Growing the Church’s Online Presence
Why are seniors the fastest growing internet users?
Is Facebook the new front porch?
Maybe these questions sound strange. Maybe. But stick with me.
Two weeks ago I was invited to teach a segment to a group of Presbyterian church elders from the Simcoe and Muskoka areas about using technology in the church—particularly around things like websites, group email and social media.
I’m no expert. But these have become an intentional part of Westminster’s ministry.
At Westminster we’ve used a variety of tools. We have a website, Facebook group and Twitter feed. None of it is overly fancy or expensive. We also use weekly group email through MailChimp (with analytical tools); I blog and have introduced audio podcasting of Sunday messages.
Some may wonder, Why bother? It can seem like a foreign world. Plus, a screen is no substitute for real human community. Right?
But in my mind, the main reason for growing the church’s online presence is this: One of the purposes of the church is to show Jesus—in ourselves, among ourselves, and to the world. And Jesus had a habit of meeting people where they are. On the roadside in a field or fishing boat.
And tonnes of people are online. It’s often “where they are” for a good chunk of their time.
When people are looking for a church what do they do? They sometimes ask someone. Or, quite often, they check Google. (And they’re often not even looking for a particular denomination.) An online presence is partially about visibility and hospitality to newcomers.
Plus, there are all the ways to connect and engage faith online each day for the existing community.
80% of Canadians are online (It’s a bit less in rural areas but still over 70%). Seniors are online the least, but are the fastest growing group (mostly for using email to connect with family, but also for other things). For people under 50, internet use is increasingly eclipsing TV watching (especially in the younger age categories). People are increasingly using multiple devices to access the web. 14 million Canadians check Facebook every single day (Millions more have accounts and check them regularly.)
People are shopping online, sending messages, catching up, taking classes, paying bills, listening to music. The list goes on.
In my presentation I highlighted a few things. One is a book by Toni Birdsong and Tami Heim called @StickyJesus that advises on best practices and also pitfalls to avoid. I recommend it.
We all need to keep in mind things like
- how to be safe
- how to set boundaries
- what kind of etiquette to use
- what things cost
- who does it
- how to measure effectiveness
- how to administer comments/feedback
I also emphasized that content is the key, and keeping focused on what and why we’re doing what we do. If it’s an end in itself we’re wasting our time.
At Westminster, most people who come to the church have either heard about us from a friend, or have visited us online. Only then do they show up to see how they’ll be welcomed. One person said it made all the difference and made the “first time” experience less intimidating, especially in an age when going to church is a swimming-against-the-stream activity.
Another person said they find the podcasts a great way to keep theologically active while out of town or while driving to work. Another person loves staying connected to church friends on Facebook. Another said that the weekly email is a reminder not only about what is happening, but that God should be at the centre of their lives every day and not just on Sunday.
There were other things I addressed in the presentation, but the point of this blog is really just to encourage us to think about this as an intentional part of our ministry to show Jesus. The One who meets people where they are.
It’s not about being “relevant.” When your bank and the sanitation department and Timmy Tweed’s Taxidermy have websites and engage users through various channels, you can’t claim that having an online presence is cool. It’s just a part of modern life.
And it’s not about technology.
A car isn’t about technology; it’s about getting somewhere (and often with style). A phone isn’t about technology; it’s about talking to someone. Growing the church’s online presence isn’t about technology; it’s about relationships and knowledge.
I just have to end with this. I love it: In 1903 the President of Michigan Savings Bank advised Henry Ford’s lawyer not to invest in the Ford Motor Company by saying this: “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty, a fad.”
Photo “Open Window” by siegertmarc