By Eddie Pipkin

Even a super-serious organization like the Transportation Security Administration knows the power of a quirky social media presence to help “customers” forge a connection to their work.  You know the TSA folks: they’re the ones who put you through the scanners at the airport, so they want you to understand the importance of the work they do and why it’s worth the hassle you go through.  They want you to understand their mission, and they know that if they can get you to smile along the way, you are more likely to retain the serious message behind the humor and more likely to have empathy for their work.  Those of us in ministry aren’t x-raying people’s luggage, but we have a constant challenge of helping people understand and embrace the mission of our ministry.  Social media, crafted with whimsy, can be a big help.

The current social media staff at the TSA is trying mightily to follow in the infamous footsteps of former social media director, Curtis ‘Bob’ Burns (who tragically passed away earlier this year).  Burns had acknowledged people’s often thorny relationship with TSA and developed a quirky strategy to make the agency more popular through humor.  He featured posts that highlighted the most bizarre items confiscated in airports, explained with taglines that featured a heavy dose of “dad humor,” while also highlighting TSA procedures and rules.  He featured all manner of bizarre weapons and other paraphernalia that people had stuffed into luggage, backpacks, and pockets:

Maces and crossbows may be the least of it, as it happens. Or so it can seem to followers of @tsa, the agency’s hugely popular Instagram account. Devotees of a feed that counts close to one million followers have grown accustomed to a certain level of crazy on the part of the traveling public. They are aware that tales of snakes concealed in computer hard drives, scythes in backpacks, bricks of weed festooned in Christmas wrapping, replica rifle umbrellas and sword canes are more than urban legend. People try carrying stuff like that — and worse — onto airplanes every day.

That they know this is largely attributable to the efforts of a former transit security officer who, from modest beginnings as a volunteer blogger for the agency, went on to create the T.S.A.’s official Instagram account over five years ago. It was back in 2013 that Curtis Robert Burns, widely known as “Blogger Bob,” first began posting smartphone snaps shot by airport personnel — culled from daily reports of contraband seized at 450 airports throughout the country — to the internet.

Though the prospect of anonymous baddies sneaking bombs onto planes can sometimes seem abstract (if scary), Mr. Burns’s goofy way with a caption tended to import a measure of common sense and humanity to a detested ritual of modern travel. He did this while highlighting the T.S.A.’s serious underlying core mission.

He eventually won a series of Webby awards, and his strategy has become the model of several other not-so-cuddly government agencies.

It’s the kind of strategy and attitude that could effectively inform the social media feeds of ministry organizations.  For many local churches, social media feeds do two basic things:

  • Act as a place to post announcements about upcoming events.
  • Act as a photo album to post pictures from the events that just happened (and many churches struggle to fulfill even this basic function, only doing the event announcement part).

Social media, however, can be a narrative tool that can accomplish so much more, not just announcing what it is you are doing in the community, but crafting a clear message about the personality and priorities of your congregation.  It can be a key element in “branding” your identity (both for those checking you out for the first time and the folks who are there with you every week).

And, as demonstrated delightfully by Bob Burns, it can use humor in a way that helps people feel comfortable in scenarios in which they might normally feel intimidated or insecure.  Dad humor turns out to be useful in that vein because it is both self-conscious (that it’s trying to get a corny laugh out of people) and because it is inherently inoffensive, which is a very important consideration for churches.  If you overreach in making a joke and offend people, you have completely submarined your purpose – which is equally true for people providing ‘up front’ Sunday morning leadership, by the way.

Here are some things to think about when employing social media in this manner:

  • Successful humor never mocks or denigrates people. It can be self-deprecating.  It can involve corny (or even more sophisticated) word play, visual puns, slapstick humor, or a good story, but it should never, ever make fun of people.  Sometimes, for instance, church signs make fun of non-church-goers.  What kind of strategy is that?
  • Successful humor can be quirky and highlight the unexpected. The snake who shows up in the prayer labyrinth.  The kid in the sheep costume who’s conked out for a nap, etc.  People do not generally expect churches to be fun places.  You know they are filled with joy: let other people know your congregation is all about the joy-filled life.
  • Successful humor is the gateway to more serious topics. You can use humor to soften the path to any number of thorny but important discipleship topics.    Service.  Stronger commitment.  Social justice issues.  The quirky observation or self-referential joke – especially when paired with a compelling image – can be a better way to make an announcement, promote a study, or make a discipleship challenge.  It eases people’s natural defenses.

Of course, social media is also a compelling way to share inspirational stories, solicit feedback, and invite conversation.  There are some basic strategies for figuring out what will work best in your unique context:

  • Have a point person who is leading your social media strategy. This person can be a staff member or a skilled volunteer, but someone should have overall management of your social media plans.  This doesn’t, by any stretch, mean they are posting everything generated by your organization, but they help coordinate your efforts, train leaders, develop comprehensive strategy, establish themes and posting procedures, and monitor all feeds.  They should be a part of your leadership team.
  • Encourage individual ministry leaders to post content regularly. Once you have a strategy, help key leaders understand the importance of regular contributions to your feeds and how they can brand themselves and their ministries.  The ministry leader DOES NOT have to be the one writing posts – some people are inherently more natural at this process than others – but they can identify a person on their ministry team who is good at this and empower them to fulfill that role on their behalf.
  • Promote your social media options throughout all your communications channels. In worship, talk about how people can connect with them at every opportunity.  It should be part of the basic fabric of how your community interacts.  It is a fantastic tool for modern evangelism.

You are already out there doing great work every day.  Social media is one of the strongest paths for connecting people to that work and helping them catch the passion for your vision in ministry.

I leave you, in honor of Bob Burns, with a link to 25 examples of his best work.  May he inspire us all!