The internet is changing again. And that is bad news for the churches that are already lagging behind on social media platforms. But it also creates an opportunity to leapfrog the era that is going by the wayside and start engaging a medium that has drastically influenced our culture (and our pews) more than we ever imagined.
By the late 2000s, churches had figured out they needed websites and sermon podcasts. Fast-forward to the mid-2010s, and most saw the need for Facebook pages and Instagram accounts. But pastors can’t be experts in everything. So perhaps it’s no surprise that most churches failed to understand how these tools worked, and how they could maximize their potential to spread the gospel.
Even megachurches with budgets large enough to accommodate full-time social media personnel followed models focused primarily on creating influencers —a strategy exacerbating the celebrity scandal problem causing public crisis after public crisis.
On top of that, pastors across the country have seen their churches, and sometimes even families, torn apart by conspiracy theories and political vitriol on Facebook and Instagram. Young people are deconstructing their faith online to the aplomb of digital followers. They’ve even created a new kind of celebrity on TikTok: the Christian deconstructor. Given all these problems, you can’t blame church leaders for taking the soft-luddite position, using social media sparingly.
But here’s the good news: the era of having to do everything is (thankfully) coming to an end. This means that churches can strategically assess their goals for online mediums and social media and focus on the one thing they believe they can do well. Is your goal reaching new people? Re-engaging dechurched people? Becoming a resource church? Providing digital discipleship for your congregation? Disseminating information about upcoming church events? Your answer to this will dictate the route you decide to go. But before you make that decision, you should consider four major shifts happening on the social internet:
From social-media-as-Newspaper to social-media-as-television station
The first wave of social media was text and photo-driven, much like newspapers. Pastors and institutional leaders had the writing skills necessary to engage in this format.
But now the internet is making a wholesale shift to video, specifically short-form video, requiring production skills more common in television stations than church offices. Video requires proficiency in lighting, audio, composition, and editing. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: you also need to understand the tactics that work best on each platform. Unfortunately, hiring costs put this kind of endeavor beyond the bounds of what an average church can afford.
Even leaders with these skillsets quickly discover that the time, energy, and equipment outstrip what their schedule and operations budget can afford. Forced to pick between short-form videos and caring for the people that attend your church, many church leaders choose the clear biblical mandate: care for the local flock.
Should leaders also make the shift to video to meet the times? The answer is: it depends. If your church or institution has the funds and people skilled in video production and marketing, then absolutely. Try to break the celebrity model by measuring success in new ways. Rather than focusing on vanity metrics like followers and views, focus on quality and in-person conversion rate (i.e., of the new people we connect with, how many arrive in-person at church in the next year?).
If you lack the resources (and the majority of churches lack the resources), you should not invest in half-baked, short-term video projects that cannot be sustained over time. Video will quickly deplete resources you could more effectively deploy elsewhere.
A shift from geography-driven to geographically neutral
Social media used to be able to do two things at once: reach locally and reach globally. You could do either depending on your goals. But with TikTok’s Discovery algorithm and Meta changing their algorithm to also be discovery-first to compete with TikTok, that is no longer true. Social media is becoming a global-reach-only system. The days of organically reaching the people in your immediate area are coming to a close. The exception is if you have the resources to pay for ads in a geographic location, but be ready to put far more of your budget into that than previous years.
So how do you do local ministry online? Email. There is no space more intimate on the internet than the email inbox. Churches, who often already have large lists of email addresses spread across excel spreadsheets, need to lean into this asset. The beauty of email contacts is that you own them, and no platform or changes in algorithms can take them from you. Services like Mailchimp, ConvertKit, and even Substack make email newsletters extraordinarily easy.
Double down on your efforts to grow your email list. Regularly encourage your people to read the emails. These are useful opportunities for ministering to the church’s specific season and also inviting people into in-person discipleship and community opportunities. However, email is not a one-size-fits-all silver bullet to your communication strategy. Study the best practices for good email communication, and consider using additional communication tools (such as Slack or Circle) to strengthen your communication without sending out too many emails.
It’s also important to empower leaders in your church (small group leaders, Bible study leaders, and whoever else) to communicate vital church information so people can participate in the life of your church. One church divided a ministry team’s contacts into groups based on involvement. They began to invite disconnected people to specially designed events. The results were tremendous—hundreds of people who simply stopped going to church reappeared.
