“We must learn the new languages required for engaging the digital world. This is not just to keep up with the times, but precisely in order to enable the infinite richness of the Gospel to find forms of expression capable of reaching the minds and hearts of all.”
The words of a digital evangelist? They were actually uttered by the octogenarian Joseph Ratzinger just weeks before his Papal term came to a tired end in early 2013. A less elegant but punchier message came from Justin Wise, the author of A Social Church: A Theology of Digital Communication
, in February. “How often have you talked about ‘reaching people where they are,’” he wrote “and realised that much of the time, they are on the internet?”
A cliché it may be, but for many being online and communicating across social networks is an integral part of life. Facebook celebrated its 10th birthday earlier this year and counts more than 1 billion users. Twitter numbers are almost equally as staggering, and that’s not to mention platforms such as Instagram, Google+ and LinkedIn where innumerable interactions are taking place between people each day.
With so many of us social networking on a personal level, Baptists Together
wanted to discover examples of how churches are weaving this - still relatively new - technology into their lives.
Clearly one of the great benefits of social media is the ease of access and the availability it gives. For Jonathan Somerville, pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Wolverhampton, being online allows him to connect with his congregation in the middle of their working day.
“I could be sat in my office and in the space of half an hour have a couple of really meaningful conversations on Facebook Messenger with people at work,” he says. “Something has happened and they’ve checked to see if I’m there. I’m able to pray for them, and explain what I’ve prayed. It’s a place where people meet and reach out for support and encouragement.”
Jonathan is quick to add lots of human contact still takes place, both with the Sunday gathering and seeing people for a pastoral chat and coffee. “But it’s not the only way anymore.”
Offering encouragement was a key theme of Emma Boylan’s research into how youth workers are using social media to connect with their young people.
Emma, a youth worker herself, is currently doing a dissertation on the subject at Bristol University and carried out a survey – shared via social networks – of youth workers of all denominations around the UK.
“There were lots of responses saying it was an amazing form of communication: some are using it as part of a mentoring relationship, through the Facebook chat mode, while most are sharing material, stimulating discussion and simply for encouragement. In fact, using Facebook as a means of encouragement was one of the main themes I found,” she explains.
Interestingly her research revealed that though many youth workers were using Facebook and other platforms, they didn’t feel particularly confident about how to best do it. This was particularly in relation to safeguarding issues.
“I think some are fearful of it, but essentially people are coming to the conclusion that it’s here to stay - how best do we use it,” Emma continues. “Statistics show that teenagers spend up to eight and a half hours a day online. Young people I’m in contact with, it’s just a massive part of their life - so most youth workers want to use it more.”
The interactive nature of social media can certainly widen a church’s pastoral reach and contact, both for the minister and between members of the congregation. For the church’s Tuesday morning prayer meeting, Jonathan invites requests through a simple message on Facebook.
“A whole bunch of prayer requests come through online. Some people now even send me prayer requests the previous evening, because they know we are praying. And it’s not just people from the church – it’s wider too. It means we are receiving lots of things that we otherwise wouldn’t have known about. Tuesday morning has been hugely enriched by making it open. It’s all part of the life of the church.”
Jonathan also shares about the house group at his church that conducts most of its business online. It was set up around four years ago because a number of people worked long hours and out of the city and struggled to commit meeting every week. The group does gather physically once a month to pray with each other, but in between they are regularly in contact through email or Facebook, sharing prayer requests as well as conversing about a text they are studying.
“We place a high value on small groups at our church – it’s the first line of pastoral and missional care,” says Jonathan. “And with this group there is a constant conversation, they are in contact with each other every day, and their depth and level of fellowship is incredible.”
As well as pastoral contact, the sharing of information and giving people a voice are key features of social media. At the time of writing the ever-expanding Baptist Collaboration Group on Facebook had grown to more than 500 members, a fine example of how a social media platform can connect people with a shared bond without the need for physical contact. Every week questions are posed, responses given, ideas shared and issues discussed by Baptist Christians across the UK and beyond. In a one-week period in February subjects included advice on starting up a church café and what to charge at weddings and funerals, to a discussion on the merit of sabbaticals and requests for nominations for trustees of our Baptist Union. You sense the collaborative potential of this group is huge.
It seemed only natural in researching this article to ask for information from the group - and sure enough a number of responses came back. They included Stephen Sutton of Coulby Newham Baptist Church, Middlesbrough who wrote that as well as the usual “updates/event notification/newsletters/blogs and church family socialising”, “mission-wise the church has set up and run a local community Facebook page - with lots of local info and events, news and good stories. In addition, he said, a church friend has set up and runs "for free" Facebook pages for posting free items on.
Also in the North East Ian Britton of Beacon Lough Baptist Church in Gateshead knows how quickly modern technology can mobilise people. Last year at short notice he was able to organise a 24 hour prayer circle for a much-loved church member stricken with cancer: emails and a Facebook page connected contacts from around the world. More generally it has allowed him to deepen relationships with others both in his church and wider community. And an even more down to earth example came in the form of the grandparents who who quite literally said to a Baptist Regional Minister recently: “Thank God for Facebook”. They explained how it keeps them in contact with grandchildren who live many miles way, and enables them to share something of their faith.
Of course, social media can have its drawbacks – most users could point to instances when they should have pressed the pause button before bashing out a particular post – but that’s probably the subject for another day. And in the same way this article only really scratches the surface of social media use, one senses its presence and potential in our Christian lives is still at an early stage. One thing is certain: it is connecting people in ways not possible beforehand, and that is a reality churches would do well to grasp.
“I think the biggest thing churches need to get their heads around,” says Jonathan Somerville, “is that online is a location. Some think it is second best. But being online is a geographical location where you can do church life.”
Consider your church’s social media presence. Is it simply an advertising feed? Consider inviting feedback and responses and making it much more two-way
Youth workers and social media? Youth Work Resource has created some guidelines
Want to be added to the Baptist Collaboration Facebook Group? Email firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll add you
Not online? Then pray for those who are. Many Christians are actively engaged in the digital world – pray for wisdom and grace as they share the Gospel