How to use social media well

Explore our recommendations regarding the general world of social media, especially if getting into it for the first time. Or return to the Recommendations page for more. Explore the Findings tab for more information about the rest of our work.

    Thinking theologically

  1. The best social media practices arise organically from a community and its leadership. This means the practices are consistent with the mission, purpose, personality, and culture of the community. As one case study subject, Tony Lee, says, it has to “fit the flow.” Use forms of media that are part of the daily lives of members and pastors, incorporating them naturally as they come up. Wait if you have to; no need to be first. And don’t think you have to do everything (Facebook, Twitter, blog, etc.). Rather evaluate your ministry context, your goals and purpose, and the theological underpinnings of your mission, and intentionally choose tools that fit.
     
  2. Content is still king. It may seem like all the “glitter” in popular culture is coming from social media these days. However, without good content, there is not much to share via social media. It still matters what the message and character of conversations are. Look for good content to curate. Create good content yourself … and then share it appropriately.
     
  3. Because so much about new media and social media is still experimental, it is helpful to be open to the gray areas of human life. Things do not exist in a strict duality of “good” and “evil” online. It’s much more difficult to evaluate because so much is new. Use the ethical tools you would use on any other situation to evaluate, but remember the nuance and complexity of human life, too.
     
  4. Pay attention to boundaries. They exist everywhere for the sake of healthy and faithful relationships and basic civil life. They exist online as well. If something is not appropriate in face-to-face relationships, then it’s probably not appropriate online either. The same moral and ethical boundaries you abide by in your daily life apply online as well.
     
  5. Use social media with an eye to the personal. Social media is called such because, at its best, it is social in character. People want to hear from you, not from your organization or church. They may still want to know about your organization or church, but they want to hear from you, not from an unnamed loudspeaker. Eugene Peterson advises preachers to learn to be “transparent, but not naked.” Aim for that balance in what you share. One writer says show your human side to achieve success in social media.
     
  6. Can spiritual direction be done online? One of our guest bloggers thinks so and shares his story. Don’t miss the comment thread on this blog post.
     
  7. Consider race, gender, and class dynamics when putting social media to use. If social media is social, then its social cues are going to be culturally specific. Explore some of the research on this topic and consider the question of whether Black churches should use social media differently.
     
  8. Embrace rather than avoid the gift of humanity on display in social media. Think about this theologically and help the church to think about what we learn about humanity through social media.
     
  9. Explore our theological essays for some of our best thinking on doctrines such as Incarnation, Ecclesiology, Salvation, and the Trinity, and on historical trends and theological practices.
     
  10. Some practical advice

  11. Learn from the practitioners. Studies, including our own, reveal pervasive use of social media among young clergy and young people. Not all of them love social media, but many do. If they don’t love it, they use the tools anyway. If you are not young, talk about social media with people who are. And regardless of your age, or theirs, talk to people who really understand social media and can help you.
     
  12. Ask friends to show you what they do and share with you their favorite apps. There are not a lot of classes out there that teach social media. If social media are about relationships, then use your relationships to learn about social media. And share what you are doing with others. Getting into a social media mindset means you have to share, too.
     
  13. Experiment with applications and devices. Step into the social media mindset by just trying something. The social media world can be forgiving because many folks in it just learned how to do it themselves and probably made the same mistakes you did. Someone will help you if you misstep. Experiment with metaphors and images as well. Be brave.
     
  14. In religious circles, mixing media can be very appropriate. Because religious communities tend to be intergenerational and economically diverse, you won’t be able to go all digital all at once. Keep print while adding digital. And don’t forget that kids still like to color with crayons! Remember that effective communication requires repetition, using a multiplicity of channels and media. In other words, you don’t have to travel a linear path of technology progress. Do what works, when it works.
     
  15. What you choose to do does not have to be expensive. Many social media tools are free. With a cheap flip camera you can make a video and post it to YouTube and become a viral sensation overnight. Facebook is free, and it’s where people tend to spend a lot of time. Some website and blog template suppliers are also quite affordable these days.
     
  16. Be open to being changed by the media you use, and be sure to evaluate that change as you go along. Maintain a posture of curiosity rather than fear. You may find that you have a knack for visual images that you never imagined you had before trying Pinterest. You may discover that you are really good at offering encouraging words to friends in need on Facebook. Or you may discover that you really like the new sounds of church.
     
  17. Don’t force your use of social media. Allow yourself to get into it at your own pace. Find your voice and your rhythm. If you are too “false” in the world of social media, others will pick up in it immediately and then your credibility takes a hit. Don’t try to hide behind social media. Be yourself. You can play with “persona” online, but be careful.
     
  18. Think about the audience you want to engage. If you are reaching out to your own parishioners, a closed Facebook Group might be a platform for you. If you want to reach new people in geographically dispersed locations, a website with changing content, interactive features, and strong publicity channels might be the way to go. Explore platforms and learn what they best enable so that you can make wise decisions about where to invest your time and energy.
     
  19. As they say in the business world, “most of the smart people work for someone else.” Much of the best sermon/programming/ministry/social justice ideas are in someone else’s head. Social media give you a way to draw out some of those ideas that you wouldn’t have otherwise. Use social media to tease others into communicating with you rather than simply broadcasting your own message at them. Within your church community, social media can also help bring out the spiritual gifts of members.
     
  20. Use social media to offer invitation rather than advertise. Bring friends along with you to an event; don’t just tell them about it. Share information that you think people want to know, not just what you think they ought to know. Remember that these media are social. Getting out your church’s information will be much more effective if you can remember this.
     
  21. When you write online, think about storytelling in new ways. Be invitational and see how your story might change with the comments and responses of others. Follow some of their leads as well as you own. Write in an accessible way (but please don’t completely abandon good grammar!). This may take some practice. Ask people to help you find the right voice or tone for this kind of writing. Be creative.
     
  22. Use social media tools for clergy support networks. Clergy peer support is increasingly recognized as an essential element for successful ministry. In incredibly large numbers, younger clergy (under 40) use social media to tap into their clergy peer groups—for sharing, friendship, Bible study, and ideas. Check out these numbers and ideas.
     
  23. Consider using social media to listen well. Facebook and Twitter can offer a window into the worlds of people in your church community. Let people know you are listening and paying attention. It can be an important ministry of presence. Our case studies are full of stories about pastors and lay leaders using social media for pastoral care.
     
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.

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