A shift from brand to influencer
Brands are losing their influence on social media. Influencers are not only the future, they are the “now” of the internet. If you spend the majority of your time on Facebook and Instagram, you may not see it yet. But on platforms like TikTok, this is abundantly clear.
Most people will see a church’s online presence the same way they see brands. They aren’t personal. They are self-serving, focusing primarily on pushing out church events and information, not helping or engaging the social media consumer. People are going to look for and care about your church online less and less. They don’t go to the internet to find a brand, they go to the internet to find a person.
At this point, you’re probably feeling a bit sick. Seriously? You want us to be influencers? We get it. The word “influencer” has many unhelpful connotations that we want to reject. But there is one good thing about it: it’s personal. God didn’t come to us as an abstraction or a brand. He came to us as a person and it is other persons who are his ambassadors, or representatives, in the world according to Paul (2 Cor. 5:20). While Christians should reject the celebrity aspect of “influencer,” they may do well to embrace the personal aspect. The truth is that the internet is a mission field, and we need digital missionaries who create content for specific niches to reach people with the gospel.
What would it look like to support people in your church who already have a developing online presence? Could you resource them with community, pastoral discernment, and maybe even some equipment or ad dollars as your budget allows so they can reach people more effectively than a church account ever could? What does this look like for you as a leader? How can you become a more personal, engaging presence online for the people you shepherd?
A shift from information to identity
Social media was once primarily about making and maintaining relationships with others. With the shift to short-form video and Discovery algorithms, social media has become primarily a performance platform for people to express their individual identities. Of course, this becomes a discipleship problem when people are more interested in performing an identity than being conformed to Christ. Worse still, the solipsism (the view that self is all that can be known to exist) that develops online can easily bleed into real-life relationships that impact the church.
But the risk is not merely for creators. You may never make a TikTok, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t shaped by it. It’s not unusual to see people mimicking the speech patterns, personalities, and values of influencers. Put another way: some will perform an identity on social media, and some will receive an identity from social media.
Chris Bail wrote in Breaking the Social Media Prism: How to Make Our Platforms Less Polarizing,
“We are addicted to social media not because it provides us with flashy eye candy or endless distractions, but because it helps us do something we humans are hardwired to do: present different versions of ourselves, observe what other people think of them, and revise our identities accordingly. But instead of a giant mirror that we can use to see our entire society, social media is more like a prism that refracts our identities—leaving us with a distorted understanding of each other, and ourselves.”
Tribalism (and trolling, its shared ritual) is the immediate fruit of these “distorted understandings of each other and ourselves.” We do not use social media as a tool for discovering truth; we use social media as a tool for understanding ourselves, finding people we think are “like us,” and banding together with those tribes we believe we belong to. This dynamic is at play whether you are an active content creator, a passive content consumer, or somewhere in between.
It does not mean people have stopped using social media for information, but they seek that information through shared identities first and reliable sources of a fact-finding second.
Not only is it harder to find reliable information, but it’s also even harder to find reliable information without going through someone who communicates from a tribalistic frame of mind. Institutions are no longer the sole gatekeepers of truth; tribes have become powerful gatekeepers of their own, and good media literacy discipleship must emphasize how to see that dynamic and correct for it—both in how to get information, but also in how we see ourselves.
We need robust discipleship around our use of social media. This includes media literacy (how we are being formed by media and algorithms) as well as admonishment to engage others with the fruit of the Spirit both online and offline. Training our congregants to use social media well includes teaching, but modeling and displaying the fruit of the Spirit online is even more important. As Paul once told believers in Corinth to “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1), pastors must model the digital wisdom and fruit of the Spirit they hope to see in their congregants. Through their personal example, pastors can help form their people into the image of Christ, and not into the image of partisan tribalists.
Spiritual formation in a digital age
Pastors, if you are reading this and wonder “what should I do with my church’s social media presence?”, the best thing to do right now is to watch and experiment. Pay attention to these shifts in the social media industry, and wait to see what lasting impacts they have in your community. The social media world is in the midst of a very volatile shake-up, and now is not the time to make a reactionary, sweeping change when more change is likely on the horizon.
This is an opportunity for the church to regroup, take things more seriously this time around, and work to get in front of the change instead of lagging behind it. Now that we all know the formidable foe that the algorithm is in our spiritual lives, we can develop the tools and strategies to guard our hearts and prepare our minds as we work to follow Jesus in an increasingly digital age.