Sorting Fact from Fiction in Church Growth & Social Media

The following column was reported by Read The Spirit Editor David Crumm and nationally known church consultant Martin Davis. To read Martin Davis’s earlier columns in Read The Spirit, start with his recent columns on the challenges of change and on why your church newsletter may shock you.

TWO HEADLINES compelled us to help readers sort fact from fiction concerning the popular myth that church growth depends on widespread use of social media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and the like). While Facebook, in particular, is a very valuable way to let church members share the richness of congregational life—the myth of explosive growth is perpetuated, we both agree, by a new report in the online Christian Post, headlined: Top 5 Churches That Use Social Media Best. Some truths, we think, come from a second new headline out of the Pew Research Center. Here is our report …


MARTIN DAVIS WRITES: There were no surprises in the Christian Post list. The winners were Mars Hill Seattle, Oklahoma-based Life Church, Tennessee’s Cross Point, Gateway Church in Texas and San Antonio’s Community Bible Church—five leading mega-churches with massive audiences, bulging budgets, and staff members dedicated to social media. “When it comes to churches,” begins the Christian Post article, “having at least a minimal digital strategy has become crucial in expanding Christian outreach even locally within their own communities.”

Here are three myths that I think the Christian Post article may fuel:

MYTH: Social media is the key to congregational growth. The view that social media is essential to growth is intoxicating, and wrong. Megachurches—if that’s the type of community you’re trying to cultivate—were around long before Facebook hit the scene. Social media in megachurches is more a reflection of the population served than a distinguishing trait.

MYTH: The purpose of social media is to produce growth. Here’s the real problem. By tying social media to growth, Christian Post overlooks the more important point: Electronic communications (e-mail, e-newsletters, etc) and social media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.) are first and foremost about communicating, not growth. As with any form of communication, executed properly, growth may be an outcome. But growth is not an indication of success.

MYTH: Effective social media requires top professionals. Most leaders of small to mid-sized congregations—at least occasionally—cast longing glances at the huge staff rosters of megachurches. The five models held up by Christian Post suggest that experts are central for social media success. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Yes, communicating through social media requires our adjusting to these media; and, good advice and guidance helps. If you are a poor communicator in person, or have difficulty writing coherent thoughts, social media will only compound your difficulties. People who communicate effectively will amplify their voices through these tools. All good writers know that an editor helps. All great public speakers can name their teachers and mentors. Professional advice helps. Occasional training helps a lot. In fact, I regularly consult with congregations on smart ways to use websites, newsletters and social media.

But congregations do not need to go out and hire top guns to run their websites, newsletters and social media. In fact, doing so can often hamstring congregations with a distant webmaster who can’t communicate as immediately or as effectively as the people already leading the congregation.


DAVID CRUMM WRITES: This week, Joanna Brenner and Aaron Smith of the Pew Research Center are releasing an update on social media tracking that is causing another flurry of news stories. You can read their entire report via the Pew site. In fact, their latest headline—72% of Online Adults are Social Networking Site Users—may fuel assumptions that social media is a life-and-death issues for congregations. But, read the whole report. When I completed it, I found: Martin Davis is right.

Here are three truths—highlights from the latest Pew report, and the past year or so of Pew social-media tracking:

TRUTH: Twitter is a trap for congregations. Want to leave your congregation in the dust? Announce that, henceforth, you’ll mainly be Tweeting the latest congregational news. That seems like a reasonable move, doesn’t it? Every prime-time television show seems to be promoting Twitter hash tags these days. But, look at the data. Pew reports that Twitter usage is growing but has only reached 18 percent of the online population. Mostly, these Tweeters are aged 18 to 29—not the main demographic in most congregations. (It’s important to note that the ’72 percent’ and other percentages cited in Pew’s new report are based on people who already are Internet users. That group is huge, but it’s still only 85 percent of all Americans. That means each percentage cited in the Pew study actually is a smaller portion of the population as a whole.)

