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Laura J. Gardner | The Journal Gazette
Patrick Fischl, pastor to middle school students at The Chapel, uses Facebook to communicate with the students.

Posting to the choir

Local churches reaching out on social media

When youth ministers at The Chapel want to announce an upcoming activity, they put a post on their Facebook page. When teens go on an out-of-town outing, leaders send out updates – “We just finished eating and are back on the road to Chicago” – to parents who follow their feed on Twitter.

Social media has definitely changed for the better the way the local nondenominational megachurch interacts with its followers, says Kathy Hawks, marketing director and wife of Rick Hawks, the congregation’s lead pastor.

So she and some other area religious leaders were surprised that a new national survey found few Americans use social media to connect to faith communities.

“On our Facebook pages we get a high number of hits,” she says. “We’ve been very satisfied with the impact.”

Eric Dunaway, 34, communications pastor for Fort Wayne’s Pathway Community Church, part of the Missionary Church denomination, concurred.

“Right now, Facebook is kind of like our fastest-growing means of communication,” he says, referring to his congregation, which has a weekly average attendance of about 3,000.

“I can tell you that the weekly total reach – people who have seen any Facebook content – just hit a new high of 4,100 people, and that’s almost doubled in the last week. We currently have 900 ‘likes’ and that’s been increasing by 10 to 12 a week.”

Twitter, Dunaway says, has been slower to grow. The feed has only 151 followers. But their characteristics make the effort – which Dunaway calls “minimal” – worthwhile.

“Twitter … seems to be a little more niche – it tends to be somewhat younger people and people who are more tech savvy,” he says.

Nonetheless, the study by the Public Religion Research Institute, found that while nearly half of Americans (45 percent) report being on Facebook at least a few times each week, only about 5 percent follow a religious or spiritual leader’s posts there or on Twitter or have joined a Facebook religious group.

But the study also found wide gaps among denominations and age groups.

About 40 percent of white Protestant evangelicals, like those who attend The Chapel or Pathway, report their church has a Facebook or Web page where people interact, compared with 30 percent of mainline Protestants and 13 percent of Catholics.

More than one in three (36 percent) Americans ages 18 to 35 said their church has a Facebook page, compared with 19 percent of older Americans. Ten percent of young people said they follow a religious figure through social media or have joined a Facebook group, versus 1 percent of older Americans.

That’s despite a concerted push by many religious groups to develop a social media presence.

Nearly half of Protestant churches now use Facebook, according to LifeWay Research, affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, and 80 percent of churches with 500 members or more are on Facebook, the organization reports.

Buzzplant, a Christian digital advertising agency, recently found 36 percent of churches update their Facebook accounts every day, while nearly half (46 percent) said they consider social media “their most effective means of outreach.”

Despite the relatively low overall numbers for social media use, churches need to reach young people to survive, says the Rev. Bill Johnson, director of distance learning for Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne.

“A lot of times, in the mainline denominations, they struggle to reach young people, which are the people who are on social media. In order to reach them, we’ve got to talk where they’re listening,” says Johnson, who organized a social media conference at the seminary this year for the conservative Protestant Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod leaders.

“A lot of churches are disconnected from social media. It’s not that their parishioners aren’t there. It’s that the churches aren’t there,” he says. “We tried to use the time (during the conference) to train pastors that this is what’s out there, and it’s not difficult and it’s not scary.”

Sean McBride, communications secretary for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, says the diocese has a Facebook page and recently started a Twitter feed.

Diocese-level department heads are encouraged to post official messages on Facebook, but not many parishes have their own pages, McBride says.

Only a handful of priests tweet, with the Rev. Andrew Budzinski of Fort Wayne’s St. Vincent de Paul parish as a notable exception, he says. Diocesan bishop, the Rev. Kevin C. Rhoades, does not use Twitter, according to McBride, although the diocese uses its Twitter feed to re-tweet messages of the Rev. Kevin C. Dolan, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Still, even ardent social media users say it has its limits. Because people can say whatever they want, comments need to be supervised. Hawks says the rule at The Chapel is that Facebook postings must be positive and uplifting.

And a major limit is that social media tend not to be an effective way to reach those without faith or unchurched.

Dunaway, Hawk and Johnson say they’ve never had a person tell them that he or she came to church after finding it on Facebook or following it on Twitter.

“The one thing about social media is that people self-select their content,” Johnson says. “The average non-Christian is not going to subscribe to the seminary’s (Twitter) feed. We’re not even on their radar screen.

“But what social media is good for is (reaching) what we call ‘the choir’ – the core group of people that are deeply involved in with their church,” he says.

“It’s the glue that makes us a community and binds us together in Christ.”