When COVID-19 prompted the closing of Jonathan's church, he was devastated. Slowly, the realization of what that meant became clearer: no more Bible study discussions with his friends, no more uplifting worship sessions, no more hearty potlucks — the loss felt insurmountable.
With few church-centered options left, Jonathan began to run his church’s social media accounts. He had no experience besides the casual posting he did on his personal accounts, but he gave it his all. Soon, his church was broadcasting on Facebook Live every week. They were sharing Bible verses on Instagram. They were even tweeting from time to time.
Six months later, it seemed like everyone was frustrated with online church, including Jonathan. He was burnt out and missing his church community more than ever. What did he do wrong?
Like the above scenario, social media is oversaturated with well-meaning churches, all hoping to draw not just new members, but keep their former constituency coming back to “church,” meanwhile failing to understand the purpose of social media itself.
While working in social media management for churches and conferences these past years, I have seen the good, the bad, and the changes needed by churches posting online, particularly on Instagram. Here are the five most common church Instagram errors, and how to fix them.
1. Using Live Broadcasting Exclusively
When church buildings closed, this prompted leadership to find alternative ways to continue having programming. The easiest solution was creating live viewing options across as many platforms as possible. This meant an abundance of new Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube accounts were created with one singular purpose. If an account stays dormant six days a week, only to come to life on Sabbath mornings, there is very little draw to people to visit or engage with the page, even for church service.
Church is people. It is the deacon who stands at the front doors with a warm smile. It is the Bible study teacher who asks engaging questions. It is the faithful members who prepare the delicious potluck dishes each week.
Going live and broadcasting a church service creates programming, but it leaves out the very essence of church: community.
Broadcasting does not allow for greeting friends. It does not allow for dialogue.
If your goal is to create community from a distance, you need to create opportunities for conversation. Instead of broadcasting, why not start video or phone meetings?
Take advantage of interactive options on Instagram, such as Instagram Stories. Create polls, ask thoughtful questions on your Instagram posts.
If anything, your Instagram should allow the ability for more conversation, not make it more one-sided. After all, a church is community and community thrives on conversation and connection.
2. Using Your Instagram Only as a Digital Bulletin Board
During a typical church service, bulletins are handed out that describe the church service. Common items on the bulletin are the programming schedule, the announcements for the week, and the church beliefs, to name a few.
The easiest content for a church to create is to simply transfer that in-person content to a digital format. This means following the church service order on Sabbaths, posting the weekly “Happy Sabbath” announcement on Fridays, creating invitations to church events, and not much more.
Justin Khoe, a digital missionary and the creator of “I’m Listening,” “Growing Together” podcast, “That Christian Vlogger,” and more, explained to me:
Generally speaking, churches treat social media like the bulletin board. So many videos, pictures, or posts, entice their viewers to go to websites, to do live streaming. What would it look like to use every single post to give value, no strings attached?
A semi-successful advertising campaign might draw a couple of families to your online church service, but then what? What will keep them coming back to your platforms? What will make them want to become a part of your community?
Consider what gives people a sense of value, a sense of belonging, and create content for your Instagram with that purpose in mind. Create with the intent of giving to your audience without receiving anything in return.
3. Posting Without Considering Your Target Audience
You would not place a teenager in a Cradle Roll class. Neither would you give the Earliteen lesson to your adult Sabbath school group. That is because these lessons are catered to age groups.
Although social media platforms are not explicitly made for certain age groups, there are demographics that tend to prefer one platform over others.
According to Statista, more than half of the global Instagram population worldwide is aged 34 years or younger.
With that in mind, posting content that is irrelevant to the younger demographic on Instagram will yield terrible results — it is not relatable to their specific spiritual experience.
Ask your young adults and teenagers to give input, survey your youth group. Create content with them in mind. Let them know this is their space. They will invest in it accordingly. If your goal is to draw a wider demographic to your page, similarly consider what would draw their attention, too.
Posting for posting sake does not benefit you, nor your church body. It is much better to make two intentional posts a week, than seven that will be irrelevant to anyone who stumbles upon your account.
4. Showcasing Your Church Leaders, But Not Your Members
It is difficult to create a sense of belonging when you do not show your church members that you see and hear them. The church pastor, the deacons, the praise team — they often share the spotlight, leaving little room for the members who also make up the church community.
If your Instagram is not a direct representation of your church body, it is missing a big piece of what makes it unique, of what identifies it as a community. One easy way to do this is by sharing stories.
Kaleb Eisele, editor of Humans of Adventism and the social media manager for the Oregon Conference of Seventh-day Adventists comments to me:
Churches are full of people, and people are full of stories. Even if your church only has five members, every one of those people has countless experiences that they can share. Taking a photo of the person and coupling it with a story is a powerful, cost-effective way to reach beyond your church walls through social media.
Seeing human qualities, and the feelings of others draws in other humans as well. While well-recorded praise songs, sermon highlights, and messages from church leaders are necessary, they cannot be the end-goal. Make your Instagram more human. Give your community a voice.
5. Not Having an Online Presence
COVID-19 brought changes to so many aspects of life, including how church is done. To this day, a great majority of churches are still meeting online, with no option for in-person services.
The lingering social media question remains for many constituencies: who do we have to create and maintain a quality social media presence? The unfortunate reality of social media is that it takes time, often more than church volunteers are able to commit.
In truth, any church ministry takes time. Whether it is food pantry service, creating a functioning Pathfinder club, or even teaching Sabbath school every Sabbath morning — it takes intentional planning and preparation. The difference is that many of these ministries are non-negotiable, essential to the mission of the church.
It is time our churches make social media essential to the mission of their church. It is time they decide to place just as much care on fostering their online community as they did in fostering their weekly members in the pew numbers.
In 2020, this is the change we need to embrace: to not only be present, but to present Christ in a meaningful way.
Raquel Mentor is a middle school English teacher. When she’s not teaching, she is a social media manager, working for Christian influencers and organizations.
Photos courtesy of the author. Photo credit: Richard Ulanga (used with permission).
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