By Rev. Dr. Rob Haynes
Over lunch recently, a ministerial colleague and I were discussing the various ways local churches seek to use social media to promote their ministry. He and I have served in a variety of contexts, and we observed that similar conversations seem to happen in each situation: some people strongly feel that putting a great deal of time and energy into a catchy social media campaign will cure many of the ills of church. Properly crafted digital posts, some believe, will reverse declining numbers in attendance and giving; a dying church will become vibrant again. However, research about the way people use technology to connect to one another and to God may contradict such notions. While opportunities to use the tools of the digital age for mission and evangelism are present, their implementation needs more careful consideration.
In a world of always on, anywhere, how can church leaders capitalize on the potential of the digital age? The answer may be more complicated than we might think. First, consider this:
- More than 88% of Americans use the internet. 71% of Americans are on Social Media.
- The average American spends approximately 6 hours and 30 minutes on the internet via any device, daily. (both from We Are Social)
- The Internet of Things (IoT) will permeate everyday life and accelerate this connectivity. Not only are we connected by our phones, but the connectivity of everyday devices is on the rise. More and more people are connecting their thermostats, toasters, refrigerators, cars, lights, etc.
- Technology trade groups and business leaders forecastcontinued rapid growth of the IoT. Currently there are more than 11.2 billion devices connected to the internet. By 2030, 125 billion such devices will be connected, most of which will be consumer owned (as opposed to usage by businesses, hospitals, militaries, etc.). That is nearly 16 devices for each person on Earth.
Such connectivity also spills over into how we relate to one another. Globally, social media users are growing by hundreds of millions each year. The opportunity to connect and share will continue to grow in the near future. These applications allow us to share pictures of our holidays, our families, and our lunches. Social media users share their support for their favorite sports teams or their favorite political candidates.
However, it appears that Christians are not using these means as a way to share their faith. A recent survey from Baylor University found that faith-sharing and the internet still have a strained relationship. Less than 15% of Americans surveyed said that technology improved their relationship with God. Likewise, 77% of Americans reported having never shared their religious views online.
Clearly, even though people are increasingly connected, it remains vital to keep relationships personal beyond just the glowing rectangles of our devices. Church leaders should be cautioned against putting their faith in the latest device, the newest trend in apps, or the cleverest of selfies. Rather, the devices of our age should be considered as tools to share the life-changing message of Jesus with those who need to hear it. That means the message will need to remain personal and always sensitive to the needs of the hearers. It means that the need to cultivate meaningful relationships will continue. It means that relying on the next trend in technology apps will not replace the work of being involved in peoples’ lives in a very real way. Jesus’ example of a highly relational, deeply involved ministry should continue to be our model, regardless of the latest technological trends. That does not mean we cannot use such technologies to connect with others, but they should not be our only means.
Remember that lunch where we were discussing technology in ministry? It took us a few days of communicating by phone, computer, and a variety of apps to make the appointment. Yet all of those conversations could not replace what we really wanted. The end goal, and the richness, was sitting down to share a meal and to ask about one another’s ministries, families, hope, dreams, disappointments, and successes.
While technology is useful at keeping us superficially connected, it can never replace the need for meaningful connection. If you find yourself fretting your inadequacies to create eye-popping social media posts or super slick websites, fear not. Instead, put down your device and step into your community. Take a friend to lunch. Share a cup of coffee with someone who is down. Visit the sick. Minister to the friendless and the needy. Spend time with the lonely. Then you will know just what to say online and in person. May God richly bless you as you go.
Rev. Dr. Rob Haynes is the Director of Education and Leadership for World Methodist Evangelism. His new book, Consuming Mission: Towards a Theology of Short-Term Mission and Evangelism (Wipf & Stock) is now available: www.consumingmission.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.