'If a congregation isn't sharing its good news through multiple channels, it may be missing out.'
Unitarian Universalists are enthusiastically embracing social media, described as spaces on the Internet where people can hold public conversations. We, who have been forever shy about evangelizing, are now avidly promoting our religion on Facebook, Meetup, blogs, MySpace, Ustream, podcasts, Flickr, YouTube, and Twitter.
Peter Bowden, a private media consultant and a growth consultant with the Ballou Channing District, studies trends in culture and technology. A strong advocate of the use of social media by congregations, he says UU congregations were initially slow to adopt these new tools, but they’re catching on. “Almost every day I discover another congregation’s Facebook page or Twitter feed. Today, if a congregation isn’t sharing its good news through multiple channels, it may be missing out.”
More than 500 Unitarian-labeled groups are listed on Facebook, suggesting that a third to a half of all UU congregations have a Facebook page. Around 70 are using Twitter.
Take the Facebook page of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. It’s an animated town square kind of a place where members can comment on Walker’s most recent sermon and post announcements of coming events and videos.
Walker said he uses Facebook for two things—pastoral care and prophetic outreach. “People will post about things going on in their lives and this gives me a chance to reach out to them,” he said. “We also use it to spread the word about our social justice work.”
In November and again in January that social justice work included two “bioethics” sermons about agribusiness giant Monsanto and its ownership and use of seed patents. Walker posted the sermons on Facebook and made them available by podcast. (He used an older technology as well, and Fed-Exed the sermons to Monsanto.)
As a result Monsanto executives invited him to their St. Louis headquarters for a conversation in February. “I don’t know if that would have happened if the audience for the sermon had just been our members,” he said. “This allowed us to take our message out into the world.”
First Unitarian’s website has logged 33,000 visitors in the 28 months ending in February. Videos the congregation has posted on YouTube have been viewed 4,500 times.
Countryside Church Unitarian Universalist in Palatine, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, has developed a creative use for Meetup, a social networking site that connects people based on common interests. Damien Christensen and Hal Snyder decided a few months ago to use Meetup to spread the word about the church’s monthly “Movies with Meaning” night.
They advertise the movies to Meetup groups that are already interested in the topic at hand. “These are people who are already looking for these kinds of activities in Chicago and the northwest suburbs,” said the Rev. Hilary Krivchenia. “Sometimes we have more than fifty people show up and stay for discussion. The greatest news is that a good number of them come back and attend services and have then joined the church.”
In California, McCullough posts ten or more Twitter messages a day on behalf of Tapestry, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Mission Viejo. Limited to 140 characters each, she sends out notices about congregational events, sermon snippets, quotes from famous UUs, ecology tips, and links to information on the Tapestry website.
“We don’t know how well it works because we don’t ask visitors—yet—whether they found us through Twitter or another media,” she said. She spends two hours a day working on her “tweets,” noting, “It’s a labor of love. I hope I make people curious enough they’ll come check us out.”
There can be a downside to social media. Walker did a presentation on technology at a ministers’ gathering at General Assembly last year and asked those attending to fill out a survey. While many said they liked the new tools because they allowed them to be in contact with more people quickly and they helped with worship and sermon research, they disliked the amount of time they had to spend and the fact that there was always some new technology to learn about. (“Email is evil!” “No privacy.” “Facebook—the great timesuck!”)
Still, Bowden believes social media puts people in a more positive frame of mind. “When people plug into these social networks, chances are they’re fairly open to new ideas and information and have time to click a link or two. For congregations, this means their news is more likely to be seen by someone who is looking to engage and connect.”
In Houston, Tittle is fortunate enough to have a blog on the Houston Chronicle’s website. Tittle, minister of the Bay Area UU Church, uses the blog to write about religion and social issues. Deep in the Bible belt, he engages with religious fundamentalists on an array of topics.
Last winter, more than 6,500 people read two of his blog entries taking Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, to task for hosting an anti-gay forum. The posts generated a firestorm of response on the blog. Another article, on his visit to a conservative megachurch, garnered 2,000 page views in the first two hours.
He said, “I used to tell people to not bother engaging with fundamentalists, but I’ve learned how to do that. I know I’m not going to change any minds, but I am making people realize we are all humans standing for what we believe in. I think social media can reduce the fear we have in our congregations of doing strong social justice work, speaking out in the public square.”
(Update 5.13.10: Since this article went to press, Tittle has been called to the ministry of Central Unitarian Church in Paramus, N.J., and announced that he will be handing his Houston Chronicle blog over to the Rev. Ellen Cooper-Davis, minister of Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church in The Woodlands, Tex.)
Resources: The UUA website features several articles about social media, including “Best Practices for UU Blogging,” “Dos and Don’ts for UU Congregations Using Facebook,” and “Introduction to Twitter for UU Leaders.” Visit UUA.org/socialmedia.
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.