Educating imaginative, resilient leaders for God's changing world.

Facebook, the Pope, and You

by Linda Morningstar

If you’re wondering whether it’s appropriate or valuable for churches to be involved in social networking media, consider this:

His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI has a Facebook page and a  Website. The Vatican has a YouTube channel (watch the Pope give his Easter message).

Anyone who wishes to keep up with the Pope can (choosing from five languages):  read the Pope’s homilies (note his 2010 Easter Vigil homily); see photos and read the Pope’s comments during his travels (e.g.,  a pastoral visit to Brescia); read his letters of communal concern (most recently, to Archbishop Louis Kébreau of Cap-Haïtien, President of the Bishops' Conference of Haiti, after the earthquake there), and more.

It shouldn’t surprise us that Catholicism’s central figure is using social networking media to reach his various audiences. You don’t have to be a worldwide church authority – or even a small megachurch – to use social networking media effectively for your church’s efforts. Social media can be used for pastoral care, mission, education, inviting, welcoming, event planning, decision-making, or  simply becoming community.

Christians, Muslims, Hindus and people of faith everywhere rely on the Internet to seek,  produce, consume, and share religious and spiritual information, says Susan Wyche, doctoral candidate in human-centered computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.
“Muslims can use their mobile phones to prompt them to their five daily prayer times,” Wyche says. “Catholics can receive the Pope’s daily thoughts via short messaging service on their cell phones. Hindus can attend ‘virtual’ temples.

 “Research suggests that more people have used the Internet for faith-related purposes than have used Web auction sites, traded stocks online, done their banking online, or used Internet-based dating services.”

Using social networking media for faith-related purposes is as much about connectivity  – how we  relate to one another – as it is about theology, says CTS President Steve Hayner. “With the introduction of social networking media, we’ve taken a quantum leap in the ways we can connect with each another in our congregations and among those we hope to reach beyond our doors.

 “An intriguing question is how all the theological and ecclesial conversations taking place in the social media will affect the way we view what church is and how church functions."

Further, it’s a mistake to assume that social networking media and the ways that we use them are always positive, Hayner cautions. “There are significant theological and sociological implications. How, for example, are ‘virtual’ conversations or relationships similar to and different from face-to-face encounters?  How do these media effect the message?  What will happen to relationships, as they are more and more mediated by social networking media?”

(See Steve Hayner’s Facebook page, his Tumblr blog, his Twitter account.)

You don't  have to have a substantial budget to set up and maintain your social networking sites, says Bill Reichart, Presbyterian pastor, Atlanta area director of Christian Medical and Dental Associations, and social media consultant.  “Low-cost services for setting up sites are available, with templates you can update on your own with ease.”

(See Reichart’s Ministry Best Practices site. Learn about his upcoming Christian Medical & Dental Association mission trip to Haiti.)

“Don’t be afraid to go ahead and give one of the social networking options a try,” advises CTS Systems Librarian Bob Craigmile. “So what, if you try it and it doesn’t pan out? It’s cost you virtually nothing, and you’ve  learned from it.

“We always risk that the technology we are setting up will soon be obsolete or eclipsed by something more popular or efficient.

“Facebook, for example, has become more popular than MySpace. But that’s not cause for concern. Learning any platform will make you a quick learner with the next technology you try.”

(See Bob Craigmile’s LinkdIn site, the boxes on his Facebook page.)

“You can’t fly off into social media without a strategic plan for what your church really wants to accomplish,” advises Genie Hambrick, CTS Director of Communications.

“What is your mission, and how can social media – or a particular medium or platform within that – be a tool to help you accomplish your goals?” she asks. “In other words, you don’t ‘do’ Facebook or Twitter or blog or anything else just because the technology is readily available. And, then – also important – just because it’s available, can you use it well and effectively?”

To enable you to explore all of these ideas further, the CTS Center for Lifelong Learning is offering a summer event, “Social Networking Media in Congregations: Possibilities & Practicalities – Summer Scholars 2010,” on the Columbia Seminary campus, July 26-29.

Summer Scholars 2010 is designed to help church leaders to explore, plan, launch, and maintain social networking media.

This event is for you – whether you feel overwhelmed by the options, have just started out, or are already underway and looking for ways to be more effective.

Learn how to choose from the huge array of social networking options, based on what your church wants to accomplish. There will be sessions for beginners and for those who are well underway.

For details about the program content, the event schedule, housing information, and online registration, click here.