Columbia houses of worship use social media to reach tech-savvy congregations

Sunday, January 1, 2012 | 5:04 p.m. CST
Senior Pastor Amy Gearhart gives a sermon during the Missouri United Methodist Church's 11 a.m. service Sunday. Gearhart answered questions submitted from members of her congregation via text and written out from previous services.

COLUMBIA — At Missouri United Methodist Church, it’s OK to pull out that cellphone during the sermon.

In fact, Senior Pastor Amy Gearhart encourages it. Gearhart has asked her congregation to text her questions that she answers live during services.

Other area churches' Facebook presence

Facebook offers a page that lists area churches with a profile. There are nearly 40 houses of worship listed on the page, although it is not all-inclusive.

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The strategy falls in line with a report produced by Jim Jansen of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, which found that people identifying themselves as religious use technology as a social tool just as much, if not more than, those who do not.

United Methodist is just one of several houses of worship in the Columbia area that are using evolving technologies to communicate with congregations that are increasingly technologically savvy.

'Friending' the congregation

The popularity of Facebook has made it an important outreach tool for many congregations. Sarah Williams, an employee of Congregation Beth Shalom, said its Facebook page is designed to be a source of information for everyone.

"People expect to be able to find information about organizations online easily," Williams said.

Williams said the synagogue uses Facebook primarily to keep members informed about events and share photos of gatherings.

Gerik Parmele, who has served as media director at The Crossing since January 2011, said his church sees a similar use for its Facebook page.

"Our main goal for social media at The Crossing is that we want to share with the community the happenings of our church," Parmele said.

The Crossing has made it a point to increase its Facebook presence over the past couple of years, Parmele said. This has included posting videos and photos, as well as linking to blog posts by church leaders. As a result, users of the page have increased from a couple hundred to more than a thousand.

The Crossing’s Facebook page featured a link to a live stream of its Christmas services. The church streams its services on its website each Sunday.

Parmele said The Crossing decided to add features to the Facebook page because of its popularity among members.

"We think that more people in mid-Missouri and in our church use Facebook than other social media outlets," Parmele said.

A sermon at your fingertips

Gearhart said the idea for a Q-and-A sermon via text came from a colleague in St. Louis. During the service, she either leads a sermon and invites questions based on a topic or opens the floor to broad questions.

"They’re big questions, like 'Why does God allow suffering?' 'What does the Bible say about heaven and hell?’ ” Gearhart said. Questions are either displayed on a large screen at the front of the sanctuary, or Gearhart will read them off her phone to those in attendance.

Some questions are more serious than others.

"We try to have fun with it," Gearhart said. She once received a text asking about dinosaurs in the Bible.

Gearhart said the program allows all generations of the church to be involved in a service that is "more like a dialogue than a monologue."

"The young adults love it because they get permission to text in church," Gearhart said. "The older adults love it because they love seeing innovations in worship. For the most part, their questions were among the questions being asked by the young adults.

"All of a sudden, technology starts to connect generations instead of separating them."

Parmele said the finishing touches have just been put on a smartphone application for The Crossing. The app provides users with streaming service videos, links to blogs and "all kinds of content you would expect a church to have," Parmele said.

Tweeting to churchgoers    

Margaret Wilson, communication deacon at Karis Community Church, said the popularity of Twitter among church members led to the creation of its Twitter account.

"Individual members of the church tweet all the time. You see people tagging our church, or someone will take a picture of our church and tweet about it," Wilson said.

The Karis account (@karischurch) is primarily used for informing churchgoers of upcoming events, Wilson said. A series of tweets from Nov. 26 includes passages from the sixth chapter of Romans.

In addition, Karis tweets links to content posted to The City. The site describes itself as "a group-oriented social network" built for Christian churches.

"It’s a place where people can go and they know they’re going to find updates on the church without being distracted by everything else," Wilson said.

Learning new technologies

One of the issues with using new technologies is that they're constantly evolving. Williams said she is still learning ways to use data from Facebook to make the synagogue's page more appealing to visitors.

"We’re fairly new to having a public page like this," Williams said.

Parmele said he is trying to figure out if Google+, a new social networking tool provided by the founders of the popular search engine, would be a useful resource for The Crossing.

Wilson said that the popularity of personal social media use makes using it in a spiritual capacity easier and that Karis members automatically flock to new technologies.

"Each one of our members use Facebook and Twitter personally as well. Everyone is kind of on top of that. They adapt to it very well," Wilson said.

Gearhart said despite the challenges, the move into social media is a continuation of an ongoing process.

"Successful religious movements throughout history have always found a way to use the current media to reach new generations," Gearhart said.

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