Twittering religiously

Research published today by Tearfund shows the ways in which people are communicating their faith via social media. Of those surveyed, 74% had welcomed ‘the opportunity to reveal their faith on digital platforms’ and nearly half had used Facebook (specifically) as a forum for sharing prayer requests. An average of 80% of respondents (across the age-groups who responded) also said that Facebook and Twitter inspired them to pray for others and specific situations.

It’s a relatively small (212) and self-selecting (the survey was advertised via social networks) sample, but it does show that social media is having an impact upon the way in which people live out their faith online and offline. Two days into Lent, this is a particularly relevant survey given the number of people who have decided to give up social networking for the duration.

It’s not something I particularly agree with – partly because of the results of this survey. Sure, if social networking is distracting you from working, studying or living in the ‘real world’ to the point of unhealthiness, then create boundaries, but will a 40 day fast really change your long-term attitude? But what about the role it has in our spiritual lives? Nurturing relationships; being challenged; asking and receiving prayer; staying up to date with international situations; learning new things – all of this now happens via social networks. Vicky Beeching spoke my mind on this subject in a blogpost yesterday entitled: Why I disagree with giving up social media for Lent’.

One of the things I’m becoming increasingly passionate about is the importance of churches and Christians using social media effectively. (Actually, I’m passionate about everyone using it effectively, it’s just that most of the time I’m talking about this within church-y circles. Most of what follows will apply to the rest of the world too.) I don’t simply mean in a marketing sense, but primarily in a building community way. I’d almost go as far as to say that a Facebook/Twitter presence is as essential to a church as a decent website is.

So I thought now might be a good time to share a few tips for individuals and groups on why they should care about their social media presence – and why, possibly, they should join Twitter. [Disclaimer: I am a massive Twitter fan. It isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but it is worth a go – honest!]

1. Cross-platform consolidation
Let’s start with something that sounds pretentious, but is actually very sensible. If you’re a church/organisation, then create social media presences that work well together. Just like an individual might have Facebook, Twitter and a blog, so might a church have a Facebook page, Twitter feed and website. Make sure that you put the same information through all of them. You may think it’s pointless because it’s the same audience, but it’s not and the information can be used in different ways on each. On Twitter, for example, a church member might choose to retweet a church announcement so their followers can hear about it – something that’s harder to do with a Facebook status.
NB: If you’re going to do an auto-feed from one platform to another, make sure you do it from Twitter to Facebook, not the other way round. Feeding Facebook to Twitter doesn’t always work, because if the update exceeds 140 characters, you’ll be directed to a Facebook page – fine if you have a Facebook account, rubbish if you don’t. 

2. Save time by setting up auto-updates
There’s plenty of ways of doing this – some Twitter apps enable scheduled posting, so you can decide when you want something to go out. This means you can set things up even if you’re going to be on holiday, so Sunday services announcements can still go out, even if you’re not online one week. Our church’s website automatically sends out a tweet whenever new sermon audio is uploaded. [If you’re wondering about what a church Twitter account could post, the themes of Sunday talks and links to their audio would be a really good place to start.] Other platforms, like Flickr, will auto-Tweet whenever you add new content too.

3. Have a small team of people with access to your social media accounts
It’s kind of a simple rule of delegation really, but also means that it’s all dependent upon one person being at everything and online all the time. Mobile devices are particularly useful for this as it’s much easier to switch between Twitter accounts on an iPhone than on a computer (I currently have 4, this may be excessive…). This can also work by an individual person following lots of church people on Twitter, and being on the ball enough to re-tweet their stuff when relevant. You can also add specific accounts – so I now have a student Twitter in addition to the main church one and we complement each other, re-tweeting as appropriate.

4. Keep things private when they need to be private
The Tearfund research emphasises the ways in which Christians use social media for prayer requests. Some people are happy to share via very public forums like Twitter or Facebook, but others might want a safer space in which to do this. A church Facebook Page might work for certain things, but a closed group might be more appropriate for others – this worked brilliantly with my student group last year and I’ve just set up something similar for this year’s. I also belong to a brilliant women’s prayer group on Facebook which has become a place for sharing some really tough stuff, but also for reading truly inspiring stories. Having said that, it’s astonishing just how quickly a prayer request can get round the Twitter community – truly stunning and a really valuable asset of that network.

5. Use hashtags
This may sound solely Twitter related, but it’s not. For those not in the know, a hashtag is a way of grouping together tweets – placing ‘#’ before something on Twitter turns it into a hyperlink through which you can see all other tweets mentioning the same thing. For example, the Greenbelt festival usually goes with #gb12 (or whatever year it happens to be). This is useful for several reasons:

  • It can create a buzz for an event and help people see who else is there and what’s going on.
  • It enables people to bring together all the tweets from one event and store them for posterity.
  • It can be used to create ‘Twitter falls’ in other places. The Methodist Conference used this to startlingly good effect in 2011. Any tweets containing the hashtag #methconf were displayed on the conference’s main website, alongside the live video feed and papers – meaning that people could join in conversations in real time. [See, it’s not just for Twitter!]
6. Follow what you’re interested in and share what others might like
Treat your organisation like an individual (or, if you’re an individual – be individual!). Follow what you’re interested in – people, places, groups – and share what grabs your attention if you think it might benefit others. For example, social media has been a great place in the last few days to share what people are doing for Lent – I’ve discovered 24-7’s prayer spaces; Tearfund’s carbon fast; Christian Aid’s Count Your Blessings and myriad other initiatives via the people I follow and have passed them on in turn. If you have a church account, follow your members and engage with their lives (within suitable boundaries, obviously), but aim to inspire them too. With my student Twitter account I have two weekly aims – firstly, to keep student Twitterers informed on what we’re up to and share our doings; and secondly, to share at least one inspiring thought from our gatherings. The latter is something that often gets picked up by the people who follow us, so in turn (hopefully) inspires others.

I could talk for hours about the joys of social media and there’s plenty more to say on this subject, but I think this will do for now. In fact, friends have started booking me for personal social media surgeries, which I’m more than happy to do (though I apologise to those sat near me on Eurostar when the woman sat next to me grilled me about Twitter from London to Lille…). It’s well worth investing the time and effort – honest!

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