Facebook and evangelism
Is this our biggest digital opportunity?
After several years of rapid growth, Facebook passed 800 million users in 2011. This represents 1 in 3 of all web users (if you exclude China where Facebook is banned). If we compare Facebook users with country populations, it is the third largest ‘country’ in the world.
USA and UK have long been the #1 and #2 in terms of number of Facebook users. Until recently, highly-wired Turkey was #3, but Indonesia has shot up the rankings and is now third, pushing Turkey to fourth position. The Facebook interface is available in approaching 100 languages with more on the way. Many people spend at least half their online time using Facebook, and this includes people accessing Facebook via mobile phones. Watch this 4-minute video (and related videos offered at the end of this clip) about the social media revolution:
The new ‘web within the Web’Companies are realizing that Facebook is where many web users spend the majority of their time (as this short story illustrates), and are falling over themselves to develop content which will integrate directly into Facebook, which itself is rapidly rolling out new features to enhance this sort of usability. Expect to see further similar developments in the future as Facebook is almost turning into a standalone ‘web inside the Web’. Increasingly, companies are advertising their Facebook Fan Page rather than their own websites, as the landing page they want people to see first.
Most other social networking sites (with the exception of some national or regional non-English networks) have receded into smaller specialist niches. Bebo and MySpace are struggling. Just as there is only room for one definitive search engine (Google) or one auction/market site (eBay), people gravitate to the one social networking site where they know they can contact almost anyone. However, these guidelines apply to most other social networking sites too.
Why is it so strategic for evangelism?Because:
- Anyone can set up an account in seconds; no tech knowledge is needed (though there are aspects of Facebook that are rather quirky and hard to use).
- It is based on relationships and dialogue – the key to effective sharing of the good news.
- Your comments and postings are displayed on friends’ pages.
- You can create or join ‘Fan Pages’ and ‘Groups’ built around secular topics, and therefore relate to others within a common interest (1 Cor. 9:19-23).
- It can leverage the power of other online resources such as video clips and outreach websites.
Opportunities on FacebookThere are two overlapping approaches: incarnational and intentional active outreach. However, what you cannot expect Facebook to be is a linear platform for a message, as this wise explanation from Tom Ehrich shows. If you imagine Facebook to be a ‘pulpit for preaching’, you are wasting your time and likely to upset a lot of people. If you understand it to be a ‘cafe for conversation’, you will be in tune with its heartbeat.
- Live our lives openly and transparently in front of our friends as we do in the physical world, demonstrating unconditional love and the fragrance spoken of in 2 Cor. 2:15.
- You can respond to other people’s postings with appropriate on-topic comments, sometimes including links to appropriate pages or video clips. Keep a portofolio list of pages and video clips ready to use. Consider inner pages from Power to Change – often one of their internal pages will relate to a specific topic you are commenting on: it also includes areas for men, women and students. Always do this in a sensitive and gentle way (1 Peter 3:15).
- If many of your friends live within your local community, it may be appropriate from time to time to mention activities at your church, as this video explains.
- You can upload your own video shorts into the video section of your Facebook profile, or post a link to a YouTube video in the same way as adding a hyperlink to any posting – a clickable thumbnail graphic will be automatically displayed. Short video clips a useful way to start discussions, especially if you link to conversation-starting videos rather than preachy ‘deal-closing’ presentations.
- Another fruitful area for conversations is popular culture – movie releases, music and books. Almost everyone is interested in talking about the latest films or music, and remarkably they frequently contain embedded parallels that point to spiritual truths.
- Create or join Fan Pages or Groups on topics that interest not-yet-believers and you, and participate sensitively. Look especially at Groups, because these are designed for ongoing member interaction, and are superseding the email discussion groups and bulletin boards that used to be so popular. There are vast numbers of Groups, some of them with very high membership. Use Facebook’s search option to find them. Is there, for instance, a Group covering a sport you are interested in, or a life problem or illness that you suffer with? Choose Groups with sufficient members to maintain an interesting ongoing conversation.
- Other intentional pro-active opportunities include making contact with friends of friends, and inviting people to join Fan Pages or Groups you are a member of.
- There are very few add-on ‘Applications’ that enable us to add gently evangelistic areas to a Facebook page – here is an opportunity for developers. Read more about ‘Applications’ and those that could be evangelistic.
- Learning Facebook’s markup language enables additional features to be added to a page.
