If you manage a church social media account, chances are, you run the account like a digital bulletin board.
And if that's the approach you take, posting information, linking to events, and using the platform to inform, you're missing the point of social media. So argues Nona Jones in her book, "From Social Media to Social Ministry" (Zondervan, 2020. $18.99).
Jones, who serves as the Head of Global Faith-Based Partnerships at Facebook, argues convincingly that faith leaders are not using social media to it's fullest potential. We're using social media for advertising, but not for equipping, for marketing, but not for ministry.
By relying on one-way communication, tracking the wrong metrics, and delegating account management to unqualified staff, churches are losing out on the opportunity to create disciples in digital spaces.
"While a social media plan primarily focuses on sharing content to get likes, comments, and shares, a social ministry strategy focuses on building relationships and facilitating connections between and among people so that discipleship can happen."
-Nona Jones, "From Social Media to Social Ministry"
For Jones, social media generally and Facebook, in particular, offer a potential remedy to a decline in church attendance and membership. A commitment to ministry on social media would certainly be better for the church than other widespread "relevance-boosting" practices, including removing crosses and Bibles from church buildings and improving production quality!
To that end, Jones encourages to think about social media not as a bulletin board, but as a campus. She argues that a faith community's Facebook page ought to function as a ministry start-up, with a campus pastor, a team of equipped and compensated staff, new content published daily, and a commitment to multi-directional conversation. Jones is correct in her assertion that social ministry depends less on polish and more on leadership, less on quality and more on intentionality.
The book is an important contribution in helping churches to think of the web not as a place to post an invitation to attend worship, but as a mission field, where church leaders establish relationships and form disciples for lives of faithful service.
Jones' well-reasoned argument is limited in part by her assertion that Facebook is "the only true social media platform." Arguing that Facebook is the only platform to support multi-directional conversation as opposed to mere content consumption, Jones' model dismisses the importance and relevance of Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and others. While it's true that Facebook is far and away the most utilized social media platform, it's influence is waning amongst younger generations, necessitating consideration if not engagement with emerging digital channels. At a practical level, I would have appreciated hearing Jones' suggestions for low-tech, low-staff churches who may not have the resources to navigate an increasingly fractured (if not fractious!) social media landscape.
The book also decides to veer away from the thornier issues surrounding Facebook and other social media platforms. As a handbook to social media usage in the church, the book would have benefitted from a discussion on the numerous ethical and privacy concerns surrounding social media giants, including the commodification of user data and the easy dissemination of conspiracy theories.
Still, "From Social Media to Social Ministry" offers an important lesson for church leaders of all denominational backgrounds and theological commitments. If the church is to be relevant (or, resonant) in this digital age, it must learn how to build relationships and engage in thoughtful conversations within these spaces. This will require a long process of learning and iteration. Jones' book is a helpful first step towards the church's digital future.
@ryanpanzer is the author of "Grace and Gigabytes," a book about being the church in a tech-shaped culture.