Last month, Facebook made a splash with the launch of faith.facebook.com, a hub to connect faith leaders with Facebook resources. The site includes getting started information on Groups, Pages, Charitable Giving, Live, and other widely-utilized tools.
Atop the list of Facebook's resources for churches: Facebook Groups.
In 2018, Lifeway Research, an evangelical publishing house, shared survey data indicating that 84% of protestant pastors use a Facebook page to connect with their congregation. Lifeway is sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention and their data over-indexes on media-savvy evangelical congregations. Still, their findings point attest to how widespread Facebook has become as a church communications resource - even before the pandemic.
Many congregations are using Facebook to build online community. Yet most aren't using the Facebook feature specifically designed for community conversation.
That's partly because Facebook has struggled to articulate the differences, and the different value propositions, between Facebook Pages and Facebook Groups. Let me attempt to clarify:
A Facebook Page functions as a digital billboard. It is public by default, so everyone can access all of the page's information. Churches widely use Facebook Pages to communicate important information on service times, meeting locations, and upcoming events. Originally developed as an advertising resource, Facebook Pages are Mark Zuckerberg's equivalent of the Yellow Pages.
A Facebook Group functions more like a digital meeting room. It is a collaborative space for multi-directional conversations. Unlike a Facebook Page, it is private by default. New members request to join, and administrators must approve the request. All who gather within a Facebook Group at least implicitly agree to abide by community rules and standards.
Congregations seeking to cultivate conversation on social media should look to Facebook Groups, not Facebook Pages. But most churches haven't set up a Facebook Group - at least not yet.
It's easy to understand why Facebook Groups should be a priority for churches. They provide a platform for collaborative, multi-directional, and asynchronous conversation. Nona Jones, author of the book "From Social Media to Social Ministry," summarizes her research into how churches use Facebook:
"The research pointed loud and clear to one major finding: people want to spend time on Facebook when they are able to engage with content in a meaningful way. And that content needs to invite conversation, not just consumption."
Setting up a Facebook Group is a relatively simple process:
Create your group: Add a description of your congregation - and what types of conversations will take place in the group. Include photos from your church's life, and invite members to join.
Customize the settings: Most importantly, determine the group's public visibility. Most churches will likely make their groups private, but visible in search results. This makes the group findable but restricts the visibility of posts and conversations to group members. You may also create a list of membership questions, to ensure those joining the Facebook Group have a previous connection to the congregation.
But cultivating Christian community takes more than software settings. It requires intentionality, answering questions like:
What is the specific purpose of the group? Active church members spend just 8.3 minutes per day on faith-related activities. The most engaging church Facebook Group will never be a frequent hub of online activity. At most, members might check in on the group a handful of times each week. So give them a specific purpose. Does the group exist to share prayer requests? Does it exist to respond to the week's preaching text or sermon? Perhaps it was established as a replacement to a book study group and invites members to respond to a shared reading, video, or podcast episode. When it comes to church group purpose, less is more. If church leaders can precisely define the reason that the congregation should participate in the group, church leaders will find that individuals are more likely to stick around for real conversation.
How will participation in the group integrate with the church's broader life together? Facebook Groups ought to be situated within the church's broader movement towards hybrid ministry. The conversation should not happen in abstraction nor in a vacuum but should respond to events in the community's life together. Sharing photos from an event, offering reactions to a sermon or podcast, or inviting reflection on a shared discussion question are ways to connect the digital Facebook Group to the analog aspects of Christian community.
How can church leaders create a distinctively Christian Facebook Group? As the group gains traction within the community, our task isn't so much to cultivate conversation but to articulate lived experiences of faith. This is the difference between a distinctively Christian Facebook Group versus a group that exists for a non-profit or neighborhood. Eventually, the Group should become a place where ideas are exchanged and where community members share stories of God's work in their lives and world. Getting to this point takes effort, curation, and months if not years of active conversation. God can work through the discussions on a Facebook page, provided the community shows up for the conversation.
Have you curated conversations in your church within a Facebook Group? Share your experience in the comments below!
@ryanpanzer, the author of "Grace and Gigabytes," accompanies churches on their journey towards more immersive, authentic digital community.