Here I am, Lord? A pastor’s experiment with location-based social media and church

Posted Oct 03, 2011 | New Media Project

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By Rebecca Bowman Woods, guest blogger


I’m a big Foursquare user. If you’re not familiar with Foursquare or location-based social networking, users of these applications check in virtually to places where they are physically.

Foursquare interests me because of the connection between the virtual and physical. With Foursquare, there’s a gaming overlay to my everyday routine. I earn points for check-ins and can compete with my circle of Foursquare friends worldwide. I’ve earned the Mayorship of 10 different places I frequent, along with 14 badges, from the Starbucks’ “Barista” to the coveted “Supermayor” to the “Overshare” award.

I’ve also gotten some sweet “Foursquare-only” deals. I recently took my teen to the mall, and while said teenager was trying on jeans, I checked on Foursquare and “unlocked” a 15 percent discount on the purchase of those jeans.

I also like the social aspect of Foursquare. I’ve checked into places and had friends drop by in person to say hello. And Foursquare’s Tips helped me, during a visit to Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood, to find the place where locals go for great Cuban food.

So I wondered what would happen if I listed my small, urban congregation on Foursquare. I added the church to Foursquare’s venue database and even created check-in specials (a fridge magnet for newbies and a cookbook for repeat check-ins). I didn’t want to promote our Foursquare presence to the congregation; I just wanted to wait and see what would happen.

A month later, I logged in to view our stats. No one had come forward to claim the magnet or cookbook, but there had been some check-ins (none of them by church members). We even had a mayor—someone I’d never met. Who was this person? Was he faking his check-ins (an occasional problem with Foursquare)? I looked at his check-in days and times—always on Friday night around 7 p.m.—and it hit me. A Narcotics Anonymous group meets in the church basement at that time. His mayorship was legit (so much for his anonymity).

So I sent him a friend request through Foursquare, and he accepted. His check-ins appeared in my Foursquare news feed. For a while, he attended a lot of 12-Step meetings. And then things changed, and his check-ins were mostly at nightclubs. Then things changed again. Back to the meetings. These days he’s not checking in much, and he lost his mayorship to another NA attender. Strange to say that I’ve occasionally found myself praying for (and rooting for) this man I don’t know, but maybe it’s something I need to become more comfortable with: the overlap between online and offline space.

The members of my congregation still have yet to discover us on Foursquare. However, a few weeks ago, one of them tagged me when they checked in using Facebook mobile. Turns out, a whole group of them have been checking in via Facebook for worship and Bible study for months now. So they’re not averse to location-based social media; they’re just more comfortable with Facebook (and I understand that).

I’d love to hear your experiences and thoughts on how churches can use Foursquare and location-based social media. And if you’re ever in Carthage, Ohio, stop by Carthage Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and check in. I’ve got a free fridge magnet and cookbook for you.

Rebecca Bowman Woods
Rebecca Bowman Woods is a Disciples of Christ pastor, freelance religion writer, and contributing editor to Banned Questions About the Bible (Chalice Press, 2011).

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

1 Comment

  1. 1 Haddon Kime 31 Jan
    I was attending a social media workshop recently where location-based social media was referred to as web 3.0 technology. Though Foursquare was the first to stake a claim, I wonder if you would have had more success with Facebook Places.

    I also think it's a pretty good blanket rule NOT to check in at your "__________ Anonymous" meeting on any of these platforms. Unless of course that's why you're in the meeting in the first place, in which case I offer you prayers of healing.

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