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Churches uses social media to connect with congregation
Facebook, Twitter and Instagram allows conversations among members
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Middle school students participate in a doughnut-eating contest Wednesday night at The Venue in Oakwood. Blackshear Place Baptist Church youth leaders used social media to advertise the midweek prayer meeting, getting more than 300 middle and high school students to attend. - photo by NAT GURLEY

Fellowship is becoming a bit more virtual in many local churches in this digital age.

With more than 73 percent of adults using some form of social media, according to a Pew Internet and American Life Project study, churches are finding it’s easier and more effective to reach members online than through more traditional means.

“We’ve probably found more success with communicating with our folks through social media than we have through anything else,” said the Rev. Chris Orr, worship pastor at Riverbend Baptist Church in Gainesville.

For many years churches relied on Sunday bulletins, mail, email and phone calls to connect with its members. As social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter became more popular, other communication methods started to become less effective.

Orr said the church decided to create a Facebook page as a supplemental way to connect with the community and has been pleasantly surprised with the opportunities for fellowship it’s presented.

The Riverbend Baptist Church page has some 400 members, with at least 150 who don’t attend the church.

“We’ve found that is has no limits,” Orr said. “In the beginning, we thought we’ll use this to advertise events and all of a sudden it’s turned into an interactive spot for people to communicate back and forth with one another.”

Websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram allow users to make comments on posts, post photos or send private messages to one another.

The Rev. Aaron Bennett, student pastor of college and middle school at Blackshear Place Baptist Church in Oakwood, said his church has only recently started “leveraging the power of social media.”

While on a mission trip to London, Bennett made a point of posting photos while there.

“When I got back, it was so funny the number of people who said they felt like they went on the trip as well,” Bennett said. “I’m not exaggerating at all when I say I probably had 100 conversations about the mission trip.”

Bennett often attaches a hashtag phrase to posts on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to help members connect about a specific church event or conversation topic. Hashtags (#) allow people to search for social media posts with a common theme.

The number of people who view a particular post can also be easily monitored by church administrators. The ability to see the reach of a post allows them to see what kind of content engages the most.

Though it might seem interactive, surveys and polls generally don’t get much play on social media, Bennett said. People tend to become more involved with the church’s Facebook page when posts are kept light and conversational.

Jennifer Williams, communications coordinator of Grace Episcopal Church in Gainesville, said the church’s Facebook page provides a way to bring news to people rather than making people seek it out. As users scroll through their new feeds, they will come across the church’s more recent posts and can instantly respond to requests or be reminded of upcoming events.

“It’s a great place to share photos, too,” Williams said. “That was another reason I wanted (the church to have a Facebook page.) Putting photos on our website wasn’t quite as easy. On the website people can’t make comments and have conversations. Websites are kind of a one-way street. With things like blogs and Facebook, it’s more two way. I think you really need that to connect. It’s a conversation rather than just being spoken to.”

Photo sharing sites such as Instagram tend to be more popular among younger church users and many churches have set up pages specifically for a younger crowd. Facebook, however, is more useful as a way to help engage parents and older church members.

“My grandma who is 80 years old is on it at least 15 times a day,” Orr said. “Yet so often we seem to equate social media with the 40s and younger crowd. Over the past number of years, the growing number of users of social media are actually boomers and older. We see less teen interaction on it than we do adults.”

But that’s not necessarily a problem. By getting information out to parents effectively, churches are actually encouraging more involvement from its youngest members.

“The funny thing is Facebook totally connects you with parents,” Bennett said. “Our kids still interact with Facebook a little bit, but it’s mainly how you get students to places is you let parents know where the kids are supposed to be. We’ve always been good at getting our kids excited, but we’ve always struggled connecting with our parents.”

Most churches appreciate the ease and instant information social media provides. By engaging members throughout the week, churches are able to keep the spiritual conversation going.

“It’s not just an informational approach, it’s an experience,” Bennett said. “That’s what Facebook and social media allows you to do. It’s not just your communication being big, it’s just more exciting, more effective.”