When Kevin Joyce, the 29-year-old pastor of the nondenominational Imagine Fellowship in San Antonio, Texas, looks out at his congregation during his Sunday sermons, he sees “a lot of illuminated faces.”
But it’s not the word of God that’s lighting them up. It’s their smartphone screens.
“We hold our service in a movie theater and keep it dark so we can protect the screen,” says Joyce, who not only encourages his congregation to use Twitter and "tweet" in church, but projects the live Twitter stream on a giant screen during services. “When I look out, I’ll see a lot of people texting and the screens on their phones light up their faces.”
Welcome to the 3G(od) network, where social media have become as vital a communication tool for clergy and congregations as the traditional post-sermon coffee hour. While not all churches have gone as far as to incorporate real-time Twitter streams into their Sunday services, many are using Facebook, Flickr, MySpace, LinkedIn and other social networking sites to get the word (or, rather, “the Word”) out there.
In April, interactive marketing firm Sojo, Inc. surveyed 145 churches with memberships between 500 and 25,000 and found that 32 percent of them said they use Facebook, 16 percent are on MySpace and 10 percent are on Twitter, with many more chomping at the bit to sign up for the popular micro-blogging site.
Last month, Wall Street's Trinity Church used Twitter to perform the Passion Play on Good Friday, with congregation members using Twitter names such as "Pontius_Pilate," "ServingGirl," "Mary_Mother_Of" and "_JesusChrist."
Even the Vatican threw its large hat into the ring recently with a special YouTube channel, Facebook application and the newly launched Web portal "Pope2You."
“Social media is the new public square,” says Tim Schenck, a 40-year-old parish priest who blogs, is on Facebook and recently started tweeting. “Clergy used to have informal conversations with parishioners in barbershops and at Woolworth’s. Now much of this is done online.”
Schenck, rector at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., says he thinks of social networking sites as an important supplement, but not a replacement, for traditional ministerial outreach.
“I can’t e-mail someone Communion. I can’t tell them ‘Double click for salvation,’ ” he says. “But it’s a way for me to connect on a regular basis with my parishioners. And it allows me to extend the pulpit by reaching out to a much broader audience than I see on Sunday morning.”
While some churches take a minimalistic approach, using Facebook or Twitter to publicize potlucks or prayer groups or pass along a verse or affirmation of the day, others see it as a part of a larger, almost corporate-style mission.
“I approached the elders in our congregation about having a deacon of social media,” says Daniel Johnson, Jr., a 39-year-old IT developer and new media professional who attends the Cincinnati Church of Christ.
“They could not only help with the overall brand presence, but also help educate members and families about how to be effective and safe in using social media. Social media has a place in worship and outreach just as it does in business.”
Keeping churches relevant
Staying current and connected isn’t just about branding, though, says Kim Gregson, assistant professor of the television/radio department at Ithaca College in New York. It’s also about survival.
“Everybody needs to reach the next generation, to give them a sense of belonging,” she says. “And online is where younger people live. It’s where they get their information, make their social connections, plan their weekends. You have to be there, you have to be in front of them. There’s a realization that if you don’t do these things, you’ll become forgotten.”
Of course, a congregation’s social media skill sets — and tolerance for new media — varies.
Joyce’s church, which skews young, purposefully brands itself as “the church where you can Twitter,” a designation that manages to both attract and repel certain groups.
“People who are more ‘churched’ will come in and check it out and find it’s too distracting and move on,” says Joyce. “That’s okay. We tell them, this is who we are and this is what we’re about.”
Schenck’s Episcopal congregation, on the other hand, is a mix of young families and older, long-time church goers. As a result, he uses social media to connect during the week, but keeps his pulpit unplugged so as not to increase an already existing tech divide.
“Most of it is generational rather than economic in our church, but a tech divide can potentially lead to an ‘in’ group versus an ‘out’ group and that can be dangerous,” he says. “We can’t forget those who still don’t have e-mail.”
For the most part, though, churches seem to be embracing social media with the heartiness of a Baptist handshake, with Twitter gaining particular attention, according to Jonathan Acuff of the blog StuffChristiansLike.net.
“The big pastors at the mega-churches are starting to Twitter now and pastors are even using it to take questions during the service,” says the 33-year-old from Alpharetta, Ga. “Churches are starting to understand that it’s a way to engage with people in the audience.”
Kicked out for tweeting
Not all churches are becoming Twitter-vangelists overnight, though.
Alexis Martin Neely, a 35-year-old entrepreneur from Hermosa Beach, Calif., says that she was recently kicked out of her church for tweeting.
“I was in the back of the sanctuary tweeting the sermon and an usher came over and told me I couldn’t do that there,” says Neely, who attends the Agape International Spiritual Church. “They thought I was violating the copyright, like I was recording it somehow. I got the feeling they didn’t understand what Twitter was.”
She’s since gotten the go-ahead to live-tweet all her pastor's sermons, but even with the blessing of clergy, some people feel church is where you connect with your maker, not your friends or followers.
“I’m on Twitter and Facebook and I embrace technology every day, but there are places where you need space and one of those places is your church or temple,” says Mina Sirkin, a 42-year-old estate planning lawyer from Woodland Hills, Calif.
“If you’re tweeting away on your cell phone, it not only takes away from your personal presence in that moment, where you’re connecting with your creator, it takes away something from the people sitting around you, too.”
Alan Byrd, a 39-year-old marketing and PR entrepreneur from Apopka, Fla., says his tweets during church have raised a few eyebrows, but he feels getting the word out during that moment of inspiration takes precedence over everything.
“My wife doesn’t approve of my tweeting in church and at a prayer breakfast, I’ve had people say ‘You’ve got to learn to put your phone away, Alan,’ ” he says. “But the way I look at it, if two people out of my 2,000 followers have a closer relationship with God because of it, isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing?”
Concern over inappropriate tweets
While some people worry that Twitter is alienating certain members of the congregation and others praise the increased outreach capability, there’s a third aspect to Twitter that some find disconcerting: the medium’s lack of control.
Kevin Joyce says that while he’s not concerned about someone posting inappropriate comments during one of his church’s live Twitter streams, others have raised the issue.
“People will ask me ‘What if someone says something bad? What if they say the F-word and it’s right there on the screen for everyone to read?’” he says. “Potentially it could happen, but it doesn’t worry me. If they’re part of our church and they do that, we can help them through that. And if they’re not a part of the church and just coming to a Sunday service to yank my chain, I’m not going to worry about it.”
Unfortunately, chain yankers (or “griefers,” as social media expert Kim Gregson calls them) can sometimes throw a monkey wrench into a connected congregation.
“There are people who just get pleasure out of messing you up,” says Gregson, who’s studied various forms of social media, including the online virtual world of Second Life.
“We’ve seen that in Second Life where someone will show up at a Muslim service as a giant pig or something. If churches are having a live Twitter feed, there is a potential for them to be visited by griefers. Someone could get on and pose as Satan or tweet ‘This is God and I hate you.’ ”
While the potential for both griefers and global outreach are there, it’s probably best to remember programs such as Twitter, are, well, newly christened. Sorting out the benefits — and the bugs — is still, as the Rev. Schenck of New York says, a “work in progress for all of us.”
“I think that all clergy are trying to determine the right balance as well as the boundaries and limitations of social media,” he says. “But for me, the Christian faith is all about connectivity. There’s no reason to think that Jesus wouldn’t have Facebooked or twittered if he came into the world now. Can you imagine his killer status updates? ‘Jesus is walking on water and freaking out his disciples.’ ”