You've likely already heard that social media can be an effective tool for ministry. You've read a bunch of articles telling you how to get started and what to do.
And, despite the reputation it can have at times, social media can be a surprisingly forgiving place. Things move fast, posts that fall flat fade into the background, and you can always try something new next time.
But there are a handful of things you can do (or not do) that can have a much bigger and more lasting impact on your effectiveness.
1. Posting without a strategy
If someone is on the fence about using social media for ministry, it is usually good to encourage them to just jump in and try it out. Post a few things, ask a few questions, share some Scripture or a devotion, and see the kind of impact you can make.
But this randomness becomes a problem if it remains your approach long-term. You will have a much bigger impact through social media if you give it the intentionality you give to other areas of ministry.
Craft a social media strategy that can serve as the foundation for everything you do online. Create an editorial calendar so that you're not starting from scratch everyday. Clarify your goals, objectives, and audience so that you know who you're talking to and why.
Also take the time to learn how to read and understand analytics like your Facebook Page Insights. This will allow you to see what is or is not working and adjust your approach.
2. Using social media primarily as a broadcast channel
One of the biggest mistakes ministries can make is to treat their Facebook Page like an extension of their bulletin. Social media may seem like a great way to get information out, but it is called socialmedia for a reason.
In early 2018, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced major changes to the Facebook News Feed. One of the biggest takeaways is that Facebook wants to encourage engagement and discourage passive consumption of information. Even if you're posting positive content like Scripture verses or quotes from your sermons, posts that do not inspire interaction will be penalized by the Facebook system that chooses what people see.
Instead of treating social media like a broadcast channel, we need to see it as a tool for branding. Branding is one of those words that may feel uncomfortable when applied to church, but branding is essentially the experience people have when they interact with you. Is your social media presence encouraging? Do people feel like they can connect with you? Do they trust you enough to ask honest questions or give honest answers to your questions?
3. Posting the same thing on every social network
None of us has unlimited time to put into every social network. And one of the easiest ways to save time on social media is to create one set of posts for the week and put them up on every platform. But the reality is that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and others all have distinct posting limitations.
Not only does each social network have its own culture and best practices dictating what content works best on each platform, your audience is likely to be different on each network. For example, if you know your Instagram audience is younger than your Facebook audience, you should take that into consideration when writing and designing content.
Of all the items in this article, this is the least "deadly" of the social media sins. However, if you find yourself posting the same content across all platforms, ask yourself why you have all of those accounts. If you can't use a platform to its fullest potential or you're just showing identical content to the same people in multiple places, consider scaling back and focusing on the one social network where you can have the biggest impact.
4. Neglecting accounts and/or interactions
Almost as bad as using social media solely as a broadcast channel is inspiring engagement and then ignoring it. If you ask a question and don't acknowledge the responses, people are going to wonder whether you're actually listening. That is a terrible way to build a relationship.
It is also hard to build relationships and stay on people's radar if you post three times in a week and then go silent for a month. Consistency is key. Pick a schedule or posting frequency that is realistic for you and keep to it. Use free tools like Buffer, Hootsuite, or Facebook's native tool to schedule posts ahead of time and have them publish when you want and not just when you're free.
If you are getting started with social media ministry, planning to expand, or rebranding your ministry, you may want to sign up for accounts on multiple social networks in order to get the username you want. But if you do this, put a note and link in the bio or "about" section inviting people to join you on the social network where you are active. And if you choose to include any information like worship times, remember to update that if anything changes.
5. Lacking authenticity
Finding your voice online can be really hard when you're communicating as an organization. You need to represent your ministry as a whole, but you also want people to feel like they're interacting with real people. To illustrate just how hard a line that can be to walk, research shows that 34.7% of social media users found it annoying when a brand's social accounts had no personality, but 32.3% were also annoyed if brands tried to be funny and did not succeed. That's a tough crowd!
Young adults in particular have an authenticity radar that can tell when an organization isn't being genuine. If posts seem impersonal, if it feels like a church is trying too hard to be relevant, or if the face churches present online is nothing like they are in real life, you can do serious damage to your social media ministry.
6. Mishandling current events and pop culture
Building on the last point, one of the easiest ways to feel impersonal is never acknowledging the world outside of your church. The people with whom you're forming relationships live and work in that world. Your ability to discuss current events and pop culture not only adds to your authenticity, but it may offer an opening to help people understand and live out their faith in light of the world around them.
At the same time, if you focus too much on pop culture or current events—particularly politics—it can be a real turn off. And when you do choose to engage, make sure you're knowledgeable enough to participate in a way that is responsible and respectful. If it is clear that you're trying to hop on a trend you don't understand or share a perspective that isn't fully informed, it may be better not to engage.
7. Leaving out the call to action
In order to meet the goals you have set, sometimes you need to explicitly ask people to do something. Research shows that people expect calls to action on social media. Asking for participation doesn't guarantee that people will respond, but you don't need to be shy about it.
Let's say that your goal is to connect with new people and get them to visit your church for a weekend service. Your strategy can involve creating content that people are genuinely interested in and gives people a sense of your church's personality. You can answer common spiritual questions or share how you saw aspects of the Gospel in a new movie or news story. Posts like these might help build a relationship, but what kind of relationship is it? Are you simply an interesting Facebook Page to follow, or are you a community organization that people can connect with in person? At some point, you have to bridge topics of interest with a related ministry, small group lesson or sermon series. You have to invite them in. There are lots of ways to execute a call to action, but the key is making sure people know what you want them to do.
One final caveat. In early 2018, Facebook began to penalize engagement bait, which is a call to action that asks followers to like, share, comment or tag friends. Apparently, Facebook doesn't like when people try to hack their algorithms. You can always verbally ask people to get out their phones and share a particularly excellent post. Try this technique at the end of worship service or choir practice, just not in written form on the actual post. In the end, great content will be shared, so focus your call to actions on building community, giving and volunteering.
— Rev. Dan Wunderlich is an extension minister focused on worship, communication, and creativity with the goal of helping ministries and their leaders better connect with their communities. Find out more about his work and his podcast "Art of the Sermon" at DefiningGrace.com.