Congregations discover that Facebook expands community, church visibility.
But not long after he created a space on the popular social networking site in October 2008, a former church member who had moved to Chicago emailed to thank him for giving her a way to stay in touch with her church community from afar.
And comments quickly began to fill the church’s “wall,” a Facebook page where people can post public comments. “Can I just say how freaking happy I am that we’re posting videos of sermons online!! Yay! Now I can catch up on the weeks I am teaching. : - )” one woman wrote. Another posted: “first church makes my week!”
Kuehn, First Unitarian’s communications director quickly began to see the potential of Facebook for his spiritual community. It was a powerful tool to connect church members with each other and strengthen relationships within the church. And it was a cheap and influential medium for exposing people outside the church to First Unitarian and to Unitarian Universalism.
“I have been trying for a long time to find ways that people could experience our community off-site, if you will,” said Kuehn. “And the more I looked at Facebook, the more it seemed like it could help do that.”
Once the exclusive domain of college students, Facebook has been creeping steadily into adult social networks, businesses, and groups. Founded in 2004, Facebook reached 250 million users in July 2009. Each user has a personal “page,” where they can post personal information and photos. They can become “friends” with other Facebook users, send and receive messages, and link themselves to their alma maters, workplaces, and any other group—such as a religious organization—that has established a Facebook presence.
At the 1,100-member First Unitarian Church in Dallas, Kuehn updates the page at least weekly. Like a website, Facebook pages need new content regularly, otherwise they become stale, and users stop visiting. Kuehn videotapes each Sunday sermon and posts a video of the sermon on the church’s Facebook page. Facebook allows users to post videos that are up to 20 minutes long, so Kuehn can upload sermons in their entirety. He also posts photos from church and youth group events.
The church has a link from its website to the Facebook page, and users can link from Facebook back to the church’s website. While some of the information is the same, what’s different on Facebook, Kuehn said, is the chance for serendipity. People who go to the church’s website, he says, “are already looking for you.” But people on Facebook can come upon the church by chance if they see a link to it on one of their friend’s pages. Kuehn explains that the average Facebook user has 100 friends. If the church has 415 fans, and each of them has a page, then roughly 41,500 people have opportunities to see something on the church’s Facebook page.
“People can see that one of their friends who didn’t proselytize about their faith goes to a Unitarian Church,” said Kuehn. “For years, particularly in the Bible Belt, the last thing people were going to do was tell people that they went to a UU church. We’re getting over that, but the challenge for someone who wants our good news to get out is how to create that opportunity without having to send their people door to door.”
In late July, the Dallas church’s page boasted 432 “fans.” The page has “fans” rather than “friends” because it is set up as a Facebook page, rather than a Facebook group. Groups have “friends,” who must be Facebook members, who have their own personal pages. A page, such as First Church’s, can be viewed by anyone, even if they do not have a Facebook account.
The Dallas church has been in a friendly rivalry with the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta over which church would have the most Facebook fans. Atlanta had recently fallen behind with 297. “That means I’m going to have to start inviting people,” said Chance Hunter, director of Welcome Ministries at the nearly 800-member Atlanta church.
Hunter launched the Atlanta page in 2007. New people have been coming to the church through the Facebook group, Hunter said. “It’s been a slow but steady trickle of folks who find me or the group through Facebook. They leave a message on the wall or send me a private message.” Recent postings on Atlanta’s wall were from a prospective member seeking a carpool to Sunday services, and a reminder to bring a flower to the Flower Communion service.
In a large church like the Atlanta congregation, it is essential to create smaller groups of people to keep members from feeling lost in the crowd, Hunter said. Facebook is another way to help them feel connected. They can be a part of the church group, and they can find church members through the Facebook page and become both Facebook and personal friends with them. Groups within the Atlanta church also have their own Facebook pages. A group for young adults within the church also has a page and uses it to organize outings and post photos. “It builds social capital,” said Hunter. “It’s building new stuff and reinforcing what’s there.”
Prior to building the Dallas page, Kuehn consulted the UUA’s online “Dos and Don’ts for Unitarian Universalist Congregations on Facebook.” The guidelines offer general information and suggestions. And the church has honed its Facebook policies over time.
One of the most difficult issues was determining the relationship that youth advisors should have with youth online. Dallas established a policy that youth advisors could not initiate friend requests to youth. However, an advisor can accept a friend request sent by a youth with permission of a parent.
Shelby Meyerhoff, public witness specialist with the Unitarian Universalist Association, has fielded a number of calls from congregations wrestling with issues of adults and youth together on Facebook. “The range of issues that might be involved with youth groups are privacy, safety, and confidentiality,” she said. “They are issues that really overlap with larger questions about how individuals as youth advisors relate to teens.” There have been active discussions about Facebook and other new media on the Advisor-L online discussion group for youth group leaders.
Meyerhoff also gets questions from congregations preparing to create a Facebook page. Many wrestle with whether to create a page or a group. She typically advises creating a page. “Pages are more future-forward,” she says. “That’s the format for which Facebook is going to develop tools in the future.”
The UUA maintains a page on Facebook, and it now has more than 8,200 fans. Many offices and programs within the UUA also have their own Facebook presence, including UU World. “Facebook allows ideas to really go viral,” said Meyerhoff. While people may not take the time to copy a link and paste it into an email to tell their friends about a story that interests them, they are quick to link a story to their Facebook page, she said.
The UUA does not track how many congregations are on Facebook, but Meyerhoff estimates that the number is in the hundreds. Some are maintained by congregation staff. Others are created by members of the church. “One of the things that is a blessing and a curse is anyone can set up a Facebook page,” said Kuehn. “What you try to prevent is your message being splintered across a number of unconnected and unregulated access points. The ideal is that a real multigenerational, multiethnic, multi-interest opportunity conversation happens in a unified space.”
The Dallas church came together on Facebook during the most recent UUA General Assembly. The page became like a news channel, as members monitored the election of the new UUA president. Their former minister of 22 years, the Rev. Dr. Laurel Hallman, was running against the Rev. Peter Morales. Kuehn posted photos and streaming video every day on the Facebook page. “We let people in the church experience what they could of GA, and that was very much appreciated” Kuehn said.
Kuehn also used Twitter for the first time to keep members posted about GA. He approached Twitter—a microblogging site that allows you to share (and follow) updates of no more than 140 characters—with the same ambivalence as Facebook last year. “But as much as I admit my personal resistance, the reality is you need to meet your audience where they are.” That’s especially true for reaching young people, he said.
Kuehn is in the process of rebuilding the Dallas church’s website and has explored different kinds of groupware that would allow him to build a social networking site on the church’s homepage exclusively for church members. Though it has the benefit of privacy, it doesn’t reach newcomers in the way that Facebook can. “The whole value of doing this in the ocean is that’s where the fish are,” says Kuehn. “It has all the opportunity and potential discomfort of going out in public. But there are benefits for the denomination. The discomfort of public witness is outweighed by the benefit of exposure.”
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Michelle Bates Deakin, a member of First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Arlington, Massachusetts, was a UU World contributing editor from 2006 to 2011 and a UU World senior editor from 2011 to 2014. She is the author of Social Action Heroes: Unitarian Universalists Who Are Changing the World (Skinner House, 2011) and Gay Marriage, Real Life: 10 Stories of Love and Family (Skinner House, 2006).