Youth have abandoned Facebook in favor of other social media platforms.
Data recently released by the Pew Research Center shows Facebook rates fourth behind YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat among young people.
So, should churches with strong Facebook presences follow younger Millennials and the up-and-coming Gen Z into virtual spaces a lot of ministers have barely heard of?
Experts say yes – if they are willing to commit time, money and staff resources to the effort. Leadership must also recognize they may be venturing into territory where hoped-for results, like boosts in attendance, may be elusive.
Simply opening an Instagram or Snapchat account isn’t enough. Ministers must study the platforms and how they work, said Bob Carey, chairman of the department of communication and new media at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, North Carolina.
If Instagram is the chosen platform for connecting with youth, churches and ministries should understand how hashtags work and seek to post relevant photos and videos, Carey said.
And they must remain faithful to the audience being targeted by staying on message, he said. That means not using the account to post photos of delicious meals or beautiful sunsets.
“If a youth minister wants to reach people, he has to keep things aimed at youth with things that are ministry oriented,” Carey said. “But if he all of a sudden posts images about his family, that may not work.”
There seems to be little question that faith groups know they need to have some kind of an online presence. Many know that existing and potential Christians are populating those virtual spaces.
A 2017 Barna study showed increases in internet and computer use among Christians. Online and computer-based Bible reading increased 37 percent to 55 percent from 2011 to 2017. The survey also found a big jump – from 18 percent to 53 percent – in those who searched for biblical content on a smart or cell phone in that time period.
A LifeWay Research study published in January found that 68 percent of Protestant congregations offer Wi-Fi for guests and staff. Most churches have a website and a Facebook page – 84 percent for both.
But LifeWay Research also found relatively few of those groups venturing into other social platforms: 13 percent use Instagram and 16 percent use Twitter.
It’s a different story with larger congregations. Some of the most digitally innovative institutions out there are megachurches, said Erik Qualman, an author and speaker on digital and social media trends.
Companies often look to these churches for ideas on online storytelling, he said.
Being active in social media “is hugely important if they want to grow their congregations,” Qualman said.
It may be harder for smaller congregations to see immediate benefits from social media involvement, he added.
But even in those settings, platforms like YouTube and Instagram can help keep pastors up to date on the mood of the congregations and communities, he said. Social media can also help existing members feel connected to their churches.
Qualman warned against becoming attached to certain platforms because their popularity continually shifts. Instead, invest in social media trends.
“The trend now is being heavy on video,” he said. “Whether it’s YouTube or Instagram, I don’t know. But I know it’s video.”
Another must is to be consistent in message and in frequency of posts, said Carey.
“You may have the coolest posting, but if they are few and far between, they get lost,” he said.
Church leaders must understand that creating a social media presence and following requires a lot of time and patience. Photos and videos should be stockpiled in advance. Commitments must be long term.
“I encourage you to count the cost,” Carey said. “It’s going to take time and effort to do this.”
Churches and ministries also must focus on storytelling to foster relationships between viewers and churches.
Next: keep expectations low.
Building a following takes time and may not result in much or any numeric growth. It may instead create virtual congregation memberships, with some living out of state or around the globe.
“You may have to take the attitude that you are sowing seeds and others are going to do the harvesting,” Carey said.