Have you noticed a drop-off in some of your conversations this week? Yes, Lent started this week, and according to OpenBible, social networking is the number one thing that people tweeted that they were giving up for Lent! This reflects the negative perception of social media that persists amongst many: that it causes us to disconnect from those around us, and that we have become 'slaves to machines', but in 2013 Caroline Criado-Perez said
"If we don't like what social media is presenting us [with], we should look at society instead, not just the tool they communicate with."
Within the world, and even more strongly in churches, face-to-face is held up as the gold standard against which every other form of communication should be measured, rather than taken on its own terms. For many, however, being able to connect with known friends and family, typically via mobile devices, can be more important than engaging with strangers who happen to be in their geographical vicinity. The most recent Ofcom report indicated that 45 per cent of UK communication (excepting face-to-face) is now undertaken on mobile phones. There's a certain nostalgia for a time when we all 'chatted to each other', but in the past, we buried ourselves in newspapers and books, and now phones.
Many within the church are wary about 'using marketing', but with so much competition for everyone's attention, we can learn much from the expertise of those who been successful. Many social media campaigns in particular are about story-telling: the #thisgirlcan campaign, recently re-launched, demonstrated that telling ordinary people's stories is effective, and has led to increased participation in sport for women. We are called to be in the world, but not of the world, so can learn from the best, whilst ensuring that we have not succumbed to presentation over substance. Quoting Rev Cris Rogers: 'we need to spend time in his presence and then we will have something to say'. Churches should be equipping disciples to live their 'everyday, ordinary lives' through sermons and other activities that demonstrate an open mind about the power and possibilities of the digital. Vulnerability and humour often open the spaces for deeper conversations. Bible verses, possibly accessed via the multi-million downloaded app YouVersion, can give insights to how we should live our digital lives, including what and how we share, and how we can learn to listen and build relationships rather than simply broadcast.
Christians need to understand how to be 'resident' in the online spaces, rather than merely 'visiting' to do a 'bit of reaching out'. We're not trying to sell something; we're trying to be something in a world where the church doesn't have a positive reputation for many. As Carl Medearis says, we are not here to be the judge of people's lives, but to be a witness. Social media, so easily accessible on our phones, allows us to share aspects of our lives – including our faith - 24/7. If we encourage its use within our churches, there's also an opportunity for people outside to see the corporate elements of church, whether through livestreamed services (offer a space where people know they are safely off-camera), or by encouraging the congregation to tweet (always a contentious issue) or post photos on Instagram. Churches should ensure that they have an up-to-date website which works on mobile phones, supported by social media by one or more regular members of the church, more excited by the potential conversations than the digital platform. A 'tone of voice', typical content to share, and a manageable content strategy tied to the church diary is important. If your church is a Pokestop, consider a welcoming notice, and how you use it as a conversational bridge to those who visit, whilst keeping an eye out for what else might become popular. Churches should consider whether their digital presence reflects the reality of what people will experience when they walk through the door, as many do their research online before ever considering a physical visit.
There's great opportunities for groups within the church to use Facebook groups to connect throughout the week, to encourage inclusion, and as a non-threatening space for those who may visit for non-service activities such as parent/toddler groups. As with all aspects of church life, good risk management policies are required. Rev Bryony Taylor writing about anonymity and online evangelism says:
'People find it easy and more comfortable to ask questions about faith in a private space online... people on social media are directly contactable in a way that has not previously been so easy; paradoxically there is a distance offered by the online environment akin to the screen in the confessional box.'
We also need to consider when digital communication is appropriate, and when a visit over a cup-of-tea is the right option, when church leaders should speak publically into political and societal debates, and when it is time to step back. We also need to be sensitive to problems with the 'digital divide', where not all members may be able to afford the tools, and whether the church can offer solutions.
The digital offers opportunities for interaction and engagement, within the church and the wider community, enabling organisation of events and campaigns, bringing different voices together, and giving insights into the 'real' lives of Christians. Our mobile devices and social media are embedded parts of our everyday lives. It is right to question if we are using them healthily, but disconnecting entirely can make life poorer both for those who give it up, and those who connect with them online.
Dr Bex Lewis is Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University, director of social media consultancy Digital Fingerprint, and author of 'Raising Children in a Digital Age'. Follow her on Twitter @drbexl