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Home > Interpreter Magazine > Archives > 2009 Archives > May-June 2009 > Social networking web sites: A Wesleyan mission field

Jefferson Furtado updates a United Methodist News Service Facebook page. Photo by Ronny Perry
Social networking Web sites:
A Wesleyan mission field

By Victoria Rebeck

"This is so Wesleyan," thought the Rev. T. Bryson Smith as he first used the social networking Web site "We have to go where the people are, and the people are online!"

Smith, pastor of Fieldstone United Methodist Church in Christiansburg, Va., recalls John Wesley going outside the church walls, preaching to people wherever they worked or congregated. Today, increasingly more people form Web-based social networks.

Myspace, Facebook, Twitter and sites for bloggers are among the most common places where people share messages. Users can view and comment on the postings of others in their network.

Smith started with but now uses, because more of his parishioners and their contacts use it. Facebook users set up a simple Web page using a template and post brief reports or reflections, which are received by their Facebook "friends." Friends can comment and leave messages. Friends may invite each others' friends into their networks. Conversations can become "viral"spreading quickly to a broad range of people.

Smith's Facebook page often includes a little "commercial" for next Sunday's service or a special event.

"Coming to you live," Smith announces on a home video he shot of himself in or near the church. In 60 to 90 seconds he describes the highlights and adds enthusiastically, "Bring a friend and bring a Bible." Several church members among his Facebook "friends" usually comment on the video and invite their friends to view it.

Smith keeps his Internet browser open to Facebook all day, as do most of his parishioners. Frequent checks of their pages allow Smith up-to-the-minute contact with them.

The young-adult mission field

"I use Facebook because I am a missionary at heart and the first missionary rule is to use the language of the people," says the Rev. Fred Vanderwerf, pastor of Hilltop United Methodist Church in Mankato, Minn., and a former missionary to Ukraine.

Mankato is home to Minnesota State University, where many young adults use social networking sites more than they use e-mail. Vanderwerf gathered the names of incoming United Methodist students from colleagues, found them on Facebook and used the site to issue invitations to a gathering at Hilltop. Before they arrived in Mankato, the students began developing friendships through the Facebook community Vanderwerf instigated.

If church visitors who leave only their name on the attendance pad have a Facebook page, Vanderwerf uses it to send a note thanking them for their visit.

"They are impressed that a pastor knows how to use Facebook," he says.

The Rev. Jan Bye agrees that Facebook is vital to student ministry.

The ecumenical ministry she leads at Shippensburg (Pa.) University offers work trips to Vietnam. Students in both countries join a Facebook group page for the trip. There they plan and get acquainted. Later her students remain in contact with their Vietnamese friends via Facebook.

Bye also uses Facebook to provide pastoral care. Students frequently post quick remarks on current activities, musings or feelings. If she reads that someone is having a bad day, Bye can quickly check in with the student. "Facebook is the best way to stay connected with this population," she says.

Not just for youth

Laypeople also use social networking in ministry. Alan Cross, 47, of Christ United Methodist Church in Franklin, Tenn., was recently laid off from Ford Motor Credit Co.

"I received an overwhelming outpouring of support and encouragement, love, prayers" via Facebook, he sayssome from friends he had not heard from in years.

The experience inspired this Stephen Minister (trained lay pastoral care provider) to use Facebook to encourage other coworkers who have been laid off. "Some of these contacts," he says, "have led to phone calls or extended e-mail correspondences with people who need additional support."

Some pastors note that the very fact that face-to-face contact is not required when using a social networking site may give a person the courage to approach a pastor for help or acknowledge pain or a sense of failure. In that way it is like a cyberspace confessional booth.

Short and tweet is an efficient tool for sharing quick, brief messages or questions. The Rev. Jack Hinnen, an associate pastor of Riverchase United Methodist Church in Hoover, Ala., calls Twitter "a cross between a message board and a blog."

Users send short messages called "tweets" and read other users' updates. Tweets, which can also be sent and received via cell phone texting, appear on the user's profile page and are delivered to other users who "follow" the writer.

Tweets sometimes carry mundane information, but sharing the routine details of life nurtures intimacy.

"It's a good way to keep up with people," Hinnen says. "A few people in church have hopped onto Twitter because their pastor is on it."

Among Hinnen's three or four daily messages are announcements of the coming Sunday's sermon topic. He might share thoughts that come while taking a break. Tweets show "what is important to you," he says.

The Rev. Greg Cox of College Hill United Methodist Church in Beaver Falls, Pa., uses an application that connects his Twitter and Facebook accounts, putting his "tweets" on both sites.

During Lent, he tweeted to his "followers" (those in his Twitter network) weekly invitations to the church's film and discussion series.

"Twitter supplements my other communication media, such as Sunday morning announcements, the church Web site and the newsletter," he says.

"Following" others on Twitter, lets him receive information quickly. He keeps up with colleagues, United Methodist news providers, blog sites, a young-clergy Twitter account and some parishioners. News he receives early via Twitter alerts him to stories he wants to follow or information he can share in a timely way.

Lengthier dialogue

Some pastors use blogs (Web logs), a medium that may be more familiar than social networks. Blogs have evolved into opinion columns where readers may post their responses. Several sites offer free blog hosting.

The Rev. Jane Youtz Riecke, a pastor of First United Methodist Church in Loveland, Colo., began a blog on last year. She muses on spiritual questions raised by current events, such as the world economic crises.

"I try not to focus on personal opinion, so I can connect to spiritual topics rather than political events," she says. Parishioners want "my heart and soul rather than my opinions."

Typepad shows Riecke she has readers around the world.

