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Discussions about social media—and, specifically in our case, social media in preaching—are important for the contemporary church. Let’s face it: whether we like it or not, we live in a digital age.

To be effective, however, we need to understand some basics about social media. And to begin with, we need to determine how conversant we are with social media.

Anyone, if they are willing, can use social media effectively. The issue is whether we are willing to admit our “user level.” To figure this out, how do you respond to the following statement?

All social media is relational.

Debate over the purpose of social media continues to rage in face-to-face discussions, print journals and online blogs. Yet, the argument itself is why we are so confused about what social media is and how we can use it effectively.

Most media experts lump users into one of three categories:

1. Digital natives are people who use technology fluidly. They embrace new applications and operate with a sense of responsibility and stewardship. Although their ability to work fluidly is often confused as being anti-social, they demonstrate how technology can be effectively integrated into our lives. Digital natives believe that the purpose of social media is relational (to connect people and ideas).

2. Digital immigrants are people who use technology although not fluidly. They have accepted that we live in a wired world, although the use of technology does not come easy for them. However, they are willing to learn and do make valuable contributions to the technology world. Digital immigrants believe that the purpose of social media is functional (to work smarter).

3. Digital aliens are people who do not use technology unless it is absolutely necessary (e.g., email for work, text-messaging only with select people). Opinions range from isolationist (If we ignore Facebook it will go away ... just look at MySpace!) to apocalyptic (Didn’t we learn anything from Huxley and Orwell?). Digital aliens believe that the purpose of social media is divisive (to isolate and segregate).

Each of us falls into one of these categories. That’s the bad news, especially for those who believe that rotary phones are on the comeback. Yet, as I mentioned above, even the digital alien (if he or she is willing) can learn how to use social media effectively.

There are three basic ideas about social media. First, social media is relational. All media is social, because the function of social media is to connect people in relationships where life is shared through status updates, selfies and research documents. The avenues through which we can connect with others are almost limitless. Yes it can be overwhelming if you try to use all of them. That is not the point. The point is that there are many ways to engage this wonderful world in which we live.

Second, social media is influential. The purpose of social media is to expand our capacity for doing good. The idea is to expand our influence not our image. When this happens, when image trumps influence, social media has been hijacked. Consequently, when thinking about how to use social media responsibly, we must learn to build a platform for, in the words of Seth Godin, our “tribes." I decided to develop a platform that focuses on theological education. As a result, I find myself in conversations with preachers from Texas, college educators in England and social scientists in India. I am influencing people across the globe as they are influencing me.

Third, social media is generous. Michael Hyatt developed the concept of the “platform” a couple of years ago. He says that responsible use of social media occurs when we realize that we have something to offer the world and we freely and willingly offer it. When I attend conferences, I often live-tweet so that those not attending can share in what I am learning. As we begin sharing our thoughts and ideas, we will connect with more people who can spread our influence. 

To sum up, anything that is technological is social media because we are making a connection when we use the application. This is good news for those of us charged with sharing the Good News. We are no longer limited to Sunday sermons. Whereas Paul had the Roman roadways and Wesley had riding circuits, we have the Internet. In a follow-up article, we will look at some tips for effectively using social media in preaching.

To bring this conversation full circle, I would like to offer some dos and don’ts about how to use social media in preaching.

Although I am primarily using Twitter for my example social media outlet, most of these tips can be applied across the social media spectrum. Most of the ideas are mine, although some were given to me by others who responded to my offer to share their thoughts about preaching and social media.

1. Do learn the parameters of the social media outlet. For example, Nathan Copeland (@nbcopeland), Assistant Professor of Business at Harding University, reminds Twitter users to leave about 10 characters at the end of their tweets so that they can be retweeted. His reminder is important due to the 140-character limit. This is not a problem with other outlets such as Facebook or Instagram where the character amount is virtually limitless. On the other hand, Michael Hyatt recommends that bloggers keep their posts under 500 words if they actually want their posts read. Thus it is important to know your outlet’s parameters.

2. Don’t ask the congregation to text or tweet or message you questions during the sermon. This may sound strange, yet there is absolutely no filter for this. What if no one responds? I saw this happen once in a sermon where the preacher needed people to send in questions for his sermon to work. The outcome was embarrassing. However, do ask your people to make comments about the worship or sermon, either using a predetermined hashtag or tagging you in the comment. I encourage people to tweet comments that I make in sermons, and I diligently try to respond to everyone who makes a comment about the sermon.

3. Do accept that at least some in the audience will be reading from a digital Bible and probably taking notes through something like Evernote. I often teach a course on spiritual formation where I encourage the students to download the YouVersion Bible app to their phones or tablets. Then, when speaking in chapel, I encourage them to read from their digital Bibles as I am preaching. To be honest, we prepared our people for this when we began projecting Bible passages on screens.

4. Don’t simply share Bible verses (and/or quotations). While your followers will benefit greatly from your personal devotional practices, your interactions will be more meaningful if they occur after the sun rises. Also, there are some good users who see this as part of their ministry (YouVersion and Logos are the most active).

5. Do make use of multiple outlets or find ways to link your multiple outlets together. For example, when I took a picture of my daughter after she won a dance competition in March, I posted the picture on Instagram. Before the picture was posted, I was given the option of posting it to other sites. I chose Twitter because my Twitter and Facebook accounts are linked. One photo was automatically posted to three social media outlets.

6. Don’t construct an online personality that is different from your real personality. After all, we must be genuine in all things. Not everything you post needs to be theologically deep or spiritually rich. It’s okay to mix up your posts between profound thoughts about your faith and quirky messages about what you’re watching on television. One of my former colleagues has a bad habit of posting spoilers from what he is watching. He also posts profound thoughts on theology and classic rock, and he and I often get into debates about both.

Finally, I would like offer some advice from my friend Matt Hafer (@matthafertweets), a church planter in Portsmouth, Ohio. He recommends that we study how preachers whom we follow on Facebook or Twitter or whatever communicate digitally. Facebook may be enough. Yet you may be in a highly urbanized area where maximizing your impact will require using a variety of social media outlets.

Also, you will want to consider what outlets will reach the greater number of people. I have a friend in Oregon who is planting congregations among artistic communities. Print-based outlets like Facebook and Twitter were helpful, yet people began to really take notice when his team began using more visual-based outlets like Pinterest, Vimeo and Instagram. In short, find what works best for you and your situation. Social media is here to stay, and it is up to us to use it for spreading the gospel.

Rob O'Lynn is an Assistant Professor of Preaching and Ministry at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky. 

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