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A new church social: Faith leaders use technology to connect

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 02:10 AM
TAMPA -

Paul Wirth didn't have a computer when he graduated from Trinity College in 1995 with his degree in pastoral studies. Or even a cellphone, for that matter.

Instead, he had a pager, the once ever-present accessory for a plugged-in minister. Remember those?

These days, the founder and lead pastor of the nondenominational Relevant Church in Ybor City is never without his trio of high-tech toys: a Mac laptop, an iPad and an iPhone. He is accustomed to the constant chirping of incoming tweets and text alerts. If any one of his virtual connections were to shut down, "I'd be totally lost," he says. "I'm too dependent now to be able to function without it."

More church leaders are starting to think like Wirth. And not just for their personal lives. Technology is becoming an important — even necessary — tool to attract and keep members, to evangelize to outsiders and to spread a Christian viewpoint locally and globally.

And what of the old church bulletin, with its mix of ministry news, prayers for the sick and notices of upcoming events?

"Just about dead," Wirth says. For years, the bulletin has existed mostly as a way to get offering envelopes to the congregation, he says. More than half of his church's 500 members now pay their tithes online.

Facebook is the "new front porch" for congregations, says Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, a Nashville-based nonprofit that focuses on the Christian community. If you're not using it, he says, "shame on you."

"And the same for Twitter," he says. "Pastors who lead churches without a social media presence might as well be talking in a sanctuary without a microphone, without an audience."

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In a LifeWay study published last year, 47 percent of 1,003 Protestant churches surveyed actively use Facebook — for everything from interacting with congregants to distributing information to fostering member-to-member relationships. Typically, large churches (with more than 500 members in average worship attendance) are the biggest users, and they tend to be in bigger cities or suburbs.

What about the other half not yet engaged in the popular social networking service? Stetzer isn't surprised that some pastors aren't so enthusiastic about it.

"Social media is a conversation. Clergy are accustomed to making pronouncements," he says. "Now you put yourself in a place where people can challenge you in a public space. That can make some uncomfortable. But they've got to learn to deal with it."

Jimmy Cazin doesn't mind putting himself out there.

A year ago, the former Presbyterian minister started laying the foundation for a future church with four people in a small group setting. In January, he launched the nondenominational Citrus Point Church in the performing arts building on the Hillsborough Community College campus in Ybor City, with nearly 300 people in attendance.

How did he do it?

"Facebook friends," says the Plant High School graduate. "I've got about 2,500, and with all my Tampa connections, I was able to get the word out without doing any advertising."

Citrus Point, which targets the "unchurched," is a direct reflection of the digital age. It's a strategic partner of North Point Ministries, led by Andy Stanley, near Atlanta. Eighty percent of the worship service at a partner's site uses either a downloaded video of Stanley's preaching or a live simulcast from Georgia. The remainder is led by the local pastor.

Cazin doesn't mind taking a lower profile in the congregation; using the most effective tool of outreach is his first concern.

Unfortunately, he says, churches have "moved away from trying to reach people, and concentrate instead on just keeping them." He was impressed with Stanley's message and delivery, and decided to join the linked, multisite network that includes more than two dozen start-up churches across the country.

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One of the most attractive things about social media is that the investment is affordable, especially in these economically challenging times. Starting a Facebook page or Twitter account is free, and can be managed by a trusted volunteer.

There are some costs involved, however, with staying connected. The United Methodist Church, which is bringing its quadrennial General Conference to the Tampa Convention Center from April 24 to May 4, found that out when it faced an expense that wasn't even on the table at its meeting four years ago.

The nearly 1,000 delegates charged with planning budgets, adopting church policies and revising laws will be plugged into their mobile devices, tracking progress on a free app developed for the first time specifically for the conference. But having wireless access in the convention center comes with a hefty price tag: about $50,000.

"We made it possible for delegates to have up-to-date information in the palm of their hand. Then they can post to Facebook and Twitter to keep members back home informed," says the Rev. Larry Hollon, chief executive of United Methodist Communications. "But what's the point of such a valuable tool if you can't access it?"

When conference officials first balked at paying the fee, delegates overwhelmingly made it clear they couldn't do without it.

