By Rob O’Lynn
America is becoming more urbanized, but roughly 60 million people still live in “vast areas” classified as rural. How can Christian churches effectively connect with people who are relatively few and far between?
Social media should be a primary method. Unfortunately, it’s a method country and small-town churches have been slow to embrace.
Here are five thoughts on how to harness the Internet and use it to make your church an influential voice for God in your rural region.
1. Structure Your Engagement
All social media is relational. I’m not speaking just of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, or Instagram, but any technology or application that draws us together. If you are reading this article online, you are using social media.
With that in mind, how can a rural congregation effectively use social media to connect with its extended community? First, the church must develop a structured engagement strategy by being intentional about everything it does using social media. All platforms and postings should be clear, simple, and easy to navigate. Visitors should come away with a clear idea of what the church is about and how to engage with it further.
As an example, Cornerstone Christian Church in Montgomery, Alabama, has a fantastic website (cornerstone-cc.org). The landing page features a good picture of their facility, a welcome message, easy-to-find contact information, a link to their Facebook page, and top-of-the-page menu options that communicate information and spotlight activities. The overall message is, “Come and find out what is going on here and how we can be in community with you!” The message is consistent across all social media outlets. It’s obvious CCC values their community.
It’s not a fancy website, but it is effective.
2. Craft a Sticky Platform
Each church must present the gospel message in their own unique way. The scaffolding (or theme) that encircles the platform (or means of being heard) should spotlight and leverage those features that make a particular church distinct.
For example, First Church of Christ in Grayson, Kentucky (fccgrayson.com), uses a design motif that is consistent across their social media. Whether visiting FCC’s website, Facebook page, or Instagram account, the church’s core values of community, invitation, worship, transformation, and service are highlighted throughout.
When crafting a platform, first determine the values of your church. And then ask yourself, how can we creatively communicate those values to our community? FCC managed to capture all of their values in a single image: a campfire devotional.
Tim Spivy, lead pastor at New Vintage Church in Escondido, California (newvintagesd.org), offers this observation and advice: Your people are your best source of material about your congregation. Ask them to help you craft your sticky platform!
3. Swim in Different Streams
Each church should use as many outlets as they are comfortable with. Technologies have evolved well beyond simple church websites; social media outlets are constantly evolving. As such, our platform should be one that is easily transferable to a variety of streams.
Spencer Christian Church in Fisherville, Kentucky, has been using a website (spencerchristian.org), Facebook, and Twitter for years to stay connected with their community and to promote their ministry. Still, SCC realized they needed to be even more visual, so the church launched an Instagram account in May. The addition allows Spencer to effectively cover the four major streams of social media (Twitter, Google, Instagram, and Facebook—known as TGIF).
When developing your church strategy, consider carefully not only the streams you are comfortable with, but also the streams your community is using.
4. Engage Your Connections
The days of returning voicemail and mailing letters are over. People are not scanning the phonebook to find a church, they’re scanning Google. But they are not looking for a church website, they are looking for a church Facebook page. Does your Facebook page greet them with a welcome message that thanks them for visiting and invites questions?
I visited dozens of church websites and Facebook pages while preparing this article, including the home page for First Christian Church in Beebe, Arkansas. When I first visited their site (fccofbeebe.org) several months ago, a welcome message popped up. I responded to the message by explaining that I was researching effective uses of social media in rural congregations. I received a message back in about an hour, which was fantastic. A message feature is pointless if a church is unresponsive. If a visitor takes the time to ask a question, a church should respond in a timely manner. It really is worth it!
5. Evaluate and Revise
Websites should be updated every two years. Social media accounts, depending on their purpose, should be updated weekly, if not daily. But keep in mind, an effective evaluation of our social media strategy should be under a more holistic evaluation strategy of our congregation’s growth and continued mission. Make sure everything on the website is accurate, including the image and vision of the congregation.
Social media can be of great value to rural congregations for communicating their message and inviting in strangers. In many communities and rural areas, the local congregation remains a central hub of activity. That said, social media is a tactic for growth, but it can’t be the sole strategy.
My hope is that these tips will help our more isolated churches reach more effectively into the “vast areas.”
Dr. Rob O’Lynn teaches preaching and directs the graduate Bible program at Kentucky Christian University, and he also is senior minister with Beech Street Christian Church in Ashland, Kentucky. He has served smaller congregations since 2001.