Some things are easy to do online. Want to broadcast a sermon? That's simple. Just post it on your website—or YouTube. Need to inform people about an upcoming event? Blast your email list. Want help with sermon prep? There's an app for that. Dozens of them, actually.
But not every ministry task is quite so easily accomplished via the Internet. How would you, for example, give a cup of cold water in Jesus' name online? Or comfort someone who is grieving? Not every ministry task can be accomplished online, but it is where people are spending more and more of their lives.
Social media is here to stay, and it is already the norm. It's the reason family vacations become global broadcast events via Instagram and every popular television series has its own #hashtag to allow people to see tweets from fellow fans in real time. If you're waiting for this "fad" to pass, you'll be waiting forever. Leaders who fail to turn the technological corner will find themselves ministering to a dwindling audience. We must engage people now, both online and off, for their good and God's glory.
But how exactly can we engage social media in a way that is shepherd-like? How do we pastor people via social media? Here are some principles I've found helpful.
1. Connect with People
In 2010, I received an email from David Chrzan, chief of staff at Saddleback Church. He wanted to talk about social media, online publishing, and how pastors were interacting with new media. Eventually, this led me to re-locate to Southern California to help re-launch Pastors.com, Rick Warren's online community of church leaders. My relationship with David started over Twitter, where he had observed some of the conversations I was taking part in. My life changed dramatically because of a conversation that began online. In fact, some of the most meaningful connections I've ever made happened over Twitter and Facebook.
If you lead a church, there are people in your vicinity looking for relationship. Online connections alone won't provide the relationship they're looking for. Yet, as I've found, online connections can lead to face-to-face relationships. You can use social media to initiate pathways that lead people into genuine community and, ultimately, into a relationship with Christ.
2. Join the Conversation
Conversations are occurring online all the time whether we join them or not. There are now thousands of tweets posted every second on Twitter. Trying to read the collective, real-time updates of even a few hundred people can feel like filling a thimble under Niagara Falls. People tweet and post constantly.
Since you can't listen to everything, it's important to tune into the conversations that matter most to you. I was once speaking to Saddleback Church's staff about using Twitter. While speaking, I was also monitoring a search for every tweet using the phrase "pray for" within a 100-mile radius of Orange County, California (you can do this under Twitter's advanced search features).
As I was speaking, a new tweet popped up from a gentleman in Los Angeles. He was asking for prayer on his way to court. A glance at his previous tweets revealed that he was likely involved in gang-related activities.
We stopped and prayed for the man, and I sent him a message on the spot about how Rick Warren and the staff of Saddleback Church were stopping to pray for him, and I asked him to follow up with us to let us know how his court appearance went.