The Downside of Social Media, and What Your Church Can Do About It

Social media has been a complex subject to navigate for many years. While some platforms are mainstays (Facebook), others rise and fall with moving trends among users (Vine). A couple of questions that seem to arise consistently are what platforms to use and its impacts on ministry. Recently, the proliferation of news about Facebook's internal studies on adverse effects among some users (predominantly female teenagers) leaves us to wonder: in such a dark space, what is the church's place online? At what point is the church utilizing tools that are more harmful than good?

When Facebook and Instagram went down

Where were you during the great Facebook blackout of 2021? Earlier this week, Facebook and its related apps and services went dark for more than six hours. Work and communication lifelines for millions of people were unavailable for practically an entire workday. The outage also slowed other services since many organizations use Facebook's properties for different aspects of their work. Why does this matter? When a massive organization like Facebook goes offline, we quickly understand our reliance on one platform for many activities, like vital connections with potential and current church members.

The Facebook Files

Whistleblower Frances Haugen recently dumped thousands of internal Facebook documents to the media in an attempt she describes to "fix the company, not harm it." Among the thousands of documents were internal memos and studies that show the negative impact Instagram has on teen girls and young adults. As part of the fallout, Facebook has recently indicated it will "pause" its development of Instagram Kids, though it still believes building the platform "is the right thing to do."

What happened to social media?

I began a personal journey a couple of years ago, considering the impact of social media on my life, mental health, and the opportunities that exist through (and because of) social media. I found that the Facebook account I created in 2009 looked vastly different from the one living in 2021. Looking at my memories that pop up every so often, I see a change in the platform. What once existed to connect billions of people has changed direction to become a content distribution source. Ironically, this shift seems to have happened when Facebook changed its mission statement from "making the world more open and connected" to "giving people the power to build community and bring the world closer together"—a seeming disconnection from reality.

Without getting into a digression of my personal feelings toward any one platform, it's worth noting that the way we produce, communicate, and receive information has changed. The methods that we interact with platforms like Facebook have changed over time. And how we interact with content now looks different than it used to—Facebook knows it's an echo chamber, and it's okay with that. I say this because I believe the church must notice these changes. The all-important "algorithm" is both critical and purposefully elusive. Nobody knows how platforms curate the content shown to users, other than the fact it displays content a user is most likely to engage—based on the data the platform constantly collects from each user.

So what's a church to do?

Look, there are plenty of negative impacts from social media. We all know that. But I don't believe that means churches need to ditch the platforms altogether. Here is what your church can do as it engages social media platforms:

See social media as a tool

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tik Tok, and all the others—they're all tools. Don't let the device decide your direction. Instead, use the tool to support your focus as a ministry. Social media is one tool you have to engage with people in your church and community. But social media ought to be one tool, of many, to communicate. Suppose you're relying too heavily on one platform as a means to connect and share with people. In that case, it's time to evaluate your overall communication strategy and see how you can develop an omnichannel approach to communicate with people through different mediums effectively.

Use social media for a purpose

Social media is constantly evolving. The way users interact with content produced each day changes incrementally week over week, which we overlook until much later. It's easy, then, to get sucked into what's currently "working" on a platform and go all-in, forgetting about the original intent for any given medium. Instead, keep the purpose for each forum at the forefront of your strategy. Create goals for your presence on a given platform. When you know your purpose and have direction, it's easier to view social media as a tool for accomplishing what you want to achieve.

Add value to the platform

Use social media to be social. Use it to connect with people and engage with your outside community. Add value to the platforms you decide to be involved with, and instead of adding to an echo chamber, find ways to actively add value to the people that follow you (and the people viewing your ads). Yes, Facebook has moved from "connecting" to "content," but that doesn't mean you need to create more content to post needlessly. Find ways to meet the needs of your audience and be authentic in what you post.

What are some ways you're engaging with social media? Head over to the Church Juice Insider's Facebook group, and let's discuss!

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