By Greg Linscott
My family and I relocated to the St. Louis metro area two years ago. It was the first time any of us had spent any significant time here, so we often found ourselves relying on technology to find things. Learning new streets was a lot easier with a map program that rerouted us if we missed an exit. Finding stores, restaurants, and even points of interest, we made new and interesting discoveries with a simple electronic inquiry. People who had lived here all their lives told us we were locating treasures they didn’t even know existed, places we found on the phones in our pockets.
If it seems these days that everyone has a phone, it’s because they do. The latest data from Pew Research indicates that 96 percent of US residents carry a phone. Whether it’s young adults (99 percent) to those over 65 (91 percent) using phones, from those in cities (97 percent) to those in rural areas (95 percent)—the portable screen has become truly ubiquitous.
The first impulse of many pastors and church leaders is to lament the detached, disengaged society these machines seem to have produced. No one would deny the reality of overuse and abuse, but those of us in ministry should not overlook that this is where many discoveries and first impressions are made today. If your ministry does not have an internet and social media presence in 2020, it is comparable to not having a sign on your property.
The first place people see you
Whether someone is intentionally looking for a congregation to worship with or sees your church mentioned on a friend’s timeline, social media is often the first opportunity for your church to make an impression. What appears to be important to your congregation? How easily can people find out some of the basics about your ministries, philosophies, and preferences? The question must be asked, How inviting does your church appear through a phone screen?
A ready-made audience
Whether or not your ministry has a detectable presence online, people are already there—keeping up with friends, seeing pictures of the grandkids, discussing politics, exchanging restaurant choices, and more. The point is that people are out there already. They will be looking to see what you might have to share or listening to what you have to say. In terms of outreach, this interconnected platform that people access through a handheld device offers an invaluable chance to engage the masses with the hope Jesus brings.
While it is possible to spend an inordinate amount of time engaging others, we should not completely ignore the interactive capabilities social media offers. Effective discipleship and evangelism involve two-way interaction, and that is just as true electronically as it is face-to-face. And just as there is benefit to questions and answers in a group setting, remember that your answers in a public forum often have benefit beyond the individual you interact with.
While paid online advertising is more affordable than some might think, your church can get a great deal of exposure just by taking the time to create and publish content. There is no financial expense for your church to establish a presence. Money spent on improving your presence can be readily measured through collected data reports, with a level of specificity other mass media just can’t provide.
A gauge of activity
Sometimes we might think that just having a page up is good enough, but who really wants to take the time to update it? If there’s a special event, that’s one thing, but who has time to post incidental content? Neglecting your presence online, however, can be like not cleaning your building regularly or ignoring yard upkeep. It shows carelessness and leaves a poor impression. What are some things you can do to indicate signs of life and be encouraging? Here are three simple ideas.
- Share regular announcements. If your church still prints a bulletin, post that information weekly somehow. It might be as simple as saving the file you print as an image and posting it on Facebook. It’s possible to get a little more elaborate. For example, if your church uses slides for announcements, you can share them as pictures or even a video.
- Share a playlist of music your church is singing. No matter your church’s preferred musical style, a recording of almost any song churches sing these days can be freely accessed and compiled in a playlist others can listen to. This can help familiarize people with songs they don’t know well or let prospective guests know what to expect when they come.
- Provide a Scripture verse. Sharing a passage that you have found comforting or prompted you to respond somehow might have the same effect on others. It’s simple, but who knows how God might use it?
You can get more ambitious, with original photos or video clips of activities around the church (those ubiquitous phones mean everyone has a camera too!) or original articles and posts. Remember though, what grabs immediate attention is rarely going to be book- or even article-length. Where past generations used flyers, pamphlets, and tracts to communicate their messages in brief and engaging ways, similar principles apply here. If you have more to say, consider spreading it out over multiple posts.
Promotion and Awareness
How many times have you heard a pastor say something like, “I don’t want to toot my own horn” when it comes to reluctance in something like online communication? We must constantly guard against doing things for the praise of men or to build an audience for ourselves. However, we should also make sure we understand that what we do involves lending our names and faces to direct attention to Someone greater than us. Granted, when Paul said to follow him as he followed Christ (1 Cor. 11:1), he wasn’t talking about Facebook. The point remains that Paul was not reluctant to use his name and reputation to gain a better hearing for Christ and His gospel.
Preaching is sometimes narrowed in our minds to what happens in a well-crafted outline from a pulpit after hours of careful preparation and study, but this is not what Romans 10:14 has in view. The “preacher” seen necessary in that passage is a herald, a proclaimer, one who is increasing awareness and publicity. People won’t hear unless we make Christ known. We must be willing to do so in the places where people are going and are ready to listen and engage.
It’s not just the prospective public we need to connect with though. Our church members and regular faces have those mobile devices too. Making information readily available doesn’t guarantee that people will read it, but it does increase the likelihood of being read more than a piece of paper tucked into the back of a Bible.
There are great new ways to organize people to do things Christians ought to already be doing with one another.
- Sharing prayer requests. A closed group is great for sharing needs as they happen and rejoicing when God works. Missionary and agency updates can be provided easily.
- Caring for each other. An online tool like mealtrain.com makes it easy to involve others in caring for those who might benefit from a meal. Times and dates are specified, and dietary needs can be spelled out so volunteers don’t provide something that cannot be eaten.
- Recruiting volunteers. The paper sign-up sheet can be supplemented or replaced by online forms or apps such as iVolunteer or SignUpGenius.
- Giving financially. There are plenty of options these days for churches to enroll in an online giving program. Some popular means that churches use include tithe.ly, stripe.com, or even PayPal. If your church has utilized church management software, there are often options for accepting gifts provided in the program. Your church’s bank may even have options that are easy for you to access and publicize.
Let’s be clear. As our world changes, there will always be a need for face-to-face interaction. Churches by their very nature are corporate gatherings—singing, praying, worshiping, and growing together. But just as the early church connected members in homes and gathered in public places where others could find them, so we today need to be reminded that we should make ourselves “searchable” and be intentional about helping others find Jesus when they find us.
Greg Linscott is pastor of Brown Street Baptist Church, Alton, Ill., and a member of the GARBC Council of Eighteen.