Slight change of tack this month, as I jot down some thoughts regarding churches and social networking. What follows is essentially a call for the church to embrace social networking. If you are well and truly over social networking I understand, check back next time!
In many ways churches are the traditional home of ‘social networking’.
Of course, they have a spiritual role far greater than making friends and meeting people, but if you ask someone why they keep coming back to a particular church, their answer will often be “The people!”.
The relationships formed through churches and church gatherings are generally powerful and long lasting.
The online phenomena of social networking has really taken off over the last couple of years, with a tremendous amount of hype, cash, and me-tooism flying around in equal proportions. Many people now consider the market over-saturated, while others believe the phenomena is here to stay and still has a considerable way to go, which is a view the author shares.
Where is the church in all of this? Stuck somewhere in 1998.
There are a handful of sites standing out from the crowd, doing their best to keep up with, and in some cases stay ahead of web trends. These are, however, usually the exception to the rule.
The social networking phenomenon is something the church, particularly in the official sense, should not stand by and watch pass by.
Churchgoers generally share at least two things in common - geographic proximity and their faith. Based on those two things they connect in all sorts of ways, across church related gatherings, events, organisations, schools, work places, colleges/seminaries, not to mention baptisms, weddings, funerals and more.
They grow up together, form families, have kids, move away, move back, and generally enjoy quite a high number of loose friendships formed over a long period of time across many different social groups.
It’s time to take this online.
Enter Social Networking
Social networking has proven hugely popular because of the way it reflects and complements the nature of these sorts of relationships.
When it comes to members of the church, there is an enormous amount of potential for improving people’s lives by complementing their traditional relationships with the benefits of online social networks.
Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way you could stay in touch online, keep abreast of what’s happening in their lives, send them a quick message, share digital media (such as photos), see who their friends are, and do it all in one place?
That’s what social networking is about.
This thinking should be new to just about nobody who has been paying minimal attention to web trends over the last couple of years. I hate to think about how much proverbial ink has been spilt over MySpace alone, for instance.
However, the time is almost ripe for niche social networking sites to make a major impact in the lives of churchgoers. Goodness knows just about every other niche has been covered.
Churches are not exactly known for their lightening fast innovation nor their desire to be on the bleeding edge of technology, but the length of time between mainstream adoption and deployment by churches is getting shorter, especially when it fits a clear need - take the reasonably widespread adoption of podcasting for example.
We are now at a point where there is enormous potential for well designed, geocentric services to bridge the gap not only between people’s online ‘social’ activities (blogging, photo sharing, messaging), but between individuals, churches, groups and organisations that all connect in one way or another offline. It’s the facebook (mashable profile) phenomena for churches.
So… MySpace for churches?
No! Please no. We need to think harder. That’s not to say we need to reinvent the wheel - Facebook has done brilliantly exploiting this idea for niche communities and bringing them together, but I’m pretty sure the teen market has their bases covered.
While me-too social network sites are becoming legion, there are innovative things happening - take SixApart’s Vox for instance (see the TechCrunch write-up for more), and with some much activity going on there is bound to be more innovation occurring due to competition alone.
What is needed to really kick start widespread adoption is robust, flexible, cheap or open source software.
The blogging phenomena has Wordpress, Textism, ExpressionEngine, etc. Forum software has phpBB, vB, iPB, punBB, etc. Both have mature, powerful, free and low cost software to do the job. The social networking sphere has a number of scripts around, but so far most seem mediocre at best.
Thankfully the interest in not just social networking, but web apps in general should mean we will see considerable development effort in this area over the coming months.
Official buy-in and an end to community-phobia
Most of the interesting, innovative church projects have been driven by passionate individuals operating outside of official church structures. Due to ignorance, lack of funds, politics and sadly, lack of interest, the church has often been slow to embrace these initiatives.
Official buy-in, while not essential, does however offer several benefits. Effective and direct communication channels, funding, resources, trust and official endorsement are all attractive things to have.
However in this age of low cost start-ups, and the inherent self perpetuation of a successful social networking site, it is by no means essential, and a great deal of politics and bureaucracy can be avoided by going it alone.
This is just as well, because online communities are often a scary thing for old school church leadership.
Indeed, in some cases, simple online forums are something to be concerned about, even though the overall web presence is well established. This community-phobia will have to change if the next generation of online communities are going to be encouraged and allowed to thrive, and not counter-productively thwarted from within.
This will require considerable vision and leadership from those in a position to advocate for change.
What are we waiting for?
Despite the hype, the technology has yet to mature in the same way it has for blogs, forums and wikis, but the next 12 months should see accelerated development and competition in this area.
We need to look beyond the spectacle of MySpace and strive for simplicity and friendliness above all to keep the barrier of entry low and the software as accessible as possible.
We need to work against the phobia of online communities that exists in traditional leadership through both education and familiarisation through participation. Getting people involved is the best way for them to ‘get it’, and the sooner they get on board the wider the social networking net can be cast, with institutions, organisations, and of course more members joining in.
There is an enormous opportunity for good by bringing people together by creating, continuing, complimenting and improving relationships between church members online.
Social Networking is here to stay, and the church should embrace it.
Image from istockphoto.com