The denomination's website also is playing an interactive role in the upcoming conference. Its 13 million members can offer input, respond to questions posted on the home page and, ultimately, have a voice in shaping the convention's priorities.

"To be consistent with our theology, we have to invite everyone to the table," Hollon says. "And we need to be transparent with the concerns and issues of the church. Social media gives us that place where all voices can be heard."

Hollon expects there will be considerable buzz at the conference on adapting to the new age. Findings from a just-released "Emerging Technology" study by the denomination showed that local churches are missing some "significant opportunities" to keep in touch with young adults through apps and texting. It also revealed that adults 45 and older are communicating digitally about 11 hours a week — a number that doubles for adults 25 to 34.

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That first step into the unknown is usually the hardest. Wirth suggests tapping into the talents of members and finding the most savvy congregant for guidance and assistance. Paul Steinbrueck, co-founder and CEO of OurChurch.com, a Trinity-based company that helps Christian organizations achieve their mission online, has developed several webinars and resource tools to ease church leaders into the new world.

"If Jesus was around today, he would be tweeting. He'd have a Facebook page," Steinbrueck says. "And he would also keep in mind there's etiquette and a culture associated with social media. Be aware of that before you jump in."

For beginners, he offers these tips: Become familiar with social media as an individual before you start representing your church. Follow churches already using it, and learn from them. Listen and engage, don't use it as a bullhorn. Ask a lot of questions. Post content that your members can share with other friends and spark spiritual conversations.

Members who use their personal Facebook pages to engage their friends outside the church are becoming more prevalent. What better way to deliver a nonthreatening invitation to a Sunday afternoon concert in the sanctuary or post a daily reflective Scripture?

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On Easter Sunday, Relevant Church is about to find out just how powerful of an outreach tool social media can be.

Instead of holding a traditional service inside the church that day, Relevant is sponsoring a come-as-you-are Easter festival at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park for the community. It opens at 10 a.m. with a kid zone, followed by a drop of 20,000 eggs, an outdoor church service and a live concert featuring Christian pop-rock singer Julianna Zobrist, wife of Tampa Bay Rays All-Star Ben Zobrist.

Wirth says Relevant is investing $30,000 in the event and is mainly depending on social media to publicize it. Its website — www.easterisnear.com — includes a live Twitter feed and an "Expect the Unexpected" video produced by the church. Members are touting it on their Facebook pages, tweeting friends to drive interest, wearing T-shirts with the message and dancing in flash mobs at city events such as the Gasparilla 5K.

"We talked about how we each had the power to influence at least 10 people outside our congregation, so we're aiming for 5,400 people out of this," Wirth says.

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It will be all about embracing the future when the Florida Conference of the United Church of Christ gathers in Vero Beach in May for its annual meeting. This year's theme: Mission 2.0 (There's an App for That!). Keynote speaker is author-pastor Brian McLaren, a leading spokesman in the emerging church movement, which embraces digital technology to reach the masses.

"We know that not all our members are up to speed in this area, but we also know that two generations communicate this way," conference minister Kent Siladi says. "So it's not really an option to ignore it. It's our responsibility to learn this if we're serious about moving forward."

And that's the thing about technology. It's always moving forward, says Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. When he led the just-published study on "Virtually Religious: Technology and Internet Use in American Congregations," he found that the rate of website use was actually down.

"At first, that struck me as odd, until we saw how many churches were jumping on the Facebook wagon and utilizing it," he says. Of the study's 11,077 participating congregations from roughly 120 denominations, more than 40 percent embrace Facebook. "Typically, the religious community doesn't always respond so quickly to technologies. In this case it has. And that's because it has to."

In this day and age, Thumma says, all faith communities should be hybrid congregations — ministries that are part physical and part virtual.

The key is in the balance. But there's a cautionary tale that Wirth thinks about a lot. Go too high-tech, he says, and you're in danger of losing your high-touch. So for all his twittering, posting, texting and streaming to thousands of "friends" he will never meet, the pastor says he is careful about not letting the lure of the instant cyberworld take over.

That means disconnecting and going on an occasional daylong gadget fast.

"Ultimately, ministry is about human relationships and interaction. That face time is very crucial," Wirth says. "But now we've got a way to get more humans involved. It's working in the world, and we can make it work for us."


mbearden@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7613

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