Facebook vs. Twitter vs. Email vs. The City vs. Church Website vs…

So after a lengthy time of trying to avoid speaking to technology issues; I’m going to begin to address them from a ministry perspective.  I actually had a blog in Grad School that was exclusively about technology and while I have zero formal training in the area, I have a natural aptitude for it and I enjoy watching it work.  I’ve found too often that technology can get pushed into a corner for ministries and churches rather than serving God’s people through effective communication and interaction.  Churches view communication and social media platforms in a few different categories:

Problem to Solve/Avoid

Some view these things as one-time decisions to make or avoid.  The thinking is that there is an immediate need or complaint and a platform or approach can quell the storm and ‘solve’ the problem.  Others see these platforms as creating more problems than they solve and are avoided altogether.  Some will go so far as to say that a particular tool is evil and not capable of adding value.  Both these extremes have huge problems; a one-time solution model is what has yielded totally out of date webpages and social media outlets with no ownership or new content.  A foray into better communication and interaction shouldn’t be one-time and should have champions that drive content and adoption.  Additionally if we’d listened to those who would assign moral value to bits and bytes we would have never began using the phone, email, television, the list goes on.  Technology is the native language of our culture, and is only becoming increasingly so as we see the emerging leaders take charge.

Tool to Tackle

There are some that want to assign specific tasks or responsibilities and walkaway from any further study.  They are used to systems that exist elsewhere in churches and even in the technology arena where you can settle on a workflow, give the responsibility to someone, assume it’s working fine and ignore it.  Most churches fall into this category, even good ones.  It’s easy to find a volunteer at a small church or a creative on staff at a larger church or ministry and ‘delegate’ the tool to them.  The problem with this approach is that it is a spin on the one-time fix model and puts the ongoing needs of communication and interaction on the plate of someone who isn’t generally involved at the top levels of leadership and can’t infuse vision or really authentic communication to a particular platform or tool.  It’s not that someone shouldn’t be in charge but if the main leaders of a church or ministry aren’t involved and bought into whatever you’re using IT WILL FAIL.  Maybe not overnight but the impact will be profoundly limited and the practices of senior leadership will be seen as the most authoritative, regardless of what a website, manual or policy document says.

Opportunity to Explore

It’s easy for me to advocate for this approach since I like technology but it’s important to note that technology is always changing and if we camp out on one thing and decide to stop our use or development we will miss out on significant opportunities for greater impact for the Gospel and Gospel community.  We should be asking the question, ‘does it help us accomplish our mission?’ We should avoid making the question, ‘can we do it?’  If we make it about ability and not purpose we lose the discussion and credibility with our people as we bounce from one fad to another.  This tendency is especially common when senior leadership gives a techie volunteer or staff member carte blanche to fill up calendar time with experimenting and deploying the ‘newest’ stuff.

So what do I advocate right now?

I have spent a LOT of time researching and figuring out workflows and re-tweaking them for both ‘big’ church and students.  I think one of the main challenges when considering all the different platforms is establishing a source of truth that people can know is correct without a doubt.  This is often a church website but with the most effective websites moving toward limiting content and making it a front door for guests that’s not how I’ve found it to be best used.

  1. The City for us has become a great (not perfect) tool to communicate with families and for them to communicate back.  It is a church management tool that lives in the cloud (not locally stored), works well with email (simple email responses will automatically go to the post), is secure (Amazon S3) and was built with ministry in mind.  It has plenty of quirks (it’s slow, there’s no app, it’s slow, it’s pricey, it’s slow, some of it is terribly inflexible for no reason, and did I mention it’s slow), but it is the best option by far for community in churches for several reasons.  I like that it doesn’t have huge overnight changes like Facebook, it’s much more straight forward with permissions for your information, it has a lot less clutter and only the advertisements that the ministry selects and designs (for internal things).  It also has a feature called ‘The Plaza’ that allows you to put things out to a public address and share that address and specific content with anyone, anywhere (social media, website, email).  This makes it an awesome place to put the core information for people and then share it to other places. My wish list would include an app, it to be faster, less expensive and more flexible but I’ll take it as a definitive solution for driving adoption from older people and creating internal content that can be carefully shared.
  2. Facebook Pages for different key ministries have been a great place to house all the ‘real’ content from the City and have it shared with a wide net as well as create buzz.  The platform is constantly evolving and it has lots of great features that, especially for students, have been really handy.  Not only do I post City content but I also share lots of photos, videos, status updates, etc.  It is a great place to hear from people and even hear from those who disagree with you, which you will. 🙂
  3. Twitter is a no brainer for reaching a younger population and easy to setup and have working together with everything else.  The way I use it is to have it sync with my Facebook posts, so that anyone who follows the particular ministry or department sees all the updates, city content and pictures as tweets.  Some of them have links to other stuff but everything it’s linking to is public so you don’t need to sign in or have a special account for it to work.  It’s a great place to be and accumulate followers.  In Student Ministry I have used hashtags (#example) to start a conversation during a special topic or message that often continues long after people have left the building.
  4. Email is still a really effective way of communicating and for many boomers and beyond it is the best way to reach them and get a response.  The City leverages this really well and all the updates I send to parents and families go through the platform and it works flawlessly.  There is simply no better way that I’ve found for people to self select the groups they are a part of, the type of email they want and respond to it easily.  I lead a community group and we simply couldn’t do what we do without The City and email.  I avoid email databases (outlook types) at all costs because they are instantly irrelevant and out of date with no way to update them by the average user.  If you are part of a large organization there is not a more uncomfortable email to receive than, ‘so and so has requested to be removed from all databases and future communication.’
  5. The Church Website should be viewed very differently now than it was five years ago.  It can’t service everyone’s needs and if you try to have it do that you will frustrate everyone.  A helpful illustration might be those visitor parking spaces you have at the front of your lot on Sundays.  Your people are willing to go the extra mile so that it is convenient for those who are new to interact and engage in what you are doing more easily.  The church website is the first point of contact for people new to your area, looking for a church, or just interested as an outsider in something specific you are doing.  If you view your church website as the visitor spaces of the internet you should target these people with it.  Content should be brief, pictures and media should be professional and engaging and it should link to other things if people want to go deeper (The City, Facebook, Twitter, etc.).  The average person will look at your church website homepage like a billboard and decide quickly (nearly instantly) if they want to keep reading, or come to an event or service. With this in mind make sure that it is great looking and that the look is consistent throughout the whole site.

I know this seems like a lot and for your church it might not all be necessary but if you want to engage all the generations and care for those you minister to it’s going to take a level of archaeological pursuit to find out what your people need and the people you want to reach.  Find people that think this way and keep them close, but don’t hand them the keys to your organization.  Extend trust while you continue to learn; offer oversight and vision to all the technology you use and how you use it.

Technology isn’t bad but we can be very bad at it if we don’t think critically about how it helps us accomplish our mission.

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