God and Facebook: Mississippi churches connect members through social media
To the tune of Joan Osbourne's One of Us:
"If God had a Facebook page, what would it look like?
"And would you be afraid if seeing meant that you would have to request God's Facebook friendship, then wait on his approval in your status updates?
"What if God was one of us? Had a blog like one of us? Just a stranger on Facebook trying to socially network?"
Today, that's not so far-fetched. Mississippi churches are using technology more than ever. From podcasts and blogs to Facebook and Twitter, God is online.
Hunter Brewer leads Madison Heights Church, part of the Presbyterian Church in America. Founded two years ago, the young congregation doesn't have a building. And because members meet inside Madison's St. Joseph Catholic School, the church Web site and other technological tools have become important ways of connecting.
"Using Facebook, I can virtually pastor, in some sense, the people of my church by making comments, checking on them, seeing what they are up to, and knowing their hobbies, interests and likes," Brewer said. "I find that this is a great way for people who are visiting the church and who are in the church to know me, keep up with me and for me to keep up with them. I think it's essential."
About 40 percent of Mississippians do not regularly attend religious services, according to The Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.
"I can't go knock on every one of their doors," Brewer said. "But through Facebook, Web sites and advertising, you can say, 'Hey. We're out here. We care about you.' To me, it's no different than when Jesus broke the disciples up and told them to go out and spread his message. They didn't have Facebook, but we are trying to reach out electronically."
Today, church Web sites provide information about how to be saved. They feature online calendars, ministry descriptions, church covenants, archived audio and video sermons for the iPod, photo galleries, downloadable newsletters, online prayer request forms and links to Facebook, MySpace and Twitter.
Paul Ford, executive pastor of Byram's Harvest Family Church, said church leaders have been socially networking online about a year.
"We absolutely think it's important," he said. "Some people may want to stay away from that whole aspect of social media because they feel like they lose a personal connection, but you can use technology and still have the intimacy that you have in small groups or Sunday school. You can change your message to be culturally relevant to people instead of just sticking with a traditional message."
Neil Tullos, an associate student pastor at First Baptist Church of Jackson, primarily connects with youth using text messages and Facebook.
"We have a Facebook group page where we can post church events," he said. "It's a way of sending out a mass message to all of our team. It's been a huge tool in helping communicate with teens, and it's free."
Jeremy Loden, media director of Crossgates Baptist Church of Brandon, just began using text messaging to inform the congregation about church events. They can also text prayer requests.
"We have weekly meetings just talking about stuff like this," Loden said. "I always call it added value. It doesn't hurt."
Jennifer Merchant, Crossgates' communications coordinator, said the church Web site recently was redesigned to be more welcoming.
"Our youth minister just told me he got on Twitter today," she said. "You want to meet people where they are to lead them where you want them to be. Jesus met people where they were and shared the truth of the Gospel to them.
"Communication these days doesn't have to be a threat to the church. We can definitely use it for God's purposes and to spread the Gospel."
RESOURCES: AT A GLANCE
* Thy Kingdom Connected: What the Church Can Learn from Facebook, the Internet, and Other Networks by Dwight J. Friesen. Set to publish in November, Friesen explains how you can maximize existing connections to spread the message of Jesus. Baker Publishing Group, $14.99
* MySpace to Sacred Space: God for a New Generation by Christian Piatt and Amy Piatt. MySpace.com has become one of the most-visited Web sites in the world, and churches are fighting to remain relevant to young members. Chalice Press, $15.99
* Reverse Mentoring: How Young Leaders Can Transform the Church and Why We Should Let Them by Earl Creps. Creps discusses how older church leaders can learn from younger leaders. Jossey-Bass publishing, $24.99
* The Blogging Church by Brian Bailey and Terry Storch. A manual for using blogs to connect and build communities. Jossey-Bass publishing, $19.95.
* Rewired: Youth Ministry in an Age of IM and MySpace by Peggy Kendall and Duffy Robbins. Technology has redefined how the typical teenager spends time with friends, and there are important implications for today's youth leader. Jossey-Bass publishing, $19.95.
* The Reason Your Church Must Twitter by Anthony Coppedge. The eBook provides churches with a Twitter guide. Twitterforchurches.com, $10
How other Mississippi churches are using technology:
* Southaven's Heartland Church enables users to subscribe to sermon podcasts or listen in streaming audio. You can donate to the church online, send an online prayer request and e-vite your friends to church. You can become a fan of the church on Facebook, read pastor Steve Bennett's blog and watch church videos on a customized YouTube channel.
*First Baptist Church of Jackson's Web site lets you register online for upcoming events, like retreats, day camps and mission trips.
* Word of Faith Christian Center's site features videos of a mission trip to South Africa, a visit to Israel and annointed announcements of upcoming events.
* The Unitarian Universalist Church of Jackson uses Flickr to host event photos.
* West Jackson Street Baptist Church has an online prayer wall displaying prayer requests.
* Pinelake Baptist Church's site has an introductory video called Pinelake in 90 seconds, and it makes use of popular Macintosh phrases. The iServe section of the site gives the community a chance to volunteer for ministry projects.
* Similarly, Grenada's Greater Powell Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church site features an icon that resembles an Intel computer processor logo. Inside the circle are the words "Jesus Inside," and above it reads: "Upgrade to a Higher Power."
* Jackson's Southside Baptist Church, Christ United Methodist Church and First Baptist Church of Hattiesburg use social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter.