“Not Just an E-Mail Church”

I’m pleased to present this guest post from Rev. Rebecca Weltmann, pastor of Washington Presbyterian Church in Washington, IL. You can read more from Rebecca, a PC(USA) pastor and graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, at her blog, A Moment with Pastor Becki.

My first week working in my new church here in central Illinois, there was a mission project going on that our church happened to be hosting. It was a project that involved several local churches and reached out to the immediate community. A woman walked into the church and looked around. She asked if I belonged to the church.

“I’m the new pastor here,” I said, shaking her hand. “I’m Pastor Becki. This is actually my first week.”

“Wow,” she said, shaking her head. “I didn’t even realize this was still a functioning church.”

Her comment struck me as odd (and also a little sad). How could someone from the community not know that our Presbyterian church was still an operational church? Sure, we were small. But aren’t we registered with the local Historical Society? Now I had a challenge: How could I change that perception that we were just a “well-kept secret” in town?

As a twenty-something pastor, I’m part of a generation that has access to all kinds of means to “get our church out there.” We’re shoulder-deep in the digital age and with the recent unveiling of Google+, even churches are increasingly asking themselves how the church can be a part of that technological race as a means of “good public relations.” As a part of the generation that makes up the biggest percentage of people that use social media, it’s something I’ve thought a lot about. As a pastor, how I use social media has changed. For me, things like a blog and Facebook are no longer just about letting my small corner of the world know when I am disappointed with the results of “America’s Got Talent” (I still think Fighting Gravity should have won last season!) or am excited about an upcoming vacation. Instead, these things have a wider reach in mind: there is now an aspect of networking and good public relations.

Presbyterians Today presented some statistics in their latest issue (July/August 2011) about the daily technology usage by pastors. According to their chart, 90 percent of the pastors surveyed in 2008/09 send or receive email. Interestingly, 41 percent said they use the internet for religious use and a whopping 4 percent participate in online groups. Two percent use a blog in ministry.

I fall into that 4 and 2 percent. I am connected to a clergy network site called “Called to Community” as well as Facebook. I recently joined Google+. I never had a MySpace or Friendster account, but I do keep a blog through Google’s Blogger. I update my blog, “A Moment with Pastor Becki” weekly and it functions as a weekly newsletter for my congregation and my friends outside the church. Through one of my two Facebook accounts (one is personal, one is professional), I maintain the church’s Facebook page, which I started last fall. Though our church’s page hasn’t acquired too many followers yet, I use the page to post announcements, links to denominational news from the PC (USA) website, and pictures from the fellowship activities we hold.

I see the benefits of social media. I also see, however, some drawbacks, particularly as the pastor of a small church with a  demographic of approximately 80 percent retired folks. Social media is not something the majority of the people in the church I pastor know a lot about. A comment I get all too often is, “We don’t want to be just an e-mail church.” And I agree, to some degree. Email and social media has definitely changed the way we keep in touch. And I’ll admit, sometimes I’m not so sure the changes are always good. But for better or worse, social media is out there and as a church searching for its identity in the 21st century, it’s a trend we’re learning to follow and utilize.

I do lament with those folks though that worry about people losing interpersonal skills when you can just send someone a text message or update your corner of the world with a status change. Think about this for a second: How many phone numbers do you actually have memorized now? Probably not many. Having a cell phone means we can just scroll down, find the person we’re looking for, and press send. The only phone numbers I have memorized, for example, are the ones I had memorized before I ever had a cell phone.

It’s a delicate balance, this tension between wanting to meet the generations of today with the means they know and still wanting to reach out to the people for whom social media is not a part of their personal experience. And here I have to be honest: I’ve struggled with writing an article about social media because in my core, I’m really not a fan of Facebook. I personally get very frustrated when I have to find out about big things going on in my friend’s lives through Facebook. For example:

“Oh, I had no idea you were moving.”
“Well, don’t you read Facebook?”
No. Not always. Now that I’m living nearly 900 miles from my hometown, though, Facebook is the way I keep in touch with people from college, people from seminary, and my life-long friends and family back home on the East Coast. From that perspective, I see the pros and cons of social media.

I lament that in many ways, technology has compromised the joy of a phone call or a get together over a nice latte. But I’m also excited for the good that connecting to media has done, when it’s done right.

Our church, for example, hired someone to revamp our church’s website this spring. Now the page includes pictures of people instead of just a building. It includes upcoming announcements, a calendar, the church monthly newsletter, and information about the church staff. It also includes a page called “Your First Sunday” which tries to answer the usual questions people have before visiting a church for the first time (where do I park, what do I wear, what door do I use?). The feedback we have received from this endeavor has been tremendous for a group of people who engage in “church shopping” by looking churches up on the internet before an initial visit. Having that online presence has become increasingly important as the ways in which people search for churches has changed. We’re no longer just that “little white church” on the corner from the downtown square. Through local advertising and connecting to social media, we have worked towards changing what the community thinks about us.

Facebook is also becoming an important tool for communication. It’s not just a place to put up announcements for people to connect to our church events as well as things going on in our Presbytery, Synod, and denomination as a whole. Facebook helps me communicate with the youth and through Facebook chat we are able to plan youth group events without a phone tree. It saves time (and cell phone minutes). Our church’s Facebook presence has been slow-growing, but we’re excited to discover new ways to use it to our advantage in a world submerged in the digital age. Eventually, I suspect we will have a Google+ page. As we engage in social media, though, it’s important to point out that social media makes those face to face encounters all that much more important. Fellowship events where we come together and share a meal together or watch a movie together are so important because they are what really connect us as a church. Fellowship and physical community are still an integral part of being called by Christ as brothers and sisters in Christ. Social media doesn’t replace that; it ought to enhance it, perhaps, but not replace it.

Some people are still surprised when they find out we are still an operational church. We are a historical church in our small town, and we know the importance of maintaining that historical presence as well as navigating through the waters of a digital future. As we look down the road that the future to what social media means for the church, we are hopeful that we can hear God’s voice calling us to use the tools for outreach without compromising our ability to have interpersonal relationships face to face. Whether it’s through my blog, through Facebook, our website, brochures, community events, or word of mouth, we are connecting to people. God has done some amazing things in this church and I know that God still has amazing things in store for us as a congregation.