I used to think that newspapers were the slowest institution to adapt to change and find new ways of doing business. Not any more, though. With the Internet and new forms of competition, newspapers realized they needed to change or die.
When it comes to churches, though, I’ve sensed they haven’t gotten this message. Except for a flirtation with the idea of “drive-in” churches (pack up the kids and go as you are because you won’t leave your car anyway), I’m not sure churches have changed the way they do business much.
Changes in size
Certainly some churches – dubbed megachurches – have gotten much bigger, and the denominational walls have been punctured, if not obliterated in some places. So some change is occurring at some churches. But there are also a lot of near-empty and decaying traditional structures that used to house the overflowing First Methodist or First Presbyterian Church in any city.
But changing size isn’t necessarily changing practices.
According to the 2011 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, it looks like a lot of these churches should think about doing things differently. The reason is that membership is declining in mainline denominational churches and has been doing so since the 1970s. In some cases the decline is small but, when you factor in the country’s population growth during that time, the decline has actually been very steep.
Pews not as full
The Presbyterian Church (USA) has posted the largest membership drop, followed by the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church, and the more conservative Lutheran Church/Missouri Synod. The giant Southern Baptist Convention and the Catholic Church show figures that are relatively flat. Pentecostal churches like the Assemblies of God and the Church of God are faring better.
I was thinking about this the other day and that led me – where else – to the Internet and specifically to the question of how churches are using the social media like Facebook to boost membership.
Turning to social media
Turns out, there are more changes afoot in churches than I realized.
One story I came across involved a Rev. Alex Lang, associate pastor of Pine Street Presbyterian Church in Harrisburg, Pa.
Lang is one of a growing number of pastors who are becoming more tech-savy in taking their churches online.
When Rev. Lang realized his 153-year-old church needed to attract new members, he turned to Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube, and other social networks to increase interest and awareness in his church.
Reversing a trend
“Like many mainline Protestant churches, we are experiencing a declining members,” Lang told Pennlive.com. “We wanted to reverse that and attract new members, especially in the 20 to 45-age group. A lot of people that age think we are too traditional and locked in our ways. That’s not the reality at all.”
To prove it, Pine Street Church took to the social media. From announcements about upcoming services, to news of bake sales, to tweeted prayers, and intercessions, , the church is taking advantage of the powers of social networking.
Here are a few other discoveries:
• A lot of churches are using FB to make their members and guests feel more connected to the church and its membership.
• The average Facebook user has 130 registered “friends,” so if just 20 church members use Facebook, that’s potentially 2,600 people who could read posts about your church. One hundred members with Facebook could touch 13,000. Many pastors have done that math and like the results.
• Facebook makes it easy for churches to start and run pages, with its “Create a Page,” feature. FB also offers helpful advice to churches on how to connect with their community.
• Church is, by definition, about community and relationships. So are social media. This idea comes from Jon Swanson, creator of the Levite Chronicles. Swanson writes, “If you take what Jesus said about what we know as church with some seriousness, it is a set of vertical and horizontal relationships. It is about the people. And so it is with social media.”
• Swanson was part of a team that went to Gulfport, Miss., to help in the reconstruction of the area after Hurricane Katrina. “While we were there, we put pictures on flickr, audioblogged with hipcast, and just blogged. People back home were able to look and listen and read. People put our links on their church websites,” he says.
• Pastors keep up to date on illnesses and hardships of their members by scanning their Facebook pages to see how they are doing and what milestones are occurring in their lives.
Catholics on board
Also discovering the power of social media are Roman Catholic Churches, even though the Vatican governing powers are not always seen as the most modern or worldly group.
Nevertheless, in Pope Benedict’s message last January to the church’s World Communications Day (which arrives on June 5), he called Facebook, Twitter, and the other social media a “great opportunity” for developing dialogue, respect, and honest relationships.
I suppose if a 2,000-year-old institution can change, so can the rest of us.