The power of online engagement is one that businesses and individuals attempt to harness everyday. The branding and networking aspects are appealing, but there are other ways social media can be used to impact others.

It may be surprising to some, but having an online presence through social media is imperative for one particular category of people invested in culture: religious groups. These groups face the usual challenges of growing and maintaining an online presence – the pains and pangs of social media. However, they must also walk a fine line when tempering their content for online, yet not compromising the substance of their message. How do they do this?

Haley Holmlund at Beyond the Steeple addresses these challenges, and delves into some of the intricacies of tailoring religious messages for social media. While her article is geared for religious affiliates, all social media users would benefit from remembering that even the flashiest, fanciest of social posts won’t win all the audiences all the time – it is the substance of your messages that matters, and it is the substance that matters most.

Many churches use social media to engage their congregations, but fail to consider the theology involved. In the digital age, it is critical for brands to engage on social media. Yet for churches, engaging in a biblical way is even more critical.

Joshua Chatraw, PhD, is a published author and former pastor. Chatraw said that if churches choose to use social media, they need to be fully connected.

“If you’re going to have social media be this way you engage culture, don’t do it half speed,” Chatraw said. He said that churches do not need to be present on every platform, but the platforms they do have should be updated and current.

In a 2014 study by Pew Research, 59 percent of 18-29 year olds used online searches to help find a new congregation or house of worship. Clearly, churches should strive to meet these people with a relevant online presence.

“If you’re going to do it, do it well,” Chatraw said. He advised against outdated information or a website that is under construction.

Chatraw said that churches are not engaging culture well on social media because they are not engaging culture well in general.

“We’re aware of how we perceive ourselves, but we’re not aware of how others perceive us,” Chatraw said. “We’re not thinking well for unbelievers, and that comes out in our social media.”

Chatraw said that churches often use Christian terminology and fail to consider the assumptions of unbelievers. However, he had a positive outlook for the future.

“I’m not real optimistic about where we’re at now, but I think I’m optimistic about where we could be,” Chatraw said.

According to a 2016 study by Pew Research, 79 percent of U.S. adults that are online use Facebook. Seventy-six percent of those users daily access their Facebook feeds. These feeds are filled with the highlights of people’s lives, but Chatraw said the image people project on social media is misleading.

“We portray ourselves in the best possible light,” Chatraw said. He said that doing so gives an inaccurate representation of reality.

Churches face similar challenges on Facebook. Seventy percent of churches use this platform, according to a 2013 study by Barna Group. If churches are not cautious about the content they post, they can also portray an inaccurate image.

Chatraw said that while anything can become an idol, social media can certainly be used for good.

“But I think that the end goal theologically, because we’re embodied humans, cannot be social media,” Chatraw said. “It has to be face-to-face, person-to-person – I think that’s the goal.”

Practically, Chatraw advised church communications staff to stay connected to the leadership of the church.

“You need to be connected with the vision of your pastoral team or your elders so you’re not going rogue,” Chatraw said. He said to always consider the goal of social media content.

“If there’s a strategic marketing plan to say ‘Hey look at us, we’re awesome,’ I think that’s antithetical to the Gospel.” He said that does not mean churches cannot use social media to celebrate what is happening in the church. However, he said it should always be about the Gospel, not any one particular church body.

He suggested celebrating what happens in other churches in the community, as well as what happens in the lives of church members.

“The rule is we’re pointing people to the Gospel and not ourselves,” Chatraw said.

Original article posted at Beyond the Steeple.