This week I was at the annual general meeting for the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences and took in a workshop on social networking. To be honest the workshop was a bit disappointing in terms of content, very basic and general. But it did get me thinking. I took in that workshop because I have put my name forward as communications officer for the society I was representing (Canadian Theological Society). I have two reasons for choosing this topic to look at with you this week.
First I would love to hear the good, bad, and ugly stories about your churches and social networking. There are a lot of potential pitfalls with electronic communication, but I also know that some of us have made quite effective usage of these new tools. So please post your stories so we can all learn from each other.
Second I think this is an important aspect of contemporary ministry that can be very intimidating. The fact that you are reading a blog means you've somewhat overcome this hurdle, but I think it is time for an article that might help get people to see the potential. Maybe it will be helpful enough to send around via more traditional means. My concern is that there is a generation that uses these tools as if they were an extension of their social being. They are often so comfortable that older folks have trouble keeping up. Even though I was a very early adopter of social networking (before that term existed!), I had to be dragged into the world of Facebook by my church. This was after I tried to drag them over to older tools which brings me to my first point.
1) You Can Lead a Horse to Water...
Probably the best point that was made at the workshop was that you need to find out where your people already are. MySpace is dead, Facebook is not a good place to reach the young (or at least it is being less so as their parents join up in droves), Google+ is very niche, etc. There are many tools I've loved, like Yahoo! Groups. But over the years they become digital wastelands, where only a few stubborn survivors remain. You can have your favourites but if you are serious about building a social network to support your community you need to go where your people are already going. And to be blunt, that probably will not be the same space for everyone. So if you are trying to network with youth, have your youth leaders find out how their youth are using these tools? Then empower them to build networks to reach out that way.
2) Know the Etiquette for the Tool
Back in the FidoNet days you knew that all caps meant religious fanatic (not in the good sense) or ignorant newbie (term for a person new to that tool). Today I still cringe when I see stuff in ALL CAPS, in fact I often just ignore it. Social networking is very flexible. You can listen to who you want and turn off whoever you don't want to hear. When you are building an extension of your community play nicely, play by the rules. When I started out in ministry I worked at a Foursquare street outreach church. We would preach on the street corners and in the daytime I'd take my old beater guitar down and pass it around in groups of street folk. As I entered into their space on their terms they began to tell me things that I would never have guessed. The reason they hated (yup that's probably the right word) street preachers was that they would come down, take the best busking spaces and not follow the unwritten rule of surrendering the space after a half hour when someone else came needing it. I didn't realize many of these kids relied on busking money and we were screwing that up for them. So we adjusted and it actually dispelled the animosity. In fact it build important relationships in that community. Social networking is no different. Find out where you want to build and spend time lurking (reading and watching without posting) getting to know the community you are trying to bridge into. This is also a great benefit of having different ministries connected to different social networking tools - the rules are different in each one so the more focused you are the better net citizen you will be and the more people will respect and want to listen to what you have to say.
3) Yes it is as Hard as You Fear
This might sound counter-intuitive if I'm trying to encourage the use of social networking tools. But I think truth is liberating. It is not easy. There are lots of potential pitfalls in social networking. How do you handle the over zealous Christian sister or brother who just jumped into your online world only to marginalize the people you want to reach. Finding a way to navigate that which doesn't further alienate your network and/or marginalize your sister or brother is not easy. It takes incredible grace. Fortunately we serve the King of grace. Just know that social networking is not easy, it takes work but God, who is always interested in reaching out to the world, God is with you.
4) Invite them to Connect in the Real World
This is one of those things that I think we miss. We assume too easily that people want social networking to remain a virtual affair. They actually don't. Social networking is built on the human desire to connect and be in community. Many people will jump at the opportunity to connect IRL (in real life in net speak). Make this a key aspect of your social networking ministry. Connecting people is great, bringing people into community is great, bringing them to places where they can encounter the presence and power of God, that is priceless.
So over to you, I want to hear the stories. We need to learn, to grow, to expand our outreach.
Frank Emanuel - Ontario Region