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Roxane B. Salonen, Published July 19 2013

A follower of Jesus: Social media brings new opportunities for churches to increase their flocks

FARGO -- When the Rev. Jamie Parsley first started fiddling around with social media eight years ago, he questioned whether it would bear fruit.

“I was sort of going into it blindly,” says Parsley, a 44-year-old pastor from St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Fargo.

But then readers began responding to his blog posts and Facebook updates – people from all over who liked what they read and wanted to stay connected, even though they might never step foot in his church.

“That’s something only social media can do that we couldn’t have done 20 years ago,” he says. “When I realized I was getting this kind of reaction, I saw how important (new media) is to the church.”

Though we’ll always need the physical presence of the church, Parsley says, “Our ways of doing church and understanding church are changing.”

“Those who are resistant, I really don’t understand that,” adds Parsley, who blogs, Tweets and keeps his Facebook updated regularly. “It’s such an inexpensive and relatively easy form of evangelization.”

Tech-savvy faith

Parsley’s social-media use echoes results of a recent study by Barna Group, a California-based faith research organization, found that 66 percent, or two-thirds, of all pastors now lean on Facebook to connect with their flocks.

Of the 23 percent now using Twitter – which has experienced a 77 percent jump by churches in less than two years – 40 percent of the accounts were instituted by pastors ages 29 to 47, according to Barna Group. Conversely, only 6 percent of pastors older than 67 have dipped their toes into the Twitter stream.

But in some ways it’s all ancient history, according to Parsley, who notes that Saint Francis of Assisi, who lived in the 1200s, used to go out to the people to spread the gospel.

“It was pretty radical for that time because the Church expected people to come to church to find the Church,” he says. “But Francis went walking around and traveling to meet people where they were at. And where are people today? They’re online.”

Old needs, new methods

The Rev. Jeni Grangaard, pastor of Glyndon (Minn.) Lutheran Church, says she couldn’t even find her church in a Google search while preparing for her interview three summers ago.

Upon accepting the job, she immediately began implementing a basic website, which since has been updated and incorporated a variety of other social media into the ways she reaches out to her church community.

“The website’s the new yellow pages,” she says. “It’s helped us have a presence. We’re not just an old church building but a church with a lot going on.”

Vanessa Veflin, 38, recently joined a technology task group at her First Presbyterian Church in Fargo to help identify how to more effectively implement and use social media.

“There are so many different ways to communicate. Nothing ever really goes away, but social media is a great way to connect with people,” she says, noting that her pastor makes podcasts of his sermons so anyone who misses a Sunday can pick up where they left off.

“It’s an easy way for people to stay connected,” she says. “If you’re in line at the grocery store, nearly everyone is checking their updates or texts, so you can keep people in touch with what’s going on (at church) even when they’re busy.”

Using tools well

One of Veflin’s frustrations, however, is when churches establish social media but don’t maintain it. “If you’re going to have a (Facebook) page, then update it and respond to people. If not, just take it down.”

Adam Copeland of Moorhead, who studies the merging of religion and social media, says it’s a false assumption for churches to think just because they’re exploring digital media they’re “instantly hip” or automatically connected to young people.

“People can see through the use of a Facebook page just to get people through the doors on Sundays,” he says.

Copeland, 30, began using digital technology his first year as a minister in rural Hallock, Minn.

“I’d look for resources or wonder about doing something new, like presiding over my first wedding, and I’d think, ‘I should ask on Twitter what some good liturgies are,’ ” he says. “I’d also constantly be reflecting on or asking for communal input on my blog.”

Having now transitioned from congregational ministry to the academic setting of college instructor, Copeland is pursuing a doctorate with an emphasis on religious rhetoric and new media.

“My interest has stayed in the area of digital religion because I see so many interesting cultural and religious connections there,” Copeland says. “Young people are exploring new ways of living out their religion and spirituality, and the tools technology affords us are more powerful than anything we’ve had before.”

But he says social media isn’t for everyone, and some younger people are intentionally opting not to go in too deep with it. “They’re choosing to live their lives in a way where they’re not sharing instant statuses with tons of people, and I think that’s an important choice to make.”

Cell-phone fixation

Tracy Bieger, 41, youth minister at Calvary Lutheran in Perham, Minn., says churches need to approach new media “in baby steps,” for the sake of the older members, but they have to start somewhere.

“Teens today have 40 percent more homework than I did in high school, and we have to adjust for that,” she says. “We need to be flexible and not always just glorify the past.”

In fact, though she also uses Facebook and email to communicate, she found teens respond best to her Twitter updates received by text. She’ll send out a weekly Bible verse or a fun faith question and reward a prize to the first correct responder.

“I hate to say we need to be more relevant, because the church also needs to be a constant and be a comfort for people, too,” Bieger says, “but we’ve got to make it more inviting and make sure everyone knows they don’t have to be some theologically brilliant person to come to church.”

Betsy Birmingham, congregant of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fargo-Moorhead, says she enjoys not only keeping up with church friends through Facebook, but glimpsing their lives in a way that hasn’t been possible in the past.

“I think personally the best thing about it is just that you have insight into people’s lives and stories and how they came to what we all experience together – our church community,” she says.

Birmingham says she does see some drawbacks to social media and church, including the possible temptation for churches to be so concerned about reaching the youth that they forget about their older members.

She also wonders about “the digital divide” between those who have Internet access and those who don’t, and how that might affect the faith connections of some, such as the new Americans.

“They’re much less likely to have Internet in their homes, and if they do have access, it’s more likely through a cell phone than a computer,” Birmingham says. “And we don’t often design our messages for that.”

But she won’t discount the merits of social networking for forging faith ties.

“Seeing how people who are a part of my church community enact their faith, both in their lives and through personal sites … and seeing how we as a community represent ourselves to the outside world has made my personal spiritual journey richer,” she says.

Readers can reach freelance writer Roxane B. Salonen at roxanebsalonen@gmail.com