"Blogging is demanding," she says. "You have to write whether you feel like it or not, for the practice, until something comes out that you are pleased with."

Critics say the constant self-referral by people who use social networking tools makes these media narcissistic. The Rev. Tyler Christiansen, pastor of Lake Harriet United Methodist Church  in Minneapolis sees it differently.

"Using these tools makes one vulnerable to others and shows they are interested in getting to know others," he says. "They allow people to have voice and to connect to others. They are about people rather than a place, and they enable people to share their interests and gifts," he says.

"We have really only begun to see how we can use these tools," Cox says. "To remain relevant we have to use relevant communication."

--The Rev. Victoria Rebeck, director of communication, Minnesota Annual Conference

Some popular social networks users set up their own free page, invite friends to view it, and post brief descriptions of activities or reflections. "Friends" in their network (added only by permission) receive the posts and can comment or leave public or private messages. Users can also post photos, links, notes, videos and more. "Friends" can invite others' friends or anyone else on Facebook to join their network. Users can also create group pages and fan pages. is a similar tool., a business networking site, enables users to post professional information and invite others into their network to share best practices and make business contacts in related fields. users send and read other users' updates called "tweets." Limited to 140 characters in length, tweets are posted to the user's profile page and delivered to "followers" who elect to receive others' messages. Users can restrict delivery and can link their Twitter and Facebook applications.

Blogs, short for "web log," began as online diaries and are now largely opinion columns. If the author allows, readers can comment on the entries, joining discussions with people from around the world. Free blog services include,, and many others. Most services are free and allow the user to choose a template and security levels. The most effective blogs are updated frequently. Some pastors use blogs to preview a sermon or study series, or invite conversation on topics before addressing them in a sermon or newsletter. users upload their own videos to this site, where any visitor can view them. The quality and subject matter ranges widely. Some ministries and pastors (including several United Methodist churches and UMTV) post their faith-based videos there to reach an unchurched audience. is a Christian alternativea safer place for churches to post videos for their youth to view.

Photo-sharing sites let users upload photos and videos and share them with those they inviteor with the worldby using tools such as and Users can easily share images with friends and group members anywhere in the world.

--Victoria Rebeck

Safe Cyberspace

Free social networking sites are widely accessible and can be hacked. Users should consider some of these precautions.

Boundaries: Pastors and other church leaders may accept Facebook or Twitter "friendships" from parishioners but should consider whether or not to initiate them. Save copies of all pastoral conversations you have using this tool. Written communication can be misinterpreted. "Stay as public as possible," recommends the Rev. Jack Hinnen. Consider setting up a "fan" Facebook page for your church. Invite others to join it.

Inappropriate content: College chaplain Jan Bye occasionally notices photos of her students in compromising situations on their Facebook pages. This can be embarrassing and dangerous. People have been known to stalk social networking pages. When Bye notices problematic content, she gently suggests that the student reconsider.

Security settings: Most sites allow users to choose their security settingshow much access they allow others to visit and comment on their site. Choose the most secure settings possible. Remember, hacking is always possible. "You cannot control anything you send into cyberspace," says Cheryl Hemmerle, communications trainer for United Methodist Communications.

Compulsive visiting: As your Web-based social networks grow, the urge to catch up frequently on the latest postings can be irresistible. While maintaining relationships is important and healthy, addiction is not. Limit the amount of time you devote to these tools. Consider a weekly 24-hour sabbath away from them. Some people refrained from them during Lent.

--Victoria Rebeck

D6 team helps agency take advantage of social media

Social networking has arrived amid a fanfare of tweeting, "friending" and yammering, opening doors for The United Methodist Church to reach people in new ways. The church's communications agency, a-twitter over the possibilities, is using the new media in the denomination's messaging campaign, storytelling and other ministries.

To help navigate the changing landscape, United Methodist Communications has created the Digital Six, or D6 Team. The group comprises six staff members with expertise in Web development, information technology, marketing and research, public relations and content production. Each week, they meet to discuss developments in technology and how the agency and the wider church can use them.

"Digital media are changing how we relate to each other and live our lives daily," says the Rev. Larry Hollon, general secretary. "If we are to extend an invitation of welcome, we must be in the media where people live their lives."

"The D6 is helping us to see the way forward to engage people through new media," he explains.

In forming the team, United Methodist Communications joins other organizations that have assigned staff to focus on digital media.

The D6's first project equipped a three-person crew for a trip to Cote d'Ivoire last November. The D6 set up a Facebook page for the team and provided support for transmitting photographs and video from Abidjan to Nashville, Tenn.

The digital team also has tackled topics such as using cutting-edge Web sites for presenting content, understanding staff equipment needs and making effective use of Yammer.

Next on the list: Planning a strategic vision for how United Methodist Communications can most effectively use new media.

--Tim Tanton, Director, Media Group, United Methodist Communications

Check Us Out!

See what United Methodist Communications is doing in social media. Go to and follow Interpreter magazine, InterpreterMag; United Methodist Communications, UMCommunication; and United Methodist News Service, UMNS. The news service can also be followed on Facebook as UMNS.

You can also follow the tweets from United Methodist Communications' leaders and Digital 6 members on Twitter. The staff, with their Twitter names: The Rev. Larry Hollon (general secretary), larryhol; Sherri Thiel (finance and administration), sthiel; Ginny Underwood (programming), GinnyUMCom; Shelia Mayfield (Web), smayfieldumcom; Diane Degnan (public information), didegnan; Danny Mai (information technology), dmaister; Poonam Patodia (marketing and research), poonampatodia; Fran Walsh (UMTV), umtvfran; Tim Tanton (Media Group), ttanton.


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