In the last post, we considered the importance of opening up conversations with the people who are considering worshiping with us; now we are going to take a look at how we engage in that conversation online. First, we’ll do a quick inventory of our social media presence and the types of content that connect with guests, then we’ll quickly discuss how we can focus our website on the guest experience.
Social Media as Invitation
Many churches are intimidated by social media. This is especially true of smaller churches, where the social media accounts are managed by the pastor or a staff person who is juggling Facebook and Instagram alongside a million other tasks. And it’s totally normal — because social media really is kind of a scary place.
Facebook is often a place of division rather than community; Twitter can feel hopeless, even outrageous at times; Instagram often makes us feel inadequate in our photographic abilities (how do some people make a slice of pizza look so beautiful?); and YouTube can become a playground for bullies rather than a community for believers.
Yet social media also presents a tremendous opportunity to give people a small glimpse of the kingdom of God — a glimpse than can expose a thirst for God they didn’t know they had. When social media is done well, it can offer them hope in humanity.
Let’s take a moment and bring this into concrete, practical reality. Open up your church’s social media accounts and skim through the last week or so of posts and look at what types of people each one relates to.
- How many posts are updates or events oriented toward people who are already engaged in your church?
- How many are invitations or content oriented toward people who have never set foot in your church?
Hopefully, we see some of both in our feeds. And, of course, there is a lot of overlap in those two categories, because many things appeal both to those already in our communities and those who have not yet entered in. Things like inspirational quotes from the sermon or short video clips from the pastor are great at getting likes and shares from congregants precisely because they also connect with their network of friends.
Here are a few ideas for content you can share that connect with folks who aren’t already a part of our congregation:
- Hope-filled: Offer encouragement and peace. Even moments of online prayer can demonstrate your church’s compassion and care for people.
- Authentic: Be conversational in tone and genuinely human in presentation. Making occasional errors or showcasing some goofy "behind the scenes" moments are actually a positive on social media. Don’t go too far with this, though — being authentically human doesn’t give you a license to be careless with how you post.
- Invitational: Ask people to come spend time with you, and then give them the details they need to actually visit — date, time, location, childcare information, and so on.
As we mentioned in the last post, when a guest sees our content on social media, it’s most likely because one of their friends shared it, so that guest interprets it as a personal recommendation of our church. That’s immensely powerful. And then when they’re looking to really understand who we are, they will visit our website. Often when they do this, they’re really looking for an excuse to not visit.
So let’s take a look at how we can remove any of those excuses that might come from our website.
Think About Guests First on our Website
When we’re updating content on the home page of our website, we have a tendency to think first about our current congregants or followers. Our natural instinct is to focus on the details about a new Bible study, or a change in times for choir practice, or information about our new outreach ministry.
And those things are important, but they are for insiders — they are targeted toward folks who are already engaged in the life of our church. Because they are already committed to our church, we can ask insiders to scroll further down the page or to click a link or two to find the content they’re seeking. But we can’t ask that of prospective guests, because they haven’t yet bought in to our church. They may not even be sure about this whole “Jesus” thing yet!
We have to focus first on our guests, because we must be intentional about removing the barriers that could keep them away from our community. Asking guests to hunt for information can be a huge barrier for them, and it’s one that costs us nothing to remove.
What does this look like in practice?
The first message a visitor to our website sees ought to be one geared toward guests to let them know they are welcome and valued. In that space, we should make the effort to understand the people we are trying to reach outside the walls of our church (because they’re the prospective guests most likely to visit our site) and unobtrusively speak into the needs and pains they feel, offering them hope and belonging.
Once we’ve shown that we care about them, we should immediately give them the details they need to come worship with us: times, location, and a photo (or, if feasible, a video) of the worship so they can picture themselves in the service — if they can see themselves in our community, they are two-thirds of the way to coming in person (this is based on absolutely no scientific data at all, but my sense is that it's in the right ballpark).
A Case Study
Recently I was working with a church on their website, and they were in the middle of launching a capital campaign to raise funds to build a gymnasium.
As they approached the commitment weekend for the campaign, we were working through the many ways they were distributing the commitment card to church members. They would be bringing forward their cards during worship, but they also wanted to reach congregants who weren’t in worship that weekend, so there were plans for an email campaign and several other methods of communication.
In passing, they mentioned that we should create a banner for the top of the home page to make sure people could find the link to the card online. I started to jot that note down as an item on my to-do list, but then I paused and drew a thick line through what I’d just written.
Who is the audience for a capital campaign? It is very specifically meant for people who are already deeply engaged in the church. In fact, if a guest were to come to the site and the first thing they saw was that we were asking them to commit to giving us money, what would they think about the church? That was definitely not the message we wanted to send our guests.
It was still important for us to let church members find the commitment card online, so we added the link in several other places throughout the site, but the top of the home page remained reserved for guests. As it needed to be.