Not long ago, I taught some courses at a local state university as an adjunct professor. Now, mind you, it had been 27 years since I had been in the classroom, so I wondered just what I would find. My previous experience had been teaching at a Christian university; this school was the exact opposite. However, since I was working on a PhD in leadership, I was anxious to see what the college marketplace was like and, more particularly, just what the students were like.
The young people I encountered were typical 21st century college students. Some were very bright; others were there just to get their 'ticket punched' for the next stage of life. Aside from the very casual dress, some profanity, and discussions of moral looseness that I expected, they were just non-Christian kids—and a mission field of 10,000 in one place!
I learned something else. These students were 'plugged in' to the latest communications devices and social networking. If they brought a laptop to class, you couldn't be sure if they were taking notes, sending instant messages, or tweeting each other or their friends around the country — or the world for that matter.
I encountered many students walking across the spacious campus with iPod ear buds firmly in place. One writer calls this a sort of "social autism" in which the person is physically living in one world but virtually plugged into another.
Of course, cell phones were ubiquitous. Since the classes I taught were all marketing classes, I decided to have the students conduct a research project on cell phone use. Each student was to conduct ten paper surveys with other students on campus and do three in-depth interviews. What we found was quite interesting and, I believe, representative of many of the younger people in our society.
Today, email is considered passé. It's primarily for older people. Tweeting is now the big thing (a twitter message must be less than 140 characters, by the way). Instead of calling and talking to others, many of the survey participants preferred to text message them. In short, the students have created a virtual world for themselves based on communications technologies; an incorporeal world of social networks populated by those who share common interests.
Lately, I've been using FaceBook a bit. I've found people who went to my high school (1964-1968) and many folks from my 13 years at Bob Jones University. While I don't spend a lot of time posting, it is clear that people are following social networking sites to keep informed and to share information and what is happening in their busy lives.
Your ministry might want to consider the use of social networking for a number of reasons:
Most of the time, your website is not a "point-of-destination" site that is regularly visited like yahoo.com or aol.com. You may find that a FaceBook account that creates social interaction or a twitter account that lets you tweet a link to something newsworthy may help drive traffic to your site and get you more response.
Social sites allow for two-way communication, whereas your website may not. Recently, I started following Christian writer Dr. John Maxwell. The pithy references and quotes he sends are interesting. Surprisingly, I received an email the other day that said that Dr. Maxwell is following my tweets (@thackerpa). Not only was I flattered, but also I quickly understood that someone in the Maxwell organization is keeping a finger on the pulse of those interested in his ministry.
Social networks in addition to email may be the quickest way to get out word in time of an emergency. Perhaps you have news of someone who is involved in a car crash or has some dire health emergency or even a missionary who is involved in a terrible natural disaster such as the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. Getting out a prayer request rapidly is something you can do easily as well as broadcasting links to sources for more in-depth information.
Social networking sites are mostly true to life. Most sophisticated consumers can now see an advertising or marketing message coming a mile away. Social sites let people express themselves in real world terms about real world events. Most people are learning that what they put out on the Internet is out there forever, so most are careful about what they say. Studies that line up what people say with the true personalities of the participant on sites such as FaceBook report that the communications you see on the social sites is more in tune with what people are really like.
Social network sites are a way to get to know people outside our normal circles as well as to keep contact with those we may not see on a daily basis. The contacts are not cold and sterile like advertising copy. They are a substitute for a face-to-face communication that simply may not occur due to the busyness of people's lives.
Social networks let you expand your influence as 'salt and light' in the world. Sometimes I intentionally salt the conversation I'm having online on the social networks with pithy sayings. Others use Scripture verses or wise quotes designed to make one think outside the box. Over time, as your network of relationships grows, your opportunity for influence grows as well. The tête-à-tête can stimulate more in-depth conversations either online, on the phone, or even through video or audio conferencing done over VoIP (voice over IP) through your computer.
In reality, social networking sites represent another modality that helps your ministry—both corporate and personal—to connect in a better, more frequent, and perhaps even more meaningful way with the right audience at the right time. Like so many things in life, it is possible to go overboard in the amount of time and effort you put into a medium like this, but social networking via the computer or cell phone or discrete browsing devices like the new iPad from Apple can be used to inform, encourage, and communicate two ways from the mind and heart of one person to another or to many others at the same time. Use the technology wisely and appropriately as another tool for communicating what Christianity is all about and what you as a Christian want to tell others about what is important to you.
Jerry Thacker, B.A., M.A., is President of Right Ideas, Inc., and Publisher of At the Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.