Churches putting faith in social media
“Old time” religion is getting a modern assist as churches and other houses of worship embrace social media in creative ways.
Across the country, printed bulletins — and, in some cases, prayer books — are giving way to smartphone apps with sermon notes, prayers and details of congregational activities. In addition to saving print costs, the apps have the added benefit of being “green.”
Members are accessing their congregations' Facebook and Instagram pages, Twitter accounts, YouTube channels — even making their donations via secure Web pages.
“Social media is the language people are using today, and, as a church body, we would be remiss to not speak that language,” says Dawn Check, communications director of the Cranberry-based United Methodist Conference of Western Pennsylvania, which represents 830 churches and 171,342 members.
Like many churches, the conference has a presence on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
“We've been pretty aggressive with our social media,” Check says. “We hosted two training sessions this spring to help churches understand the power of it. We offer a lot of tips on it and ways to incorporate it into worship. We used Twitter at our annual conference this year, and it was very well-received, lots of tweets!”
How powerful is Twitter and religion? In March, the Twitter hashtag “#AshTag” reached almost 2,400 tweets per hour on Ash Wednesday, eventually achieving 14 million hits, as people of all ages posted photos of themselves with ash on their foreheads to honor Lent.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops created an album of the Ash Wednesday selfies on Facebook.
It's a time of great opportunity in connecting people to ministry in a new way, says Gregg Hartung, director of the Pittsburgh-headquartered Presbyterian Media Mission, which works with 10 presbyteries and the Synod of the Trinity.
He oversees a number of audio and video productions that include the award-winning “Passages” program airing on more than 200 radio stations daily and weekly.
“Just like Paul used the Roman highway system to spread the gospel, so it is with technology as the information highway of today,” Hartung says.
Shout Mountain, the faith-based division of The 29Group, a media-services company whose president is Keith Clark Stover of Cranberry, is developing a new free app called Pierced (www.livepierced.com), in cooperation with the Presbyterian Media Mission.
Designed for Christian youth, Pierced is centered around four channels of music (hip-hop, rock, praise and a mix of mainstream pop and contemporary Christian hits) and includes a weekly devotional called “Ponders.” The feature is updated three times a week and is always based on music.
Stover views it as “a wonderful tool” for youth pastors and leaders to engage young people.
“Pierced is with youth 24/7,” Hartung says. “The smartphone is as common for today's young person as the pencil.”
Using social media in the context of church is a no-brainer, says Jeremy Rife, visual communications director of Riverside Community Church, affiliated with the Assemblies of God in Oakmont and at Pittsburgh Mills Mall in Frazer.
“We live in a world that eats, sleeps and breathes media,” Rife says. “If our congregations are filled with people that are so used to consuming information through their smartphones, tablets and other devices, doesn't it make sense that we should use that tool to the best of our ability as well?”
At one point, says Mark Helsel, a pastor of the Church of God's The River, with campuses in New Kensington and Franklin Park, the printing press was the latest technology, and the Bible became the first book published on it.
“They were just using the technology of the day to reach others with the gospel,” he says.
Floyd Hughes, pastor of CrossRoads Community Church of Jefferson Hills, expresses it this way: “If there is a medium to encourage and inspire people and to share and show the love of Christ, then we are committed to using it.”
In the past seven years, use of social media at his church, a Baptist affiliate, has increased about 70 percent across all age groups as more people see the advantages of sharing the faith via cyberspace, he says.
“We have all gotten on board with it and it has built a strong church family/community,” says Rachel Giampaolo, CrossRoads' community-impact director. “I believe God shows his light through us even more through social media.”
But is it a good thing?
However, technology might not be a such a godsend.
“Ever since Mt. Sinai, Judaism has been built upon real communities,” says Rabbi Mark Mahler of Temple Emanuel of the South Hills. “There is a dramatic difference between communicating with a screen and tapping keys and talking face to face. Judaism is a religion of relationship, starting with God and the Jewish people. The question is, ‘Are technology and social-media actually diluting real relationships?' ”
That said, the temple has a technology team and uses various social media platforms. Mahler admits the national trend is that synagogue attendance is down in the Reform Movement, and there is speculation that this may be the result of the creation of “virtual” communities.
Rodef Shalom Congregation recently used YouTube to upload a video of congregation members who were traveling in Israel when the latest Mideast unrest began. They told everyone “Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem” to reassure friends and family that they were well.
“The value of that kind of connection, even from across an ocean, is impossible to measure and creates a memory for a lifetime,” says the congregation's communications director Lauren Wolcott.
Reform Judaism, by its very nature, she says, adapts to modern changes in social, political and cultural life. “Technologies are not exempt from that,” Wolcott says.
“We live-stream our High Holy Days services and year after year are blown away by not just the number of people logging on to watch, but also the feedback we received from viewers,” she says. “People who used to attend our congregation but have moved away tell me how meaningful it is to worship with their home congregation.”
Circles of influence
CrossRoads utilizes social media in multiple ways, streaming all Sunday worship live via Ustream and the church Facebook page, and providing audio and video downloads of worship messages on its website. Congregants are encouraged to tweet and share portions of Sunday worship that inspire them, “so they can inspire people in their circles of influence,” Hughes says.
Two Facebook groups include one dedicated for prayers. “We share pictures, events and inspirational quotes and statuses across all of the platforms,” Hughes says.
The church also maintains a Google+ page and offers digital devotions at its virtual coffee shop, HeBrews, on its YouTube channel.
“It is a very efficient way of communicating,” says Valerie Smarra, a trustee and children's leader of the church.
At Riverside, Rife says the staff has been especially pleased with how members are using the custom Riverside Community Church app. It provides the ability to follow along with the sermon, submit prayer requests, tithe online, download podcasts of previous sermons and see upcoming events.
“It increases the level of interaction with our congregation on Sunday mornings, as well as during the week,” Rife says. “One of our pastors is using Facebook to ask questions of the congregation to help him prepare his message and to get a feel for how our people feel about certain issues.”
All about connections
Social media works best when it brings about “real, authentic, face-to-face relationships,” says Gary Roney, director of youth and young adult ministry of the Pittsburgh Roman Catholic Diocese.
“It provides another way to connect with people where they are, in an effort to keep them close until the next opportunity to gather together in person,” Roney says. “When you're in the presence of another human being, you should be completely in their presence and not on your smartphone.”
Meg Tomko, the director of communications of the interdenominational Orchard Hill Church, Franklin Park, says Twitter keeps teaching and inspirational quotes in front of members during the week. Facebook is more informational and conversational, blogs provide opportunity to revisit the weekend message and to reflect, and YouTube is used to post creative elements, especially music, from within the service.
In June, the church created a Pinterest page when it held a women's event celebrating spiritual creativity. “Different people learn in different ways,” Tomko says. “It opens up the possibility for pertinent conversations around topics that are meaningful in their lives.”
If churches do not use social media, says Christina Praskovich, communications liaison for the Catholic Diocese's Young Adult Leadership Team, “then people are just going to see secular messages and ones that might pull them away from the church.”
“It's refreshing for me when I see posts encouraging me in my faith and linking me to events where I can become part of a community with peers who share my beliefs,” she says.
Technology is not going to go away, says Donna Misak, coordinator of youth ministry at St. Margaret Mary Roman Catholic Church, Lower Burrell. “We just have to embrace it and find ways to use it for good, for spreading the word of God.”
“As Christians, we believe we have the most important and exciting message in the world: the gospel,” Rife says. “Shouldn't we use every single tool available to share that message?”
Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or firstname.lastname@example.org.