Social networking sites are a big deal these days. Love them or hate them, they are a part of the new reality of how people, especially young people, choose to interact with each other online.
This past year in my work as a cyber-evangelist I have invested some time in looking at ways to interact with people through social networking. It can be a great way to reach out to people and help them become followers of Jesus. Although the principles outlined here can apply to different online ministry situations, my examples come from working through Facebook
Whose Profile Is This Anyway?
When you set up your personal profile online for a social networking site there are many decisions to make. How much information will you disclose and to whom? Do you want to display a funny or a serious picture of yourself? (A close-up shot is best, I think, for easy recognition.) Who will you invite and who will you accept to be your friends online?
While these are important decisions, the first and most important decision that you will have to make about your witness online is actually something that you won’t type in when you set up your profile info. Who really owns this profile? Who calls the shots? Who sets the priorities? Is it you or is it the Lord whom you serve? If Jesus is in the driver’s seat, then that will make a big difference about how you use your time, what kinds of things you will and will not attach to your profile and who you will seek to interact with.
Just as in real life, it is always good to be prepared to give a reason for the hope that is in you (See I Peter 3:15 for a great guideline as to how to interact online.) You can post the story of how your life was changed by your faith in Christ in the “notes” section of your Facebook profile. The power of your online faith-story can be multiplied. You can grab the url address from your faith-story, repost it in the mini-feed section, refer to it in other documents and use it as a part of your online signature.
Making Every Move Count
A key principle is to ask yourself what purpose every activity or potential activity in the social networking environment can serve. There are huge numbers of funny and fascinating applications out there that can help bring you closer to people. Not all of them are equally good for helping you to get in touch with spiritual “seekers.”
Some of them can turn into timewasters. Some of them can send people confusing messages about who and what you really represent. Beware of undercutting your message once you’ve let it be known through your profile that you are a follower of Jesus. Lots of application activities can simply be a tool to bridge the gap and create “meaningful touch moments”. The key is to be discerning and intentional about their use.
Send virtual flowers, play silly online games, tag your friends in your photos, post funny videos . . . but do it for a purpose and do it with integrity. If you are an interesting and caring friend in real life, you can find ways online to show your friends that you are interested in them and that you really care . . . if that is your goal.
Real Faces, Real People
The more meaningful experiences you have online in this environment to talk about your faith are likely to be with people you have already met. That’s not to say that you can’t have meaningful interactions with a total stranger whom you have only met on the Internet. By searching via the avenues suggested by Facebook, you can sometimes find long lost friends or keep up with someone you seldom see. Ask God to guide you and give you ideas of who to establish or re-establish contact with.
If you only have Christian friends on your profile and you all talk about church or “Christian stuff”, it’s not likely that your profile will have much influence or prove very attractive for your non-Christian friends. Choose to highlight those things that those who aren’t Christians yet can relate to. Be sensitive to their needs. You might think that the latest video that you found on GodTube is hilarious, but will your non-Christian friends you are trying to influence “get it”? Or will they feel excluded?
Care To Share?
Sites such as http://www.iamnext.com, the outreach focused website where I work, attempt to provide online material that helps to bridge the gap between the interests and needs of many non-Christians and the gospel. Consider posting an article on your profile from a website designed to reach out to those who aren’t yet believers. Be choosey. Passive posting where people come to visit you and observe your interests is one thing. It’s probably not a good idea to overwhelm your non-Christian friends by actively inviting them to lots of events or actively sharing material with them. An annoying friend is not a friend for long.
The Facebook application “Life Questions” (http://www.facebook.com/apps/application.php?id=6611135350&b=&ref=pd) designed by our sister site invites your visitors to dialogue with you over a particular evangelistic article or a explanation of the gospel. I hope we will soon see a version of this application for iamnext.com.
Going Out On Chaplaincy Duty
I have found that another good way to “bridge the gap” is by joining groups where I share a common interest or experience with others. I have found that it is easier to initiate conversations that go past the surface when you find people who recognize a need in their lives. Sometimes people in this position are willing to share their own story and receive a part of your life’s experience in return.
I have found ways to bring Christ into the picture by operating from a starting point of a particular problem or experience I have had. Thus, I have had the chance to engage in a kind of “online chaplaincy” by looking for opportunities to help. Some of the interaction takes place on discussion boards and public wall postings, but most of it goes back and forth through private email messages to an individual looking for help.
A key to making online ministry from a social networking site work is being disciplined about maintenance. I re-prioritize and “weed” my page constantly for objects that are repetitive or don’t serve a purpose. Clutter is the enemy. I want to keep those points that are the most important for pointing people to Jesus at the top of my profile and let the rest of the “amusing stuff” and “interesting stuff about me” sink to the bottom.
Follow Me As I Follow Christ
Social networking is a very relational way of sharing Christ with others, both those you know personally and those you don’t. This article is only meant to be a first introduction to an idea that might be new to some. I’m learning all the time about how to be more effective in online witness. The essence of this type of witnessing is very incarnational. By asking people to take a look online at who we are, we ask people to look at Jesus who inhabits our daily lives.
If you want to know more about what I’ve discovered about ministry through social networking, ask me. If you are on Facebook and you want to look at what I have done on my profile to reach out to those outside the Church, feel free to (temporarily) join the Ottawa Facebook network and observe my profile.
Catherine Savard is a commissioned staff worker with Campus for Christ, working with the Campus Internet Ministry in content development. Catherine blogs at www.midnightoil.squarespace.com – Midnight Oil: Movies and More.