Facebook. In so many areas of life it’s no longer an if, no longer an option. With 500 million users it is quickly becoming a near-essential tool for families, for businesses and yes, even for churches.
The good news is that Facebook has a lot to commend it; there many things it does very well and thus there are many ways in which Facebook can assist pastors and other ministry leaders. The bad news is that there are also (and inevitably) ways in which it can hinder ministry if not used well. Today I want to look at Facebook as a ministry tool and suggest a few ways in which it can help and hinder. Because of practical limitations I cannot tell you how to go about setting up an account, but at least I can give some suggestions on what to do once you’ve already joined and started to be active.
One of Facebook’s great benefits for you, as a ministry leader, is that it lets you be where your people are. If you are like most pastors, you will find that your church members are not only members of Facebook, but that they are active members. This is where people socialize, where they entertain themselves and where (occassionally) they discuss serious issues. This is not to say that you need to be on Facebook in order to effectively minister to your people, but it does give you one more way of interacting with them, and one that can be very effective. Facebook is at its heart a social media, one used to coordinate communication and this is where you will find that it assists ministry. However, there are a few areas in which you will need to be cautious.
As you consider using Facebook in your ministry, or as you consider how you are already using it, spend a few minutes thinking about what Facebook has replaced. It is generally true of new technologies that they do not just add something to life, but that they also replace something that is already there. In the case of Facebook, it may well be that it is replacing real-world face to face ministry. Facebook builds social connections and in some ways enhances them; but it can just as easily diminish them as it replaces offline life with online. There is always the temptation to take the easy route (Post “Happy Birthday” on someone’s wall instead of calling him; Send an email instead of meeting him for lunch). Be sure that you are not allowing Facebook to be an easy way of getting around difficult ministry. And make sure you are not using it to disincarnate yourself, to remove your physical presence from people’s lives.
So as you use Facebook, be careful to use it in a supplementary way, a way that supplements your real flesh and blood contact with the people you are seeking to serve. Use it to share event information, to get people remembering last week’s sermons and thinking toward next week’s, to get people singing the songs you sing and praying for what needs to be prayed for. Use it to share photographs of great events and to encourage people to make contact with one another. The ways it can supplement ministry are nearly endless. But all the while use it to push yourself toward, not away from, face to face contact.
There are parts of the shepherding ministry that are active and parts that are passive. This is to say that in many cases you will inadvertently encounter information relevant to your ministry—things you need to act on. You may be told by a mutual contact that there is an important date coming up in another person’s life or that someone has committed a grevious sin. You did not go looking for the information; rather, it came to you. There are other times that you will be more proactive in seeking out information. You may approach a person and ask how he has been doing recovering from a surgery or you may ask him how he has done in the battle against a particular sin.Facebook can help with both of those components of ministry, with both the active and the passive. But you will need to guard against the temptation to be constantly trolling for information (negative information in particular), to go looking at vacation photographs to see if something is amiss (“She shouldn’t be wearing that on the beach!”), to read walls to find errant messages and responses (“Whoa! That sounded a bit snarky!”). There are times you can use the information you encounter in a way that will bless and encourage and there are times you can use that information in a way that will seem downright creepy. The societal rules about what we may do with information we encounter on Facebook are still being written; until they are, be careful. It may be that you will offend people even as you seek to help them.
Use it to learn about the lives of the people you love, to encourage them, and just generally to be aware of what they are doing in life. But do not use it to stalk them; and be careful how you introduce information you’ve learned from Facebook into real-world conversation.
Be aware that much of what happens on Facebook is public and be aware that what is public and what is private seems to be in constant flux as Facebook matures. Posting “Had a great time last night!” on a friend’s wall may just be a little confusing (especially if that friend is a woman). Also, be careful as well that you do not assume too much from information you encounter about others on Facebook. Because much of what you will encounter will be torn from context, you will need to use that information very carefully. Believe the best whenever it makes sense to do so.
As much as Facebook can grow community within the church, it can also hinder it. When you post photos of an event that only ten or twelve families were invited to, understand that all of the families in the church will see them and all those who were not there will wonder why they were not invited. Be aware of those aspects of Facebook that will alienate people and convince them that they are outsiders. I’ve said it before: I didn’t know how much fun my friends have without me (and how often they have it!) until Facebook came along!
Though Facebook can be a valuable tool for the pastor, it is a tool that is far more often used to waste time than to redeem time. Your congregation will be glad to see that you have a presence on Facebook, but they will be dismayed if they see that you have a constant presence. if they see that you are continually commenting, chatting, posting notes, interacting and racking up high scores on Bejeweled Blitz, they will come to believe that you are spending your entire day there. Even if that is not the case, you will want to be very cautious to give them no reason to think that you are wasting your study time or sermon preparation time stalking them on Facebook. So use it, but use it carefully and sparingly.
Just don’t. It’s stupid and it will make you stupid.