By Jeff Brumley
Facebook turned 10 this month, eliciting countless articles and blogs about the cultural, personal and technological changes the world’s most popular social media site has generated in the past decade.
But another area of major impact is faith. These days it’s a challenge to find a church, faith-based nonprofit or other ministry that doesn’t have a Facebook page. And individual believers typically post messages with spiritual themes, photo albums from mission trips and announcements about church events.
Facebook has become a huge presence in Baptist life as well. From missionaries to pastors to disaster-relief leaders, many describe the social media site as nearly indispensable in their ministries and to remaining encouraged in their callings.
“We have had the church so long without [Facebook] that we could get by without it,” said John Crowder, the pastor at First Baptist Church in West, Texas. “And we could also have church without air conditioning — but why would we want to?”
Crowder was one of several ministers who told ABPnews/Herald about their experiences with the social media site that now reports over 1 billion users worldwide.
Facebook as encourager
Crowder has spent nearly two years now helping lead the effort to rebuild West, which was partially flattened in April 2012 when a local fertilizer factory exploded. More than a dozen were killed and scores of homes — including his own — were either demolished or severely damaged in the blast.
While First Baptist’s Facebook page originally was established to host announcements, sermon links and special events, it’s become the hub for volunteers locally, statewide and beyond to connect with the church for cleanup and rebuilding projects.
The page also is used to share stories of courage and progress with First Baptist’s Facebook friends — stories media outlets usually ignore, Crowder said.
“With all the bad things that have happened, they need to hear something positive, and we have found Facebook is one of the places we can do that,” he said.
Crowder’s own Facebook page has been equally useful — but also for him personally.
Lately he’s been posting photos and updates about the ongoing construction of his family’s new home. Some have generated nearly 200 likes and nearly 30 comments.
“It’s incredibly encouraging that so many people even pay attention to what’s going on,” he said. “Just by clicking on ‘like,’ that tells me they care, and that encourages me.”
Facebook feels ‘closer to home’
Some American missionaries have come to lean heavily on Facebook in their work in distant countries where once they were cut off from family and friends.
Bill Peeler, Cambodia-based field personnel for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, said the social media site offers a means for him and his wife, Noy Peeler, to share with the world how they are sharing the gospel.
“It has benefitted what we do,” he said via Facebook instant messaging.
It’s also provided more intimate and immediate connections to the outside world than ever before available to missionaries, Peeler said.
“When I lived abroad in the distant past, it took weeks to send and receive messages,” he said. “Now we can have running conversations with only a few seconds lag time.”
In turn, the couple is better able to do their work.
“That does make us feel closer to home, and is good for keeping up morale,” Peeler said.
Spreading the word, connecting people
Facebook has become a central tool in rallying donations and volunteers around disaster-relief efforts, said Tommy Deal, CBF’s national disaster response coordinator.
The Fellowship’s Disaster Response Ministries Facebook page is used to cross-publish information from the CBF blog when appropriate, to issue fundraising appeals and to keep potential volunteers apprised and ready, Deal said.
“It’s a good way to get the word out and not have to send out massive e-mails,” he said.
Facebook has also been used to help disaster-relief volunteers find those most in need, said Stephanie Midkiff, a spokeswoman for Texas Baptist Men.
“In the last 12 months our use and presence on Facebook has grown exponentially,” Midkiff said.
One result of that occurred when a massive ice storm hit the Dallas-Fort Worth area in December. In several instances, stranded victims were able to post messages asking for help on the TBM Facebook page.
Midkiff said the agency couldn’t do without Facebook for that and many other reasons.
“These days everybody is connected and we have to keep up with that.”
Some are moving on
One group that’s relying a little less on Facebook these days is youth ministers — and that’s because youth, largely, have moved to other social media outlets, like Tumblr and Twitter, said Chris Robertson, minister of students and outreach at Towne View Baptist Church in Kennesaw, Ga.
When he became a youth minister two years ago, Robertson said he immediately noticed youth were posting just one or two items a day on Facebook and seemed to be silent after that.
He then discovered they were still active on social media — but on sites where there are fewer adults monitoring their interactions.
So Robertson does still rely on Facebook, but mostly to let parents know what the youth group is doing and what activities are scheduled for them.