I’m in debate about expanding upon the use of Facebook, Blogging, and the general social networking phenomenon for ministry in an article. I thought I’d write up some of my thoughts and see if it is useful to folks at all, go from there. PLEASE comment or email, let me know if this is helpful. Depending on how the conversation goes I might expand into more posts.
I’ll describe some specifics about my own use of facebook in ministry and then talk in some detail about the “facespace” and religiosity.
With the advent of the “status update” facebookers are able to share their thoughts/feelings on a moment by moment basis. Much like the “Twitter” users of Facebook can make changes that represent their current activity, thoughts, and feelings. My status might say, “In class learning about macro-economics” or “looking forward to hanging out with friends tonight.”
Status Updates are important in facebook because they are the most publicly available piece of information. The default settings cause whatever a user writes as a status update to instantly appear on the front page of facebook for anyone who lists them as a friend. In ministry this can be important because it serves as a prime avenue for advertising. When I have a new blog post, a new religious reflection, a link I want to share I can place that link in my status. My blog traffic tends to triple when I place a link to my blog in my status. Another use of the status is to advertise events. This can be overt “PLEASE COME TO THEOLOGY ON TAP TONIGHT AT PINTS PUB 8PM” or more oblique “Mike is looking forward to worshiping tonight at Good Samaritan and 7:07.” The recently added feature which allows others to comment or “like” the status can bring a sense of group connectivity to these announcements, a virtual word of mouth.
Blogs and Notes
Blogging can be viewed as a spiritual discipline. Blogs can be incredibly personal journals, shared with a select community of friends, they can be advertisement, or the opportunity for group processing. The advent of instantaneous online publishing has given rise to many new genres of expression. In my own use, my blog is a mix of personal reflection, homily, and a public forum to share thoughts. My blog has become an important way to continue talking with some of my favorite conversation partners across the globe. Students at UCSD expressed thankfulness that they could access my reflections at any time, could replay and interact (through comments) with my homilies. When I published blog posts from Tegucigalpa Honduras, I was amazed at the number of responses I received and to the degree I felt in continual community with people who were supporting me from thousands of miles away.
Some of the most popular blogs are the most controversial. I hear Fr. Jake of Fr. Jake Stops the World, a popular progressive Episcopalian blog say that he intentionally took controversial positions to generate more traffic to the blog and more conversation. While this can be useful for generating conversation, I think blogs for folks involved in ministry should reflect their overall arc of preaching and teaching. If you are extremely radical, so be it, but otherwise posturing may not be helpful for the real people you minister with.
Blog posts can be long or short. They might be full essays or sermons, or a couple of short words, a poem, a link. Mixing a variety of material and including art and video helps diversify your online space and gives people with different needs and desires an opportunity to interact.
An important feature of Facebook that many bloggers do not know about is the ability to link a blog. If you enable the “Notes” application which is a default part of every facebook account to “link” to your blog, each time you post a new entry it will import into facebook and note on your wall that you have made a new post. (Click on the Notes application and look for the “import settings” on the right side of the screen.) You may want to advertise your post in your status: “New Blog Post: Maundy Thursday https://christiandifferent.wordpress.com” was my status all day on Maundy Thursday.
Photo and Video Sharing
In addition to sharing words, sharing images and even video from life can be a way for people to connect with their minister. A word of caution: on Facebook and Myspace friends can tag one another in photos. You need to be vigilant about the image that others may choose to present of you on social networks. Keeping aspects of your life private can be important when presenting a professional image in ministry. Facebook allows you to control which friends can see your pictures, but these settings are not automatic. You can “untag” yourself in a photo, but if a particularly offensive photo ends up online, it is becoming a common and polite practice to remove a photo if someone in the photo does not want it online. Don’t hesitate to gently ask someone to remove an offensive photo.
