Social Media and the Church


St. John’s Church, Lafayette Square has been experimenting in social media for a few years now.  “Experimenting” is the word because we have not yet developed a comprehensive engagement strategy or even a set of guiding principles.  We’ve been letting the communication happen, or not happen, organically.  Tonight I am tasked with talking with our “Church Growth Committee” about social media, and I’ve been asking myself, how could we engage more intentionally?

The first point to make is that social media is not a silver bullet.  My friend Jason Evans, Young Adult Missioner for our diocese recently blogged about how there really are no silver bullets in ministry.  Social media will not put people in the church on its own.  Just because a church has a Facebook page doesn’t mean that they will have anyone show up to a program.  Social media is not a big billboard or a feature story in the Washington Post.  We’re fortunate at St. John’s to get some major media coverage because of our historic relationship with the White House.  Big media does bring us hits to the website and visitors on Sunday mornings.  Social media is different.  Social media is about relationships.

Simply put, our social media presence will be effective if it helps us to relate to people.  I am becoming a believer that one rule should govern whether something should be posted on social media:

Will people want to share this post? 

If what we post online is worth “re-posting” “re-tweeting” or “sharing” on Facebook, it means that we are engaging social media effectively.  It also means we have a better chance of getting the message out.  In the Baptismal Covenant we promise to “proclaim by word and example, the Good News of God in Christ” (BCP 304).  Christians are a people of proclamation.  Our proclamation of the Gospel is more effective if more people want to share what we are proclaiming.

Our biggest posts over the past year:

Two photos from 50 years ago about a service at St. John’s before the March on Washington were viewed by over 3,000 people and shared around 30 times]′

A post about ringing our bell to celebrate the Supreme Court’s historic ruling for marriage equality was viewed 3,500 and shared 30 times:

The video of the bell was viewed about 2,000 times and shared 15 times:

Our rector’s benediction at the inauguration of the president was also shared 20 times, but only 450 people saw it.  I’m not sure if the Facebook metrics have changed since January, or if the fact that the video was from ABC news factored in…

All of these posts had a few things in common.: They spoke to St. John’s role in the life of the nation.  They also spoke to St. John’s proclamation of a gospel against social pressures of homophobia or racism. They were a story people wanted to share with their friends about their church.  These posts spoke a surprising message about the church, a message that was liberating.  These posts shared good news, maybe even “Good News.”

Five of the biggest posts were in a “series” that is, over a few days we posted about the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.  Around the days of marriage equality we posted a few days before the vote and on the vote itself.  All of those posts had high traffic.  If you look at the websites of big mega churches like Mars Hill in Seattle or Willow Creek in Chicago, everything they do on social media is in a series.  There sermons are in a series as well.  (Perhaps the biggest series we do is “Pathways through Lent,” an online blogging series that posts to our social media.  If you looked at cumulative likes and reposts, Pathways was bigger than all of the other posts we had combined.)

The biggest posts that we shared were all “media centric.”  They were a photo or a video that told a story, a short story.  They communicated a message with an image.

I asked a couple of friends to send examples of some sites that are engaging in Social Media effectively.  My friend Kyle Oliver, Digital Missioner for the Virginia Seminary Center for the Ministry of Teaching sent these sites:

The Twitter feed for St. Julian’s Episcopal Church in Austin, TX:

The Facebook page for a bilingual church plant, St. Mary Magdalene, also in Texas:

I’d also add “Padre Oprah” (Alberto Cutie)’s Twitter:

(There is more to be said about the Latino Social Media presence.  I heard a great presentation last year by Anthony Guillen who said that the “Nueva Generacion Latina” is quickly becoming the most prolific social media presence, and the most important group to reach online)

I think that the folks at Episcopal Cafe have one of the best social media presences in the church:

We will continue to experiment with social media at St. John’s.  Perhaps one day we’ll be more strategic, and start to act on these best practices more directly.  If you are working in social media in the church, what are your ideas?  How are you getting your message out there?  How are you communicating the Gospel?

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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