tailored to helping churches build up their online presence. Churches can find resources, blueprints, and programs designed to help them grow their specific community. It’s nothing you can’t get elsewhere, but it’s a nice acknowledgement of what people need.
If you want to make your content go viral, slapping a hashtag on it is a great way to increase visibility. Hashtags are inherently topic-based — #popular and #funny get a lot of traction — but religious hashtags can also go a long way.
Hashtags have the ability to make content reach the top of a platform’s algorithm, allowing the church to force their way into conversations they may not have been able to infiltrate otherwise.
What’s the Future of Social Media and the Local Church?
During a virtual faith summit in the summer of 2021, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg got up in front of a group of religious leaders and outlined her vision for the way that social media and the local church will work together in the future.
Her vision was bold, consisting of Meta’s Horizons package that has digital areas and worship services conducted exclusively inside of virtual reality.
While we scoff at that idea, the reality may not be too far off. 11.2 million VR headsets were sold in 2021 — a whopping 92% increase from the year before. That represents a huge surge in demand for technology, and potentially, for that technology to be used in spreading the Gospel.
How will we respond?