By Kent E. Fillinger
I grew up in the 1970s when the average American home had no computer, the Internet was little more than an idea, and smartphones had not been invented. Our black-and-white family TV had four channels: the three major networks and the local PBS station.
By 2015, the average American home with a TV could access about 200 channels and three-quarters of households subscribed to broadband Internet. By 2018, 77 percent of Americans owned a smartphone, according to Pew Research Center. Since the introduction of Facebook in 2004, the proliferation of social media sites and other apps has resulted in a meteoric rise in usage.
To say the world of communications has changed in the last couple of decades is a colossal understatement. I spent most of the last decade in the nonprofit fund-raising world where I read tons of articles about the need to create a multichannel brand and communication presence. The point was to communicate on the channels donors were using to ensure they heard your message. To do that, it’s essential to know which channels your donors frequent and prefer.
The same principle applies to the church. It’s important to know the “channels” where your congregation and community spend their time and energy. The church has good news to share. But as communication methods expand, it adds complexity and costs for churches. This should force church leaders into creative conversations to determine how to best leverage the available technology to communicate.
The chart below shows the percentage of adults in the United States who use the most popular social media sites and the percentage of those users who visit those sites once or more a day. It’s likely adults in your congregation reflect these numbers.
For example, 81 percent of people ages 18 to 29 use Facebook, which is about twice the share among those 65 and older (41 percent). However, the share of older Americans who use Facebook has doubled since August 2012, when it was just 20 percent, according to Pew.
U.S. teens are using certain social media platforms regularly. Therefore, every student and children’s ministry seeking to reach the next generation should have an active presence there. Eighty-five percent of teens use YouTube, 72 percent use Instagram, and 69 percent use Snapchat, according to Pew Research Center.
Instagram users age 24 and younger spent an average of 32 minutes a day on the picture and story sharing app in 2018, the Hootsuite blog reported in March.
More People = More Communication Channels
Our annual church survey showed that, in general, the larger the church, the more technology channels they were using to communicate their message. The chart below shows the breakdown by each size category and the percentage of churches that were using each social media platform last year.
In every comparison of a grouping of churches using a particular social media tool to their peers in the same size category that were not using that resource, the churches that use social media were, on average, consistently larger than the non-users. For example, in churches with less than 250 in average worship attendance, churches that use Instagram averaged 151 in worship attendance while churches that don’t use Instagram averaged 112.
A recent study showed that 71 percent of U.S. businesses use Instagram. By comparison, only 56 percent of the 400-plus Christian churches and churches of Christ from our annual church survey reported using Instagram in 2018. Hootsuite reports 80 percent of Instagram users follow at least one business using the app. Think of the possibilities for a church to connect with new people using vehicles like Instagram.
It costs money to hire a web designer to create a quality website, but it costs a church nothing to create a Facebook page, an Instagram profile, or to use any of the other social media platforms. Yes, time, energy, and creativity are needed, but churches should leverage these free resources to expand their communication reach.
How a Church’s Location Impacts Its Communication Plan
The churches in our study located in “small towns or rural communities” noticeably lagged behind the churches in other locations by reporting the lowest levels of social media usage for each platform. The Pew Research Center’s findings have demonstrated on a broader scale that location impacts social media coverage. They’ve found that “adults in urban areas are more likely to use Facebook than those in suburban or rural areas.”
Also of note from our survey, churches located in “older residential areas of the city” reported lower usage of available social media resources than churches in the suburbs or downtown areas. My hunch is these churches might have older demographics and therefore aren’t as motivated to use these new communication resources.
Thomas Edison invented the electric light bulb in 1879. Only four years later, in 1883, the First Presbyterian Church of Roselle, New Jersey, made electrical and ecclesiastical history when it installed a 30-bulb “electrolier” and became the world’s first church to be lighted by electricity.
Fact is, churches have been adapting to new technologies for a long time. The rate of change today requires churches and church leaders to run faster, try harder, and not be afraid to make some mistakes along the way. By doing so, they can stay current and relevant in communicating the gospel.
Your church should regularly ask itself, “Can they hear us now?” Can the couple with the failing marriage in your community hear your message of reconciliation and hope? Can the single adult hear that your church is a place they can worship and find community? Can the seeker down the street clearly hear your heart for them as they explore your website and social media pages?
You can preach your best sermon or deliver your greatest Bible lesson, but if no one hears you, your efforts are in vain. We can’t maintain a “come and get it” mentality in reaching those outside the church. We must adopt a “go and get them” approach, and this includes expanding the number of channels by which we communicate the timeless message of God’s love for the world.