Swift to listen – how not to do social media as a Christian

Swift to listen – how not to do social media as a Christian

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry

James 1:19

Whether consciously or unconsciously, as churches or as individuals, we see social media as purely for speaking. We know it’s possible to listen, but we don’t. Too often we are quick to speak, and slow to listen.

There is a critical link between what we view as the purpose of social media and the way we use it. The trap we so easily fall in to is to see social networks purely as a place to sell.

Sell, sell, sell!

Of course, as Christians, we have many things to ‘sell’.

First and foremost, we want to promote the gospel – the life-changing news that Jesus died for lost sinners, and of course, if we have something worth so much then we should be shouting about it!

On top of this, we have many enjoyable activities to share with our friends – churches are packed full of groups and events for different ages and people types. Again, it’s natural that we want to share these, and social media is, or at least can be, a great place to do so – it’s a free forum in which to publicise all that’s going on.

As church communicators, our job is to look beyond the words we write before clicking, ‘Tweet;’ to look beyond the number of followers who will read this next update. We need to be conscious of how our message comes across – how it ‘sounds’ – to the incredibly varied, mixed audience who will see it.

Of course, we can never be aware of every individual situation, or be confident that our words will not be taken in a way which causes offence. Still, we must be as careful as we can in how we choose to shout about our great news.

Fire, fire!

Consider a fire – beginning in the distance, yet slowly spreading towards our direction.

One man spots this early, and takes to the rooftops, to yell with all his might. He screams and shouts warnings at the passers-by on the streets below.

How different is this to a co-worker returning from the office kitchen, making the same claim after seeing the fire approaching.

The first man is distant and his sincerity and urgency can be misconstrued as ‘being crazy.’ He may have a better view of the situation, and he may have seen it before anyone else, but we have no reason to believe he is a credible source, and his style doesn’t help, so we ignore him.

The co-worker, on the other hand, is a personal source, with whom we are familiar and have built up trust. We may even think at first that their warning is in jest, but when we notice their sincerity and urgency we take notice. Perhaps at this point we may even smell the smoke, turn on the television to look for news or go to look through the window, investigating their claims for ourselves.

On an individual level, this example shows how online outreach via social media can come across.

Pictures, poems, platitudes and, yes, even God’s powerful word can be harmful if they’re just tossed in to the noise of a friend’s newsfeed.

Of course, I’m assuming here that these are posted with best intentions, though the truth is we’re all guilty of hitting ‘share’ or retweeting that Bible verse without a second thought. Ignoring this, we do truly long for our friends and acquaintances to turn to Christ. It’s also entirely possible that God can use these posts to speak to your online friends in their moment of need. It is not for me to say ‘God can’t or won’t use this’.

The distant friend

With that said, we mustn’t look past the danger of these spiritual messages that we broadcast; for if we are not careful, these well-intentioned messages can serve as the stranger shouting from the rooftops. Perhaps worse, for when we look up we see that we recognise the source of the rooftop commotion as a friend, not a stranger.

We wonder why they’re suddenly broadcasting this urgent news to ‘the world’ yet they’ve never taken the time to tell us in person before, despite many opportunities. This then, is even more alienating than hearing such widespread messages from a stranger, because they are from a friend who treats his connections as strangers.

None of this is is to say that the rooftop-shouter will be completely unsuccessful – perhaps if he shouted long enough, and loud enough, a few may be saved. Still, by this point, many will have turned away, with hearts hardened.

From now on, they’ll tune out any such warnings until it’s too late.

Be swift to listen… to yourself

I’m not arguing that we should never post scripture, or other Christian messages to our timelines. I would, however, urge that we try to see these posts through the eyes of our online followers.

A post saying, ‘God is there,’ may cause hurt to the friend who feels alone – we know it’s true, but to them it’s blasé. Or, ‘God is good,’ comes across as insensitive, and ‘rubbing in in’, to the friend who has just lost their child to cancer; even though we know God’s goodness is absolute, this may not be what they want to hear right now in the wake of their hurt.

Consider for example how these messages might come across to that Facebook friend you haven’t spoken to since you were at school together.

A message taken in this way causes hurt. It may even provoke a reaction, and I shouldn’t have to tell you that Facebook comments are the most terrible place for heated theological discussions arguments.

Our intention is to lead people towards God, yet another likely outcome is, tragically, to drive them away – as they get the impression Christians and their God are distant, uncaring and irrelevant.

So what can churches learn from this?

We need to be posting relevant content – not distant.
There is a time for Bible verses with a nice stock photo, but it should not be the cornerstone of our social content strategy.
We need to be engaging and connecting

Engagement is a marketing term that is heavily applied to social media to illustrate the number of ‘interactions’ with a piece of content. However, often this can literally mean ‘eyes on a post’.

If the person we’re attempting to communicate with doesn’t tangibly connect with what we’re posting, in the way we want them to, then engagement is a meaningless metric, useful only for comparing relative ‘engagement’ levels from one post to another.

How do we create this type of content?

In order to create engaging, relevant content, we need to learn to use social media for listening.

Be swift to listen… to your community

The content we create, corporately and personally, should reflect the needs of those around us. In order to do this, we need to listen to them.

Listen to the needs – conduct research in to the concerns of those around you. What are they talking about, what types of posts are they sharing, and what does this reveal about their passions, their wants and their needs?

Note that I did not write ‘online community.’ Community, today, is made up of those who are within our circle of influence (this includes our locality) as well as our online presence.

In both cases, this goes for individuals as well as churches. We are the church, there is no divide.

Be swift to listen… to other online organisations

Actively listen to the brands and companies that you engage with online.

Whilst the content of our messages may be very different, and counter-cultural, there is much we can learn (again as a church and as individuals) from the way they communicate their messages. Companies spend millions on marketing, therefore it would be complacent to ignore what they are doing, and what works well.

Of course, we need to apply these methods with wisdom and discernment, gleaning what is good and using it to effectively communicate to the communities we’re a part of.

Over to you

What will you do in response to this? How will you listen more online? What might you stop doing from now on?

2 Responses

  1. Good reminder. Some time ago, as a blogger I realised that in order to be interestING I had to first become interestED. I had to spend time looking at what others were saying, in person, in social media, and in some cases on their blogs – and it all takes time. Many of us think we have a lot to say and naturally … “everyone else will be interested” 🙂

    • Joe

      Yes this goes for bloggers, too, and beyond digital, in to the offline world! I think it’s crystallised on social media, as it’s where so much of our personal communication takes place.

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