You may be aiming at young adults. You may think that Tweeting is an ideal way to attract 20-somethings, but people outside your community are not likely to see your Tweets among the zillions of 140-character messages flooding Twitter every day. And here’s the Achilles Heel for most congregations: Among 50-to-64-year-old adults—the life’s blood of most congregations—Twitter users comprise only 13 percent of people who already are online. Considering the population as a whole, that means you’ll be leaving nearly 9 out of 10 of your members aged 50 to 64 in the dust with your Tweets. The problem of heavily focusing on Twitter is even worse among 65-plus men and women. Only 5 percent of online users in that age range ever touch Twitter. For that big portion of your community, you can Tweet like crazy—but 65-plus folks will perceive that you’ve suddenly fallen silent.

TRUTH: By itself, social media is not a true open door to the community. These days, “Open Doors” is a mantra echoing in congregations coast to coast. By the thousands, church leaders have updated their signs and newsletters to de-emphasize denominational divisions and stress their wide-open civic appeal. Social media may seem to reach broadly across the entire community. In fact, among 20-somethings, virtually everyone uses some form of social media. The use of social media also is rapidly rising among men and women 65 and older. But—even with all of that growth—Pew reports that social media use by Americans 65 and older still has not reached the 50 percent mark among online Americans. Do you really want to leave half of your seniors behind by putting too much emphasis on social media?

TRUTH: We should dive into social media, and—right now—we should be swimming in the Facebook pool. Don’t misunderstand today’s column! Martin Davis and Read The Spirit both strongly encourage vigorous use of social media! The vast majority of Americans use some form of social media every day. If Anthony Trollope or Susan Sontag were still alive and writing, they would wryly describe social media with their now-classic phrase: It’s become The Way We Live Now. We must dive in!

But, drawing upon the past year’s findings from Pew researchers, this pattern is clear: Facebook is, for the moment, the closest thing we have to a new public square. Here’s a widely reported Pew conclusion: “People who use Facebook have more close friends, get more social support and report being more politically engaged than those who don’t.”

Facebook social patterns make a lot of sense—just use your own common sense. As in most public squares, Facebook has its gregarious communicators and greeters—and, Facebook also has its avid followers. In fact, as Pew reported last year, “Facebook users get more than they give.” What does that mean? Think about your own congregation. Some folks enjoy standing around after a service, greeting friends and making people feel welcome. Others enjoy taking part in this experience—but don’t initiate it. They look to a smaller handful of extroverted members to get things rolling. The same is true on Facebook. Pew found, for example: “only 40% of Facebook users in our sample made a friend request, but 63% received at least one request.”

The social principles you already know so well in your community have moved into the heart of Facebook. Rather than rushing out to buy the services of a high-priced media professional, you’ll do far better by identifying men and women who enjoy extending greetings in your building—then encouraging them to extend greetings on behalf of the congregation, day by day, on Facebook.

Beyond “friending” and sharing greetings, what else do Facebook users love? Sharing photos. In your own congregation, what do members enjoy when they have time to sit and chat with friends? Sharing photos. Do you have members in your congregation who avidly snap photos? Why not share them on your church’s website so men and women can easily find photos of congregational life—and share them further via Facebook.

This isn’t arcane science. These are the social principles you know so well in your community—moving online.


FROM MARTIN DAVIS and DAVID CRUMM: Much of our communication with family, friends, co-workers and neighbors already is digital. It’s The Way We Live Now. Facebook use dwarfs the readership of all congregational bulletins and newsletters put together. Do you feel pulled in too many directions? Want to skip Tweeting your congregation’s news? Go ahead!

But the basics of congregational life—the truly timeless spiritual treasures within our faith communities—remain the same. The majority of Americans seek God’s love in community with similarly inspired men and women and, then, we feel moved to share these experiences with others.

And, that’s … Well, from both of us: That’s the truth.

Want more?

Want Martin to help you? That’s easy! Visit the website for his courses and consulting: Sacred Language Communications. You can contact Martin Davis via this page within his website. Martin plans to regularly publish helpful columns in Read The Spirit through the autumn and winter.

Agree with our analysis? Then, take action on what you’ve just learned: Please, share this column with friends by clicking on the blue-”f” Facebook icon or the envelope-shaped email icon. You also can email us at [email protected] with questions.

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  1. Dawood Zwink says

    Your years of professional experience are invaluable as we seek to be spiritually effective in our communities. Social media can be a powerful tool or a terrible fascination that consumes time, and time is life and is lent to us by the creator as a trust. May God bless you in your mission to serve others for His pleasure.