Twittering churches: United Methodists connect through social networking

Twittering churches: United Methodists connect through social networking

Bill Fentum, May 8, 2009

 twittermethodist 12009 DESIGN PICS PHOTOOnline social networking, some United Methodists say, can help churches stay in touch with members or better reach seekers. Others warn against putting too much faith in technology.

By Bill Fentum
Staff Writer

Online social networking didn’t mean much for a while at First United Methodist Church in Plano, Texas. The congregation launched a Facebook page early this year, and used it mostly to announce plans for Holy Week and Easter. 

Then on Palm Sunday, the church kitchen caught fire. Though sprinklers quickly doused the blaze, the building was evacuated and all activities had to be rescheduled for later in the day. 

To get the word out quickly, the staff posted updates on its Facebook page, urging all members who use that networking site to call anyone who hadn’t heard the news. 

Hours later, some 400 people showed up for an impromptu 6:30 p.m. service. 

“Facebook was instrumental in making it happen,” said Liz Applegate, First UMC’s communications director. “Now it’s giving us a way to stay in touch, interact and support each other throughout the week. It’s church, whenever we need it.”

How it works

More than 100 million people worldwide log on each day to, sharing their joys and sorrows with people who live down the block or half a world away. They can upload photos and videos, play games or post updates to tell others what they’re doing at the moment. 

Longer conversations are held through back-and-forth posts—visible to anyone they accept as Facebook “friends” or “fans”—or by sending private messages. 

Others connect through MySpace, another social networking site, or keep track of their “followers” on the increasingly popular micro-blogging site, where online posts called “tweets” are limited to 140 characters and can be viewed online or sent as text messages to cell phones. The “tweets” allow users to update their status countless times a day, if they choose. 

Churches shouldn’t ignore the trend of hyper-communicating, experts say. 

“God expects us to use every resource we have for his kingdom, and technology is no exception to that,” said Beth Sanders, a Web designer and member of Christ Church United Methodist in Memphis, Tenn., who oversees a Twitter account for the congregation. 

Ms. Sanders posts four or five tweets a day, linking to podcasts of pastor Steve Dodson’s sermons or to the staff blog. She also “live-tweeted” a recent guest lecture by author Tony Campolo, sending updates from a laptop in the church sanctuary. 

Some of the church’s 137 Twitter followers are members of Christ Church while others live outside the area, many of them complete strangers to Ms. Sanders. 

“Who knows,” she said, “it might be someone who lives in California but they’re moving to Memphis and want to see what United Methodist churches are like here. I post as if they were all seekers.”

twittermethodist 2‘Humanizes pastors’

The possibilities don’t end there, according to church-media consultant Anthony Coppedge. In January he published The Reason Your Church Must Twitter (, an e-book that urges pastors to get on board—keeping in daily touch with parishioners by tweeting messages to their computers and cell phones. 

That’s no substitute, of course, for face-to-face contact. But Mr. Coppedge says it could strengthen the ties between clergy and their congregations, especially in large churches where personal attention is often difficult. 

He offers an example: “A pastor can tweet, ‘I talked last Sunday about the world’s temptations. Well, I was just tempted by such-and-such, and this is how the Holy Spirit dealt with me.’” The short tweet could then be linked to the pastor’s blog for readers to get the rest of the story. 

“It humanizes pastors,” said Mr. Coppedge. “And that’s a big thing, because like all authority figures, we tend to put clergy on a pedestal whether we mean to or not. You have a connection listening to them on Sunday morning, but that’s usually about all.” 

Twitter, he added, can also help keep church staff and volunteers connected. Special accounts could be set up and used to send out updates on music or youth ministries, with passwords restricted to one or two leaders. 

But technology only works when people are comfortable with it, cautions Ms. Applegate. She hasn’t yet started a Twitter account for the Plano church; instead, she prefers sharing stories, news and photos on Facebook. 

“To me,” she said, “Twitter is like going to a big party where everybody is talking all at once, and it’s hard to make one-on-one connections. Facebook is like sitting down for a cup of coffee with a friend.”

The new commons

But regardless of the format, the concept behind social media isn’t really new. In fact, futurist and author Leonard Sweet believes it’s as old as the days when people gathered in the village commons for a daily dose of small talk. 

“The conversations may have been shallow, but those social interactions glued communities together,” said Dr. Sweet, professor of evangelism at United Methodist-related Drew University. He called Twitter—his own social medium of choice—“a new global commons, bringing us back to a point where we can connect with each other.” 

Dr. Sweet encourages live-tweeting among his listeners whenever he preaches; the responsive “tweets” are then projected on an overhead screen. 

“They micro-blog the experience,” he said, “so we interact while I’m speaking, and I learn as much from them as they do from me.”
United Methodists who are still considering whether they want to join in on social networking have a larger question to answer, Dr. Sweet said. 
twittermethodist 3
“Do we want to be in ministry or mission to this new world or don’t we?” he asked. “If we do, then we’ll have to learn to use the media.”
Hyde Park UMC in Tampa, Fla., has set up links on its Facebook and Twitter accounts that send hits each day to, the church’s blog site. From there, visitors can visit the church’s main site, which was upgraded last fall to include podcasts of sermons by the Rev. Jim Harnish, senior pastor. 

The four-way strategy drove up traffic in April, after Dr. Harnish preached on William Paul Young’s The Shack and wrote a tie-in opinion piece posted online by the Tampa Tribune. People outside the congregation commented on the blog and Facebook page, and a few of them even visited Sunday worship. 

“It’s a way to network ourselves, increasing the odds that someone will find us,” said the Rev. Matt Horan, Hyde Park’s associate pastor. “I think of it as a lot of folk throwing out nets to catch information, then sifting through what they find. You’re not going to get looked at, unless you’re in their net.” 

But online outreach has its limits, he added. 

“It shouldn’t be something that you spend a lot of time on to the neglect of one-on-one relationships and effective worship planning,” Mr. Horan said. “Those things still draw a lot more
people to our church.”

Relational tool

Gavin Richardson, youth ministry director at First UMC in Hendersonville, Tenn., doubts that Facebook and Twitter accounts will ever succeed as stand-alone evangelism tools—no matter how many people sign up as “fans” or “followers.” 

Several teens in Mr. Richardson’s youth group are on Facebook, where he spends time each day checking in with them. None of their friends, though, have joined the group’s page without first visiting the church. 

“No one is a ‘fan’ of your church, per se,” Mr. Richardson said. “Many churches think putting content out there is enough, and people will come to church because they saw a preacher’s sermon online and loved it. But social media isn’t a marketing tool; it’s a field for relational ministry.” 

Besides his own Facebook account, Mr. Richardson runs an active blog at and logs on to Twitter every day. But his tweets are mostly in conversation with others, not posted to announce church activities. 

“If you’re just using Twitter to say, ‘Hey, we’re doing this at church tonight,’ if you’re not doing anything else to talk to people, it’s a waste of your time,” he said. “Make friends, show them you’re listening and affirm that they’re saying something worthwhile.”

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Online social networking, some United Methodists say, can help churches stay in touch with members or better reach seekers. Others warn against putting too much faith in technology.


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