Social networking is huge. And if you can pry away someone in the 12 to 20 age group from MySpace, Facebook or Windows Live Spaces long enough they'll likely have a explanation for why. For starters, MySpace is popular in the same way that the senior quarterback is in high school. Everyone likes having a MySpace page, even if they don't use it anymore. Facebook is a hit because of its tiny applications that can generate a quote of the day or your favorite sports team's schedule. Windows Live Spaces, also known as MSN Spaces, is gaining in popularity, especially with younger teens, because you can easily configure the portal for private access only with friends, and the interface is easier to use than others.
Social networking allows users to connect with one another in ways instant messaging and e-mail can't touch. There's a relational aspect: You can post a daily blog, photos, a "favorites" list and even a real-time update of your whereabouts. These personalized sites are essentially a shrine unto yourself, offering others a peek inside your daily life, your likes and dislikes, and your thoughts on the world. In ministry, virtually any tool that helps build a relationship is useful. The jury's still out on whether social networking is just a fad, whether connecting via computer screens is really a good idea and whether ministries should entirely avoid those portals with a nefarious nature (some MySpace pages include pornographic photos).
Using social networking as a tool, however, is different from letting technology overtake the primary goals of building real relationships. Several high-profile ministries currently use social-networking sites, usually as an ancillary tool in their ministry toolbox. Here's how they've adapted this latest tech vehicle into their overall mission.
Many of the relief workers, missionaries and employees of Compassion International are scattered all over the globe. Social networking presents an excellent and mostly reliable conduit for communication. Workers can post status updates on a project or mission via a Facebook page, as opposed to connecting via phone or e-mail (both of which can be costly communication methods in many countries).
With an unusually strong presence in the social-networking world, Compassion runs both a MySpace and a Facebook page. President Wess Stafford uses a personal page on the latter to interact with those interested in supporting children and relief efforts. The ministry recently used social networking to advertise a trip to Uganda for well-known bloggers to report on the relief efforts there. Compassion even offers Facebook applications that other users can download and install into their own pages. For example, the ministry has an AIDS ticker that shows how many children are displaced by AIDS each day worldwide.
"Compassion's main goal with social media is to energize those that are participating in social technology arenas to be advocates for children, in particular children living in poverty, through Compassion," says spokesman Tom Emmons.
One of this megachurch's biggest challenges is communicating with volunteers. Enter the social-networking system—which, in many ways, is like a massive phone book that ministry leaders can tap into daily. Josh Griffin, a youth pastor at Saddleback, says the high school ministry routinely uses MySpace to find musicians. In one account, a worship leader was looking for a bass player for the upcoming weekend. Using the "texting" feature in MySpace, she sent out an instant message and within minutes had lined up a volunteer.
"One of the big benefits of these tools is that they are in the real world," Griffin says. "These aren't Christian versions—these are the real deal. While that brings along its own share of problems and concerns, it puts the church out there with real people, instead of giving into the temptation to be so self-focused. When you Google our church or student ministry, I want my MySpace, blog, Facebook and official site all at the top."
Griffin is also keenly aware of the downside of social networking. "Because users can private message and talk 'behind the scenes,' you've got to be careful to keep everything in the open as much as possible. The other potential problem is for your spaces to be 'spammed' and filled with compromised content or useless information."
Almost all the students in Griffin's ministry have MySpace pages, and many have Facebook sites. That ratio might flip-flop, he says, because MySpace is so heavily used for marketing, whereas Facebook is a bit more of a closed portal. (Facebook actually discourages businesses from opening an account.)
Among ministries focused primarily on Internet properties—including biblegateway.com and Web hosting for other ministries—Gospel Communications is a leading advocate for social networking. One of the main advantages, says Brian Tol, the organization's manager of property development, is that it turns nameless, faceless people online into real people.
This is evident when you sign up for a Facebook account: It can scan your existing e-mail archive and locate people who also have Facebook accounts, showing you their faces and background bios. For many, this might be the first time they see what someone looks like after connecting via e-mail only—which, ironically, uses the Web's technology to make communication more personal. "Instead of just nameless people, you have a better sense of who you're connecting with," Tol says. "And instead of 'rolling your own' [social-networking platform], tools like Facebook let you work with a large base of users already in the system."
For biblegateway.com, Gospel Communications started a Facebook group that now has 4,400 members and continues to grow fast. Tol says these forums allow users to give feedback on what they're doing right and areas for improvement. Just as important, he adds, they provide the means for "users to minister to each other without our direct involvement." That said, Tol encourages ministries that stress one-on-one contact or personal evangelism to rely lightly on social-networking sites. Although they are good initial points of contact and the anonymity encourages people to share concerns and struggles, helping people and holding them accountable can be difficult.
Ever since social-networking sites emerged, Christian artists have used them to go reach out. "Social networking is an amazing tool that we never had before," says Kalel, member of Grammy-nominated hard rock band Pillar. "Artists like us can be busy people but it allows kids to connect with us and makes us more accessible." The band's MySpace page often allows them to minister on a deeper level to teens dealing with issues such as cutting or homosexuality.
Whether through one-on-one connections or mass communication, social networking allows ministries to reach people in places where they are—on a computer, on a cell phone, surfing the Web. Like most tech-based ministry tools, there are benefits and detriments in the midst of a constantly evolving technology. Those ministries that stay in touch with the trends yet biblically grounded as those trends change will find success.
John Brandon writes for several publications, including PC Magazine and Laptop, and is based outside Minneapolis.