by Eddie Pipkin

Image by mcmurryjulie from Pixabay

I was catching up on the sports news from the weekend – don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I loooove sports – and in reading about the Kansas City vs. Green Bay football game on Sunday night from the storied frozen tundra of Lambeau Field, my eye was drawn to the link to read more about the attendance of Taylor Swift.  The site I linked to was not an entertainment site like People or TMZ, nor even a music-oriented site like Rolling Stone.  It was a serious sports journalism site, and its readers, judging by the comments section at the bottom of the Taylor-as-game-spectator blurb, were not happy that they had deemed this a subject worth covering.  It’s hard to get communications right, especially social media.  Ask anybody who works in ministry.  People have expectations.

The article about Taylor Swift’s appearance at the Chiefs-Packers game was brief, and I scrolled down to the comments section.  The sentiments were chippy.  My favorite (and I use that word in a dark sense here) was the gentleman from Hackensack who wrote, “The only reason I clicked on this article was to skip down to the comments section and express my anger that you wasted space covering this topic.”  I would be tempted to say that he had established a high threshold in the pantheon of frivolous complaints, but, then again, I’ve hung out in a lot of local churches and heard the absurdly petty pouting that can result when people feel they have been wronged.  They are emotionally invested and express themselves with passion.

Beyond the considerations of social media and online interactivity, there are age-old issues for local churches of the expectations of the folks in the room who are participating in ministry.  What will we focus on, talk about, and resource?  Can we be “all things to all people” or do we have to disappoint some so that we might turn our attention to others?

Back to the example we started with, a sports fanbase’s reaction to what it perceives as a frivolous pop culture incursion into the nuts-and-bolts sports news, the readers scoffed at what they believe to be an attempt by media organizations to appeal to younger, more casual fans.  Of course, media organizations understand that they need to make themselves relevant to those fans if they are going to survive (see other examples like to the NBA’s new in-season tournament and ties to video games and sports betting).  Ironically, there are plenty of people who consider the concept of “sports news” as itself frivolous and worthy of air quotes, a distraction from more worthy serious news priorities.

The debates are similar to those we are familiar with, colloquially known as “the worship wars,” as younger and older generations have battled the past couple of decades over worship styles, most notably music.  We all have scars from those battles.  They can be about Scripture; they can be about if we have injected enough fun or too much fun into our ministry; they can be about who gets to say what and when.

In local churches, there is a constant tension over what ministry areas get the most attention.  Too much emphasis on student and family ministries, and older generations feel like they are being ignored, despite their sizable contributions (and I mean that both figuratively and literally).  Too much deference to older generations, and it’s hard for a local church to stay relevant in the community.  These questions are debated in discussions of staffing, budgeting, programming, and communications focus (complaints such as “Why are we always seeing articles about youth activities but none about the senior ministries?” are common).

The danger of treating ministry as a zero sum game as that it must then define winners and losers.

Creative solutions to the distribution of resources means time and space for everybody.  In the healthiest of ministry settings, the groups support and nurture one another.  Each group’s success and growth is success and growth for everybody.  Using the Gospels as a guide, it’s clear that the faith we serve is not a zero sum game.  Using love as our watchword in crafting our vision and making decisions, we are accessing a renewable resource.

Even if we get it right ‘in the room,” though, communicating clearly the value and buy-in of all whenever we have people sharing space together through events, regular programming, and worship, it’s a truth of our current culture that people often experience the world through a filter of social media and online presence.  They perceive us through screens.

I spent some time with a ministry leader last week who spoke of the clear expectations people have for social media engagement.  They spend hours every day on Instagram and Tik Tok; it’s an integral part of their lives – it entertains them and informs them, and for many people, young people in particular, it is the conduit through which they engage the wider world – so they expect their spiritual lives and their connection to their local church to be accessible in this way, too.  But anybody who’s tried to sustain a social media campaign, a steady supply of online content, knows that it’s a tremendous amount of work.  Most often, even when a local church crafts a foray into an expanded social media presence, it’s an expansion that it’s short-lived.  It’s hard to keep it going.  The passion for the work fades, and it becomes a chore or an afterthought.

We’ve been living in this world for half-a-generation now, and it’s a challenge that is not going away.  It’s a challenge we have not yet fully, comfortably adapated to yet.

In terms of social media content and local churches, there tend to be three categories:

  • Larger congregations who have dedicated staff who manage social media content.
  • Medium sized to smaller churches in which key ministry personnel (most often the pastor) happen to be tech savvy and marginally creative souls who manage social media content.
  • Medium sized to smaller churches with minimal (and often haphazard) social media content.

There are, of course, variations on those themes: medium sized to smaller churches who thread the needle of contracting out their social media strategies to independent contractors, for instance, or use professionally provided templates to guide their social media strategy.

There are also problems within the categories, notably dedicated staff for whom the social media piece is only part of their jobs and so they are not very good at it, or a pastor who is very good at it but obsessed with producing content in a way that becomes a distraction from more important obligations.

There are even a few – I think a very few – congregations who are blessed to identify the magical unicorn of social media management: a volunteer structure staffed by creative, tech savvy people who work together with energy and purpose, hand in hand with paid staff and the lead pastor.

The demands of social media as a point of access and a way to maintain engagement for the ministry participant part-timers are best met with a hybrid model: staff and key stakeholders who are regularly trained with skills to seamlessly (or at least with minimal feelings of burden) integrate ministry content into social media and online communications; and key volunteers (or sometimes paid staff) whose exclusive passion is developing social media strategies and projects.  We need both parts.

We have opportunities to share the stories of how our ministries have impact – this is something we have always wanted to do, to communicate the passion of how ministry is connecting people and giving their lives meaning.  Social media has to be a part of that now.  Or rather, how amazing that social media gets to be a part of that now!  We can be about the business of telling stories better to a wide variety of audiences – not because of it’s an obligation to people’s expectations – but because telling stories well which powerfully communicate the impact of God’s grace is at the core of what we have always been about.

How do you feel about people’s social media expectations versus what you have the time and ability to do on the many available social media platforms?  Do you feel overwhelmed?  Energized?  What social media moments are you most proud of in 2023?  What changes would you like to see in 2024?  How do seekers looking at your website or social feeds know the unique personality of your church?  Share your stories.  Ask your questions.  In the comments below.  Snarky observations welcome, too!