SALT LAKE CITY — It was just one video of many posted on Southeast Christian Church's Facebook page. A few members of the nondenominational evangelical Christian church in Salt Lake City made a video about their experiences in a financial seminar the church sponsored. Someone saw it on Facebook, stopped by the church to see if it would be offered again and ended up coming regularly: Virtual interaction became real contact.
As more and more people use Facebook, it is only natural that churches might try to take advantage of its potential to connect with their members and with a broader audience. A report from LifeWay Research found that 47 percent of Protestant church congregations nationwide now use Facebook. But with this use comes questions about its appropriateness.
Can God reveal himself through social media? Doesn't it just encourage virtual relationships and digital distractions? Doesn't it take people away from contact with real people in real life?
"When the Internet was new, research showed that there was a replacement effect," said Wade Jacobsen, a graduate student in sociology at BYU who published a study in 2010 with BYU professor Renata Forste about Facebook use among first-year students. The replacement effect meant that the more time somebody spent interacting with online friends, the less time they spent interacting with people in real life. "The Internet was new and you talked to people online that you didn't know face-to-face because fewer people had the Internet," Jacobsen said. "Today everybody has the Internet and the friends you have on Facebook are the friends you already know in real life."
Facebook is huge. It now has more than 500 million active users worldwide (there are 307 million people total in the United States). Divide that 500 million number by the 700 billion minutes they spend every month on the social networking website, and that means people spend an average of 45 minutes a day on the site.
And who is on social networking websites?
According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, the people on social networking websites are nearly all online users ages 18 to 29, 61 percent of users ages 30 to 49, 47 percent of users ages 50 to 64 and 26 percent of users over 65. In one year — from April 2009 to May 2010 — the number of adults over 50 using social media doubled.
Jacobsen found that the replacement effect is no more. People aren't using social media so much as to find new friends in cyberspace as much as they are using it to connect with people they know in real life. "Based on our study, the more time you spend using certain social media, the more time you spend interacting face to face," Jacobsen said.
The rise of social media even caught the attention of Pope Benedict, who spoke on the topic in January.
"Who is my 'neighbor' in this new world?" Pope Benedict asked. He said there was a Christian way to interact with neighbors in the digital world: "This takes the form of a communication which is honest and open, responsible and respectful of others."
Pope Benedict also warned about balance: "It is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives."
Doyle Bloss is an elder at Southeast Christian Church and volunteers as the church's social marketing manager responsible for keeping its Facebook page up to date. He sees two main purposes for a church to have a Facebook page. The first is what he calls a "living newsletter," something to keep members informed of events. The second is as an outreach to people outside the congregation — a missionary tool to the community.
Both reasons are particularly important in the area. "Most Christian churches in the Salt Lake Valley — both denominational and nondenominational — have generally a very widespread membership from all over the valley," Bloss said. "Facebook can contribute to feeling connected."
The biggest problem is keeping the Facebook page current. "A facebook site that is not kept up to date and does not have new material put on it is a negative thing," Bloss said.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops came up with a set of Social Media Guidelines to help guide churches in using social media:
— Define appropriate boundaries for communications — such as acceptable-use policies
— Include examples of Codes of Conduct like: "All posts and comments should be marked by Christian charity and respect for the truth. They should be on topic and presume the good will of other posters. Discussion should take place primarily from a faith perspective. No ads please."
— Provide recommendations on how to deal with difficult "fans."
— Provide links to trusted sites for reference.
— Remember that social media websites are global platforms. Online content is visible to anyone in the world.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints uses Facebook for communicating at the church-wide level. Local congregations have private websites that are fully accessible only to members. Individuals, of course, have their own pages with various levels of religious expression.
The Southeast Christian Church uses its Facebook page to post videos made by members — such as ones about the financial seminar, a recent charity trip to Haiti to work on an orphanage or one about some of their small study groups they have throughout the valley. "Personal testimonials where people are talking about their own lives and their own spiritual connection, were the things that had the most impact, the most hits, (were) the most listened to," Bloss said. "But I don't think Facebook is the place to go deep into doctrine and theology. It's more of a place to see how people's lives are being impacted by what the church believes. And if it makes people more interested, they can come and visit and get a deeper understanding."
Jacobsen said that online interaction of church members with non-church members should facilitate offline interaction. "The more you use it, the more time you spend face-to-face," Jacobsen said.
Today Facebook is about connecting and sharing — primarily between people who already know each other in real life. And while 86 percent of young people aged 18 to 29 use social media, about 40 percent of Protestant congregations don't use any social media. Bloss thinks this should change. "Social media is here to stay. It's the way the kids communicate these days," he said.
"It's here whether we like it or not. Let's use it."