Many campus ministries, parishes, whole denominations, and dioceses are beginning to form online groups. This can be a powerful tool for ministry because you can message all members, post photos, create group specific events (see “Events” below), and otherwise utilize a group or fan page as on online tool for organizing. The key for effectiveness is to include as many of the people in the ministry as possible in the group and to use it consistently for communication. Groups/Fan pages are only effective if people check them, and they will only check them if they are updated consistently. Utilize the group page to drive traffic to your website, and create a badge for the group on the website which links back to the group so that people can join like this:
The Power of Search for Evangelism
One of the under-used features of Facebook for ministers is the search feature. I’ll begin by talking about campus specifically, and broaden to parish based ministry. Campus Ministers MUST make a priority of getting an email address from the campus they work on. This address allows them to join the campus network. This is incredibly important because it allows you to access the “profile search” features of facebook for the campus network. You can then choose to search campus for each student who lists their specific religious affiliation. Simply click “Search,” from the dropdown menu select the appropriate network, and type the name of the denomination as it is most commonly listed on facebook. For example, facebook lists Christian-Episcopal rather than “Episcopalian” so you want to put in “Episcopal.”
If you are the Episcopalian minister for campus, you can access each and every student who self-identifies as “Episcopalian.” A student who has self-identified in a denomination on facebook has made a statement. They do not have to list this identiying factor, so their is a degree of investment in this identity if it is listed. In a way they are publicly proclaiming, even evangelizing, in a culture where religious faith is not normed: the college campus. A new campus minister should make an effort to buy coffee for, get in touch with, email EVERY student who identifies as part of their denomination on facebook.
The same can be true, though perhaps to a lesser extent within a geographic region. You can search profiles of people within certain age group, genders, ethnicities, etc. in a geographic region and perform the same search for people who self-identify within a denomination. The trick is to be sure they do not already have a congregational home when you invite them to participate in your ministry.
Using Facebook to publicize a ministry event can be a powerful way to quickly organize a large group of people to attend. We once brought together over 400 people in one day for a Vigil at UCSD simply through facebook invites to attend the event. It gives a fast online incarnation to a word of mouth style of advertisement, and a place to point people for details. Make sure your event has a catchy title, an image (even if it is a silly one), and that you publicize the event well in advance. If the time/place/details change you can update the facebook page and message all attendants. You can get a sense of how many people will be coming. If used consistently Events can become a way for your members to invite their friends to participate.
Events also include walls, which means that people can discuss the event, post pictures, even create discussion forums to begin a conversation before an event or continue one afterward.
The Development of Digital Identity
Working with college students, particularly at a highly technologically advanced school like UCSD, I was taken aback by how much communication now happens online. Particularly through Facebook, students now share a large amount of their identity, their values, their ideas online. As young adults list the bands they like, their favorite movies, the clubs they belong to, they are making decisions about how to share their story and sense of meaning with others. In many ways the amount of sharing happening in the “Facespace” (a name for the online realm of facebook/myspace) involves a level of self-disclosure that is new. People know more about, and have constant access to information about their friends and acquaintances. At the same time this disclosure is less personal. Students seemed to feel comfortable sharing a great deal, perhaps because the facespace is a disembodied reality. While friends, family, and random strangers with access to their page now know a great deal about their lives, they haven’t had to take the risk in an intimate conversation to disclose this information.
The development of boundaries within the Facebook/Myspace world is still in its infancy. While “privacy settings” allow users to limit who can see what information they display, the social networks are continually developing the amount of control the users are given, and the users themselves are only slowly growing to understand how these settings can be employed. For many students there seems to be a a sort of social pact about online identity disclosure. It is somehow socially unnacceptable to say, “I read on facebook that you enjoy____” Though students disclose large amounts of information about themselves, the preservation of a degree of anonymity is important. It is hard to move conversation from the facespace to the real world.
At the same time it can alert a minister to important pastoral needs. Attention to how a person portrays herself online can give us insight into their inner world in important ways. While not making direct reference to things on facebook, noticing that someone has communicated frustration, loss, anger and making a point to check in can be important. You can now comment specifically on the post on their wall, but you can also decide that the person needs a real hug rather than an online poke.
Learning to communicate digitally, to interact with digital identities are important, but nothing will substitute for real presence in ministry.