- Facebook offers particular opportunities for mission agencies and cross-cultural witness: read more.
- Churches should consider the potential for creating a Fan Page: read more. A church Fan Page, like a normal church site, should be outsider-friendly (1 Col. 4:5) and jargon-free. Here are some useful examples.
- Many church youth groups conduct all their discussion and news distribution through a Facebook Group, because it’s so easy where 100% of young people have Facebook accounts.
Things to avoid
- If you are in the sort of ministry where most of your Facebook friends are Christian leaders, it may be wise to consider having a separate Facebook profile, so that postings will not be off-putting or incomprehensible for not-yet-Christians. Read Mikey Lynch’s explanation of this principle. (See ideas for varying profile names. To save constant logging in and out, use a different browser such as Chrome for your second profile, which should be linked with a different email address to your first profile.) Always use this ‘secular’ profile when setting up, or contributing to secular-oriented Fan Pages or Groups.
- Steer away from politics and social issues: any view you express on these is likely to alienate at least half your page visitors. Consider not entering anything (or at least, anything referencing a party or partisan viewpoint) in the ‘political views’ section of your profile either. This brings to mind the note, supposedly written by a family to the milk-man in the days when milk was delivered to the community from a cart with open containers: “Thank you for your excellent service. But please could you deliver the milk and the water in separate jugs in future.”
- Under religious views on their Facebook profile, many people enter something like ‘Jesus follower’ or ‘seeker after truth’ rather than the increasingly pejorative ‘Christian’ or some denominational label.
- Don’t treat people as ‘gospel fodder’. Build unconditional relationships with respect and tolerance. Use integrity. It’s dialogue, not preaching. “The focus should be on building authentic relationships. Without it, not only do you run the risk of not being effective, but also in ruining any chance that other Christians might have,” says Dan King of Bibledude.com. “That’s why the most important thing that you can understand about social media is that it’s social in nature.”
- People will quickly see through insincerity and mixed motives. Cat owners know well the conditional affection shown by their pets when they want feeding: cupboard love. Facebook users will be less tolerant. They will quickly discern that you view them as ‘a project’ rather than a person.
- Some stategists have named inappropriate, strident, argumentative, manipulative or impersonal attempts to convince people of the truth with the chilling term un-evangelism.
- Avoid Chistrianese jargon. Express truths in alternate neutral language.
- Dont’t spend too much time on Facebook, or not use that time effectively. Read Top 9 Facebook Time Wasters to Avoid.
Learn the system
- Facebook is not always very intuitive to use or edit. It takes time to understand even the privacy settings and their implications. Realise that what you see on your Facebook page is not what visitors see: try viewing your page using a Facebook friend’s profile, and through the profile of someone who is not your friend, to see the differences.
- Various Facebook ‘applications’ can be used to extend what is displayed on your page. Some applications can be quirky to install, and there is only room for a few extra links on the horizontal top menu. (Adding applications to Fan Pages or Groups can be very complicated, counter-intuitive, and in some cases impossible. Yet other applications, such as Static FBML, only work on Fan Pages!) Read more.
- You can syndicate blog postings so they automatically appear on your page, by registering your blog with NetworkedBlogs.com. (It is quirky but possible to get NetworkedBlogs to display on a Fan Page, and there are some applications which do not currently work within Fan Pages.) Only do this if the blog postings are seeker-friendly though.
- You can also learn how to use the Facebook Markup Language (FBML) to integrate other features into your Facebook Fan Page.
- There are daily limits on the number of people you can invite to be friends, and a very low limit on the number of messages you can send to non-friends. Such ‘cold-calling’ should be done with particular sensitivity.
- Use Google to find advice on all these areas – Facebook’s own documentation is often patchy. Some things you may find out by trial and error, for instance: you can only invite limited numbers of friends to a Fan Page at a time or the procedure fails, and that if their picture ceases to be ‘grayed out’ after you have done this, it means they have rejected (rather than ignored) the request, so do not send it again as it looks like you are spamming them.
Posting video clipsOne-click sharing of conversation-starting video clips has huge potential. YesHEIs.com offers a growing range of clips in various languages, precisely for this purpose. Global Short Film Network also produces vide shorts that can be used in Facebook, downloaded to mobile phones, or shared in other ways.
More helpful advice
- 10 Resources to Make the Most of Facebook
- It’s a Conversation, not a Destination by Dan King
- Reaching Your Friends Through Facebook
- Social Media Etiquette
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