By Jeff Brumley
The Roman Catholic Church is committed to social media despite the hassles — ugly criticism, vicious arguments, inappropriate photos — a Vatican official said this week.
While Facebook, Twitter and other platforms often bring out the worst in people, Archbishop Claudio Celli said in a May 23 Religion News Service story they also provide rich opportunities for evangelism.
“In our church we are always fishing inside the aquarium,” said Celli, head of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. “And we forget that most fish are outside the aquarium.”
Lo and behold, that turns out to be the view shared by many Baptist organizations, as well. Communications and media managers with a variety of state and national groups consistently say that the time and money spent projecting a social media presence far outweighs any drawbacks to an online presence.
‘Building online community’
“I have spoken to pastors who say ‘I don’t have time to be on Facebook and social media,’ and my answer is, you can’t afford not to do it,” said Nathan White, web minister for the Virginia Baptist Mission Board.
Facebook alone has an estimated 1.3 billion members worldwide. And that, White said, is a very ripe missions field.
“I’ve heard that if Facebook were a country, it would be the third-largest country in the world,” he said. “If Facebook were a country, we would be sending missionaries there — we need to have a presence.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy, he added. Developing and implementing social media strategies, consistently adding relevant content and pushing reluctant or busy leaders to stay current with their posts is time-consuming.
And so is policing negative posts that can be personally critical. But that can be avoided by staying on message, White said.
“In building [an online] community we’re trying to stay away from the issues that would divide us,” he said of theological and political issues that can generate hostility online. “But we can all come around missions in a unity of spirit, and so that’s the thing we stick with on social media.”
Sharing stories, connecting readers
Staying on message does minimize the activity of so-called “trolls” who plague many web, blog and social media sites with inflammatory comments and criticisms, Baptist leaders said.
“Our main goal is to share stories, to connect readers who have shared passions and highlight innovative ministries,” said Aaron Weaver, communications manager for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
The CBF also uses its Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, vimeo and blogging platforms in advocacy efforts, such as raising awareness about immigration reform or predatory lending practices, Weaver said. The Fellowship recently partnered with consumer groups to share stories about predatory lending practices.
But even a sharp focus on the CBF’s mission online can’t eliminate negativity altogether, he said.
“There are challenges,” Weaver said. “Sometimes we get negative comments on Facebook — but we encourage conversation and sometimes that’s going to happen.”
Usually, the commentary is within the bounds of healthy discussion.
“We only step in when the conversation turns inappropriate — but that doesn’t happen all that often,” Weaver said.
‘Keeping your ear to the ground’
And even then, the extra effort of having to police wayward comments is worth the effort, said Laura Barclay, networking, communications and interim missions associate at the Kentucky Baptist Fellowship.
“Shying away from social media is like refusing to get a phone in the early 20th century,” Barclay said.
Faith-based groups also should consider hiring someone specifically dedicated to web-based outreach, she said, because social media and other platforms are constantly evolving and new ones are coming online.
Barclay said she’s got her hands full keeping an eye on the online lives of teens, who are known to be shifting away from Facebook to outlets like Instagram.
“We can expect those networks to change,” she said, adding that it’s a full-time job “keeping your ear to the ground and figuring out what the trends will be.”
Beyond that, social media provides KBF and others a way to stay connected with ministry partners and pushes the organization to be concise in its communications.
“When you have 140 characters [in Twitter] it forces us to be more direct,” she said.
But the most important reason, she said in echoing the Vatican comments, is it’s about evangelism.
“Fundamentally, using social media is a way of reaching people where they are.”
‘Fulfilling our mission’
That’s a fact about social media that Chris Canary knows all too well.
Canary began his job as an intern with CBF Oklahoma to help coordinate disaster recovery efforts following the May 2013 tornadoes. Facebook was especially useful in communicating to the wider Fellowship and world what the local needs were. As a result, many out-of-state churches and other organizations were inspired to send volunteers.
“And it did help us with fundraising,” said Canary, now the office administrator and disaster response coordinator for CBF Oklahoma.
Currently it’s also being used to promote the state Fellowship’s missions projects, including recent work to help refurbish Watonga Indian Baptist Church.
Despite that, there are occasionally those who use the site to vent their anger.
“There was a guy who posted something yesterday,” Canary said Wednesday, May 28. “He posted something that shouldn’t be on our site, that he was tired of Obama and the liberals running the government.”
The value of Facebook and other social media platforms to cash-strapped nonprofits makes having to police such remarks worthwhile, Canary added.
“It allows us to tell our story and to show people how we are fulfilling our mission as CBF Oklahoma.”