Every local church is a collection of people who have at least three things in common: They share their faith, a group of family and/or friends and they live within some proximity to their church location. They get to know each other better, share updates about their lives with pictures and stories and, generally, enjoy the relationships that come from this interaction.
Those are exactly the same relational, community-building activities happening in online social networking.
By definition, every church is a social network. Therefore, the next logical step is to take all of this relationship building online and extend the relationship boundaries.
THE OLD CHURCH – WEB 1.0
Churches often ventured online with a static website, essentially building a web brochure that did little more than provide a non-interactive snapshot of what they wanted you to think about their particular church, ministries and services.
The next step had many churches finding hit-and-miss success with early forays into online social networks. Some jumped on the bandwagon and joined MySpace, only to realize that they couldn’t control the advertising (sometimes questionable), or Facebook, only to realize that if they don’t update and check their profile regularly they’d be out of touch and late in responding to others. Still others handled these hurdles well and have since found other online community tools to integrate into their existing websites.
During this explosion of online community sharing technologies, something very interesting has happened: the Church, often far behind in leveraging technology, has had a surprising number of innovators realize the potential for taking the Church (already a social network) online with easier to use and more specific tools designed exclusively for them.
CHURCH SOCIAL NETWORKING REDUX
The question used to be: “Is your church ready for social networking?”
But the question should be: “Will your church extend community online?”
Since the local church is an existing social network, it only makes sense to take that exact same model of building relationships and find tools that allow churches to leverage the technology and expand the existing social network.
As of this writing, there are literally dozens of online tools, both from secular companies and from Christian-owned businesses, that have the power to extend the reach, influence and accessibility of their existing congregational social network. Many of these tools are completely free of charge. Others are built around a minimal or scalable cost model, often created with limited church budgets in mind because church attendees, with some tech savvy and an innovative drive, created them.
No matter if a church chooses to simply create a blog, share pictures of events, make staff members and leaders more accessible or provide a way for small groups to connect and stay in touch – all with near-instant communication possibilities – the common theme is to extend the relationships that exist within the walls of a church (exclusive community) to those outside of church activities and services (inclusive community).
Here are a few technologies that have either proven themselves to be incredibly useful and are currently leveraged extensively by churches or show promise via rapid early adoption.
Typepad.com – free and very well supported by hundreds of free plug-ins and add-ons, Typepad’s blogging/web building interface is a staple of the online world. A benefit of this particular online platform is the huge array of templates for instant, perfect layouts combined with the accessibility for coders to develop highly customizable designs.
SquareSpace.com – free for small uses and scalable for larger purposes, this is a truly drag-and-drop blog/site/photo-sharing site builder. Excellent for the non-techie who wants to blog and share pictures, videos and pretty much anything else but doesn’t have a clue about building a page online.
Flickr.com – free photo sharing with basic online photo editing. Many blog and site tools include plug-ins to use Flickr to automatically load images on their web pages.
Facebook – free online social networking site that’s been widely adopted as the replacement for MySpace by many church leaders wanting to go beyond the teenage, music-centric focus and uncontrollable advertising.
Facebook might very well be the most accessible social networking resource site with plug-ins built to tie into it from almost every other web platform.
Twitter.com – free micro-blogging that lets people update to both web and mobile phones (text messages) real-time updates. Churches can choose to leverage Twitter as a megaphone (announcements and updates to specific groups of people) or as a conversation, such as a pastor sharing what’s on his or her heart and, generally, giving congregants a personal connection. Twitter’s uses and, in particular, it’s free and instant access are made even more powerful since it can be used with any cell phone or smart phone in addition to the web browser tool.
Roov.com – free online community that connects like-minded individuals around their shared experiences and passions within their church and city. One of the fastest-growing new church-centric social community, group-building resources. Roov also works seamlessly with Facebook.
Unifyer.com – based on a sliding scale price structure for small churches up to mega churches, Unifyer is an all-in-one social networking and communications platform built specifically for churches. This is a very promising up-and-coming new tool that churches should at least consider.
As a community of believers, your church has already established a relational model that successfully brings different people together under a common faith and affinity. Providing the relational networks in your church with new tools to connect and grow is an obvious benefit of online social networking, but a bigger benefit is the accessibility and reach to cross generational boundaries and demographics far beyond the scope of your local church. Churches have the opportunity to be more inclusive and far less exclusive with these simple and mostly free technologies.
Simply put, churches need to leverage technology in order to reach the social generation; the one not defined by age, but by relationships.