At this year’s Global Leadership Summit, Willow Creek Church’s senior pastor Bill Hybels said something that made me stop mid-tweet and look up. He said, “The more I utilize social media, the hungrier I get for true community.”
He followed that by saying, “Social media provides the illusion of true community.”
Did he really just say that? In a room full of bloggers and tweeters? I looked around the room where I was watching the simulcast and saw a room evenly split between people nodding their heads in agreement, and the rest, phones and computers in hand, who had a look of discouragement setting in.
I have tons of respect for Bill Hybels and he’s one of my favorite authors and speakers. I understand his perspective, especially in the context of the story he was telling. And I have seen those times when social media was used by a church as nothing more than another way to push information. There isn’t any community in a one-sided conversation. But I don’t totally agree with him on this statement.
Yes, social media (despite the name) is actually very impersonal at its most basic. Writing something and posting it online for the world to read doesn’t require anyone to be social. You can sit at your computer alone and write something that someone will read, also alone.
But when used intentionally for creating community and connecting people to the church, social networks are great tools to reach people. If people didn’t feel a connection to others through social media, then they wouldn’t be using it. So how can the church learn to truly connect with other people through social media and the web? Here are some ideas that can help:
- Initiate the conversation. Rather than waiting for church members to follow you on Twitter, or reminding them every week to like the church Facebook page, make the first move. Start by following them. Head to their Facebook page and leave a comment letting them know that someone on your staff is praying for them today. Does someone in your church write a blog? Leave a comment on a recent post. Taking the initiative and showing that the church is interested in the lives of its members goes a long way. Imagine if someone had reached out to you in this way, especially during difficult times.
- Respond as much as you can. Once the conversation has begun, you’ll have to do your part to keep it going. If you post something on your church’s Facebook page that receives comments and questions, take some time to respond to what people are saying. Answer the questions that need to be answered. Consider responding to lengthy questions with a quick video, or use photos when appropriate, giving a more personal touch to your response. When you validate and acknowledge what people are saying online, you’re building a trust that extends beyond the web.
- Ask good questions. Post questions to your congregation and community. Encourage interaction by asking them things that would be helpful for you or others to know. In this way, you can help to not only connect them to your church, but they can connect to each other.
- Make the conversation face-to-face once in a while. Although I don’t believe it’s absolutely necessary, it does help foster a sense of community when people can meet face-to-face. Schedule a meet-up at a local park or coffee shop, where those who interact online can meet in person. With the increasing number of online-only campuses, some people who regularly attend your church may live thousands of miles away. Consider scheduling a Google Hangout session or an online meeting focused on discussing a certain topic. Those who have never stepped foot in your church need ways to interact with others who share things in common.
- Give it a plan and some resources. Nothing undermines the sense of community online faster than silence. Choosing to connect with people online is a big commitment and requires time and a good plan. It doesn’t always require financial resources or a paid staff person dedicated to this, but you should know who is responsible for posting information and following up.
People are social creatures by nature. We want to belong and to be heard. We want to share our experiences with others who can relate. Interacting through social media and the web is not about numbers. The real value is in the meaningful conversations. And those can happen online or offline.
In a December 2011 article published in Christianity Today, Brandon Vogt summed it up by saying, “When used prudently, social media strengthen more than destroy. They not only tighten the bonds among Christians but also connect them with millions outside the faith.”
When executed with intentionality, a social media plan as part of a larger communications plan can be a catalyst for true community.