Editors' Note: This article is part of a Public Square conversation on Technology and Spirituality. Read other perspectives here.
When faith leaders and congregations use social media wisely, they have the opportunity to share a theology of an inclusive, loving, and playful God. Social media can remind others that God is still speaking. It can be an invitation to God's peace and a reminder of God's thirst for justice. Social media also can create and sustain community. Here are ten ways you and your faith communities can participate in the digital landscape.
Social media is not a shouting platform. At its best, it is a listening platform. Before you venture into this brave new world to say something, read what congregants and your partner organizations are saying. When communicating via Twitter, favorite, retweet, and reply to other's tweets at least as much as you share your own voice.
People are just as likely to connect over a hashtag online as over coffee in the narthex. From Twitter lists to Facebook groups to discovering people with similar passions and interests, we are presented with a uniquely digital opportunity to connect people beyond the barriers of geography. When planning a worship celebration or marching for social justice, put a commonly used hashtag at the end of your virtual message so others may find your action as they search.
The digital era blurs the lines between consumer and creator. Anyone with a Wi-Fi signal finds herself with instant access to the largest publishing platform in the history of humanity. From YouTube to Twitter to a myriad of blog platforms, the internet is an arena where we give voice to the world we envision. Before George Zimmerman was arrested for the killing of Trayvon Martin, Middle Collegiate Church posted pictures of our multiracial congregation dressed in hoodies with the signs, "I am not dangerous. Racism is. #TrayvonMartin" When you stand for social justice, think messaging that complements it in social media.
Photo by Angela Dykshorn
Faith communities utilize social media to community organize. We publish, share, and retweet the causes and events happening around us, putting the "mob" in "mobilize" and moving people from awareness to activism using nothing more than 140 characters. After Middle Collegiate Church posted images of our congregants in hoodies, a congregation in Tulsa, Oklahoma saw the post and planned a hoodie Sunday the following week. And in the weeks to come, the White senior pastor in Tulsa was invited to organize with Black pastors when racial tensions were high in Tulsa.
In the rapid pace of the information superhighway, space to reflect is necessary. Write a draft before you publish. While your words will be joining the stream of consciousness that is the World Wide Web, they will live forever. Every misquotation, every foot-in-your-mouth, and every accidental post are a part of the digital infrastructure that is the internet. Reread each status update and blog comment before you post. You may also use tools like HootSuite and SproutSocial to save and schedule your posts days in advance.
The digital era provides different opportunities for communication. Treating each platform the same means you are treating them all wrong. Rather than saying the same thing everywhere just because you can, research the differences. Twitter is not Facebook is not Instagram is not Tubmlr is not YouTube is not LinkedIn is not Vine is not Wordpress is not Xanga. For more social media strategies, check out Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook by Gary Vaynerchuck.
The digital world is just as much a part of the real world as the physical world. Even though our Middle Collegiate Church care team discourages social media as the medium in which sensitive care concerns are shared, our congregants use it because it is a normative way in which they communicate. So, we find out as much about our congregants' need for care through social media as we do through written prayer requests on Sundays. As you see posts that talk about the concerns in people's lives, switch the media and reply with an email, phone call, or personal contact.
Participating in a virtual space does not replace a physical encounter, it amplifies the encounter. An online relationship will go even further when two digital avatars shake hands and spend time together. There is always more to a person than the virtual identity they are performing at any given moment. Nothing takes the place of a one-on-one discussion or a shared experience.