The Social Media Gospel: A Q&A with Digital Strategist Meredith Gould

The Social Media Gospel: A Q&A with Digital Strategist Meredith Gould July 12, 2013

Working writer Meredith Gould was using LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook (in that order) before many of us working in and around the church had heard the term social media. A marketing communications professional with decades of secular experience, Gould now focuses on counseling churches and mission-based organizations about how to thrive in the digital age. In July 2011, she founded the Twitter-based ecumenical Church Social Media Chat (#ChSocM), a popular weekly online conversation where people from across denominations explore timely issues and share advice about using social media in the church.

With the launch this month of her new book, The Social Media Gospel: Sharing the Good News in New Ways, Meredith took some time out from advising church leadership, redoing websites and cranking out articles to talk with us about the state of affairs with digital ministry today. “Social media, in some form, is here to stay,” she says. “Grousing about it at this point in the 21st century makes as much sense as complaining about those new-fangled things known as automobiles or telephones.”

Here, Meredith shares what makes social media such a powerful tool for ministry, the biggest mistake churches make in their social media planning, what the future of social media looks like, and the two questions she is asked most regularly that drive her crazy.

Just to get us all on the same page to start, define “digital ministry” for us… 

Many now use the term “digital ministry” to describe the use of any digital technology to build church and deepen faith. I do like how this broader term accounts for web-based tools that are not social per se (e.g. websites).

[Please note: For my own sanity in the face of resistance to online tools, I also characterize digital ministry as ministering (i.e., providing care, support, and inspiration) to those who fear technology in general and social media in particular.]

In this new book I focus specifically on social media.

Social media are web-based tools that facilitate one-to-one and one-to-many interactions. And while social media is valuable for broadcasting “content” (i.e., news and information), it’s even more powerful for “engagement” (i.e.,  conversation).

Ongoing conversation leads to relationship. Relationship leads to community. Without community, “church” simply does not exist. Social media makes it possible for two or more to gather without limitations of time, space, or place.

What makes your book different from the dozens of other books out there on using social media in the church? Why did you write this book?

Well not dozens of books but certainly a growing number on topic, especially during the past two years. With a couple of notable exceptions, most are “how to” guides.

These were both necessary and useful at the time because people really were clueless about how to set up, use, and monitor social media accounts. Now you can easily find great tutorials on YouTube.

Although I do enjoy teaching the practical mechanics of using social media, I was determined to write a book that would invite church leaders to think more carefully about why and when to use social media.

[Strange but true: I spend a surprisingly large percentage of my time imploring people to stop actively using social media for their church ministries until they understand why it works and why they might use it.]

I also wanted to write a book that would explore complex conceptual issues and provide theoretical frameworks from sociologists, learning theorists, and psychologists with a lighter touch. I’m over-the-moon thrilled that early reviewers have noted my humor.

The rapidly changing pace of technology and digital platforms, in particular, make most how-to books in this area out of date before they even get to print. What do you find to be  the more salient topic church professionals should be considering in their discussions about digital communications?

Strategy!  I’ve become obnoxiously fierce about the need for church professionals to think strategically. Those who say, “social media didn’t work for our church,” are usually those who haven’t done the necessary work of strategy development.

By strategy I mean:

  • gathering  enough useful information to answer questions about audience (i.e., who you want to reach);
  • clarifying goals (i.e., why you want to reach these folks); and
  • developing a clear, jargon-free message (e.g., without using churchy-church words like emergent or missional).

All this must happen before choosing and publicly using  social media tools. Social media platforms are only tools – fun to use but worthless if you don’t have a clearly defined purpose and message.

There are two conversations you’ve said you’re not interested in having any more about social media and the church.  One is: “Why are we doing this (social media) at all?” And the other is: “Is it ok to use social media in worship?” Why do these questions irk you so much?

Yes, I get irked by these questions. Here’s why:

First, social media, in some form, is here to stay. Grousing about it at this point in the 21st century makes as much sense as complaining about those new-fangled things known as automobiles or telephones. Go ahead – don’t use social media, but don’t prevent others from using it. If you can’t muster curiosity, then aim for generosity.

Next, the conversation about whether it’s okay to use social media during worship irks me because it:

  • reveals a basic lack of understanding about the varying ways people process information;
  • exposes a woeful level of ignorance about well-established etiquette relative to smartphone use;
  • shuts down useful discourse about community building with and among Millennials, as well as the homebound; and
  • simply ignores how congregants already do stuff during worship to either stay focused on good liturgy or endure a bad one (e.g., doodling on the bulletin, writing checks for the collection, etc.).

