When Social Media Can Burn The Church – A Handy Twitter Guide For Churches

Social Media is one of those things we should all be on right? We’ve got to have a presence on Facebook & Twitter right?  We’d appear as if we’re stuck in the mud wouldn’t we? Not necessarily so.  Not understanding the medium well can lead to some disastrous consequences, as one Christian leader found to his expense this week.  And for those churches or leaders who get burned using social media, often it may be the case that the medium is irrelevant to their audience in any case.  All that pain for nothing.

Over the Easter weekend, on Anzac Day Jim Wallace, Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby tweeted the following:

@JimWallaceACL – Just hope that as we remember Servicemen and women today we remember the Australia they fought for – wasn’t gay marriage and Islamic!

Jim discovered that the Twittersphere can develop into a Twitterstorm very quickly when a key part of its natural constituency is roused into Twitterrage.  Some time later in response to the growing Twitterage he tweeted this follow up:

@JimWallaceACL – Ok you are right my apologies this was the wrong context to raise these issues. ANZACs mean to much to me to demean this day, not intended.

To cut a long story short, Jim got burned through this little episode, and I dare say that he learned a great deal about the nature of Twitter, the people who use it, and the viral capacity of Twitterrage to grow in disproportion to the issue.  Jim was news headlines on many news platforms for the rest of the 24 hour news cycle.  He appeared on breakfast tv the following morning and has issued clarifications through his website.  Some say that this will ‘define’ Jim but I very much doubt that. He has a significant history as a military commander, and latterly as a Christian lobbyist and occasional TV expert on military issues.  His immense contribution to Australian life and to the church cannot possibly be defined by a single Tweet.

The 24 hour news cycle in media outlets is long compared to the brief cycles of ‘trending’ in the Twittersphere (The most discussed, responded to or ‘re-tweeted’ subjects are rated in a ‘trending topic list’.  This is the holy grail of Twitter: for a categorised topic to become ‘trending’.)  As is customary plenty of fake Jim Wallace accounts have been set up and the topic will be prolonged with lesser intensity through Twitter’s predilection for satire/sarcasm/cynicism/humour (take your pic or all of them).

Here’s a handy guide for churches thinking of using Twitter:

1.  Is It Used By Your Target Demographic?

All the available research I’ve read about the typical Twitter user show a definite profile, both here in Australia and in other countries like the USA. The last Australian statistic I’ve seen from digitalmarketinglab showed that the user profile of Aussie Tweeters was 57% male / 43% female, 29% are aged 35 – 44 and 18% are aged 45 – 54. It showed that 71% of all users have a household income greater than $50K and 50% are over $75,000. Check out a trendmapping site like trendsmap.com and you can see clearly where users are in real time. If it is not used by your target demographic then don’t bother.

Try it out right now, visit trendsmap and type in your location to see what is trending, and where it is being Tweeted from.

2.  Don’t Light Uncontrollable Fires

The Twittersphere is used by people from within the whole spectrum of society, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that its the natural home of the inner city Left here in Australia.  Intolerance is the medium of the much vaunted value of tolerance.  Anything that goes against the code of tolerance is not tolerated.  I know it’s a self negating concept but its true.  Left-wing fundamentalists are as rabid as right-wing fundo’s.  A tweet from a Christian leader that touches on a sacred cow will result in a flame war of abuse and vitriol, often far worse than the original offending Tweet.  That’s the rules, because to a large degree a medium is controlled by the status quo of users.  You can make a name for yourself in an instant if you want to, but there is very little to be gained unless you are into the “any publicity is good publicity” school of thought.  If you don’t mind being burned think about others who get burned by association (the Church as a whole).  If you are not sure what you are doing find yourself a savvy Twitter user and get an on the spot education before you have one of those “too late!” moments.  Remember that you can’t say anything quietly on Twitter, it’s a broadcast platform.  Also remember that you can’t delete a Tweet without trace.  Once you’ve Tweeted its out there.

3.  Is It The Best Medium For Your Message?

Social Media is short form communication.  Twitter is 140 characters or less.  We all know that most ecclesiastical types could do with a dose of brevity but is this medium the right platform for what you want to communicate, and can it provide the context for your message?  If not, its a medium for misunderstanding. A good idea is to browse Twitter for feeds from large churches or Christian leaders who are active on Twitter.  You can ‘follow’ them and learn how others use the medium.  You may well find yourself greatly underwhelmed (I usually am, but that’s because of the 140 character limit and the fact that there’s only so many people I can handle who are “having a coffee with…travelling to….at a meeting with…”), but you may well find some imaginative users who you can model your engagement on.

4.  Think About What You Are Projecting

Social Media exposes Christians to large networks of people (and sometime the evening news!), many of whom don’t darken the door of a church.  They have all manner of preconceived ideas of what a Christian is, how they think and how they act.  Your use of social media can either confirm prejudices or upset apple carts.  Choose the latter. It may only be a ‘Tweet’, and only under 140 characters, but your little contribution to the daily social media cycle can create disproportionate damage.

Personally I don’t spend a lot of time on Twitter.  I access it when I need instant updates on developments (usually elections) or major crisis.  I’ve previously written about the narcissistic nature of the medium here.  The negativity, cynicism and sarcasm on Twitter doesn’t make it attractive at all, but I can accept that many ‘live on it’, and love the medium.  Whatever the case for you, make sure you understand the medium fully before you publish your pearl of wisdom.