To experience the full effect of my irkedness, you really need to hear me deliver this rant in person. Hand gestures are involved.

What are some of the most powerful ways churches can use social media?

When asked this question, my colleagues typically talk about reaching out to Millennials. Me? I like to focus on how social media enhances our ability to reach people who may not want to attend church-the-building, as well as to those who simply cannot attend.

Regarding the latter category I am, of course, referring to those who are homebound because of physical challenges. But I also want to call attention to those who, because of other responsibilities, simply cannot get to church on Sunday morning, serve on committees, attend educational or social events, and otherwise connect IRL (In Real Life).  Shift workers. Parents.  Caregivers.

Social media provides churches a tool to extend ministerial reach and makes it possible for conversations among those who do attend IRL to continue after they leave the building.  I offer a slew of tactical suggestions for church use in the chapters devoted to specific social media platforms.

What are some of the biggest mistakes churches or religious institutions make in their social media and online communications?

Right up there with the über-blooper of skipping strategy is taking a “one size fits all” approach to social media. The person who loves Twitter may hate Facebook. The person who adores Facebook may draw a blank when Pinterest is mentioned. The event that can be captured beautifully on Vine or Instagram video might be deadly dull on YouTube.  Strategy leads to crafting tactics and choosing the right tools.

Another big blooper: having a website that’s difficult to navigate, has content that’s not web-readable, and is poorly designed with either antiquated or super-trendy graphics.  What does this have to do with social media? Plenty!  After working in and around church communications for over a decade, I’ve come to believe that one of the biggest barriers to social media use is the We’ll-Get-To-It-Someday website.

But wait! There’s more!

Perhaps the biggest mistake churches or religious institutions make is dismissing social media as a limiting or an impersonal way to communicate.

There continues to be a fair amount of pushback within faith communities against the idea of virtual community as “church.” Virtual community can’t replicate real, flesh and blood, breaking-bread-together community, people argue. What are your thoughts on the benefits – as well as the dangers – of virtual community?

I’m hoping that this, too, shall pass.

The debate about whether virtual community can replicate so-called “real” community is epic, especially among theologians and academicians. Epic and often esoteric.

Meanwhile, in the trenches, we who actively use social media for ministry fully understand that social media is not, nor is it intended as a replacement for in-person interactions.  Used wisely and well, social media will inspire face-to-face, in-person conversations, shared worship, and other activities for those who are able to physically participate.

These tools support and enhance community IRL. Technology can extend witness to sacraments, it’s not a way to receive the sacraments. Neither I nor any of my colleagues actively involved with digital ministry view social media as a substitute for Holy Communion.

Yes, this conversation is also irksome to me.

When you consult with a church or organization on their digital strategy, what are some of the first questions you ask? How do you help guide them to think about how they use social media? 

Here’s my first question: “Have you completed a communications audit?”

And then, because that question usually generates a blank look tinged with panic, I explain.  Simply put, you need to know what you’re already doing or using to communicate before you can sensibly add digital tools to the mix.  An audit, by someone qualified to do one, will provide useful, actionable information.

I wrote about the audit process in The Word Made Fresh: Communicating Church and Faith Today.  It’s so important that in this new book I devote an entire appendix to explaining what an audit involves. For what it’s worth, I’ll add that I’ve lived to regret every time I’ve agreed to “fix” something a local church or judicatory wanted fixed without first completing an audit for them.

What do you enjoy most about helping people of faith engage social media tools?

Metanoia!  I love that moment when people grasp the profound power and value of social media and how it can be used for ministry. This sometimes happens suddenly in a moment, in the proverbial twinkling of an eye.  They get it and become excited about possibilities they’re now able to see.  All resistance melts away and they become more willing to learn and teach others.  I love when this happens.

As you look into your crystal ball based on your years of experience in this field, what does the future of social media look like?  And specifically, what does it look like in the church?  

The tools themselves change so quickly that I whatever I predict this week will probably have come and gone by the time this Q&A gets posted to Patheos.

As for the future of social media itself, my prayer is that it becomes so integrated into how we communicate that categorizing it as a separate tool becomes unnecessary.  Until that great and glorious day, I hope The Social Media Gospel educates naysayers and provides support for those who already know why social media is a fabulous for ministry, faith sharing,  and community building.

For more resources from Meredith, and for more conversation on The Social Media Gospel, visit the Patheos Book Club beginning July 16, 2013. 


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