Photo by Christopher Harris

 

As 30,000 youth and adults made their way to Detroit for the 2015 ELCA Youth Gathering, many excitedly tweeted and posted on social media.

 

 

And to their surprise just about everyone who mentioned the gathering or used the Gathering hashtag #RiseUpELCA received a reply that the Gathering was looking forward to seeing them.

This was the beginning of an unprecedented use of social media by the ELCA to engage not just participants, but the community of Detroit as well as anyone on social media who was interested in what was going on during the Gathering.

It was amazing and beyond successful.   Social media was a seamless and integral part of the Gathering experience.

 

And it didn’t happen by accident.  It happened because of a small group of dedicated and hardworking volunteers who love their church and understand the value of using social media in the church for outreach and community building.

 

The Gathering had a limited social media presence in 2009 but by 2012 it became clear that there would need to be more.  A Communications Media Team was formed led by Pastor Andy Arnold in 2012, where social media was utilized to a much greater extent.
In 2015, Pastor Arnold gave the social team the goal of emulating, Delta Assist, which is known for their ability to respond quickly and personally to their customers.

Leading the social media team was Jacob Wayne Smith, owner of A Brave New, a company that helps small businesses and nonprofits tell their story and expand their reach.

 

“Hospitality is our number one goal. We know from Hebrews that strangers very well might be angels,” comments Smith.
The team arrived on the Saturday before the event began. Monday through Wednesday it was their goal (which was very nearly achieved) to respond to every single “we are on our way” post.
“It’s a full-time job, but we think it’s so important to personally welcome folks to the journey.”
The team worked from early morning answering questions, retweeting, providing updates and reminders and making memes to recap the day or speakers from Ford Field.
They worked at their computers in a small, dark, out of the way room in COBO Center during the day, and at night they posted from Ford Field.
Even when they went at home at night they stayed connected and only stopped responding at midnight because that was the Gathering “lights out” time.

 

The social media response was so great they realized they needed more people on the job than they had planned for.

Pastor Todd Buegler, Pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Owatonna, Minnesota was there as the director of the Youth Ministry Network. He had not planned to work with social media but he happily jumped in and helped out.

Our own Pam Moss’s hair donation was retweeted!
“Social Media allows us to interact with participants and see how they are experiencing the Gathering,” notes Pastor Arnold.
 “It enables us to cast a far wider net that we could cast with our own resources to get pictures, videos, and great quotes. It makes the Gathering bigger and the distance between each of us smaller.”
The surprise this year turned out to be the popularity of Snapchat. “Having an official gathering snapchat account turned out to be an amazing experience,” observes team member Tracy Apps, owner and designer at TracyApps Design, a digital and graphic consulting firm.
“We did very minor advertising of having a snap chat account, however most snaps in our story were getting around 2.2k views.”
The story of Snapchat at the Gathering merits its own blog post so stay tuned when we will talk more about Snapchat and Tracy, the mysterious “Snapchat Lady”.
I believe that the story of the success of the social media at the Gathering is important for what we can learn about how vital social media is for ministry in our own context.
Social media is the new mission field. If church leaders are not engaged in social media, they are missing out, period.  If you don’t believe me, hear the words of these folks who dedicated a week to helping the church engage in this ministry:
Pastor Andy Arnold:

Jesus comes to meet us where we are, incarnationally. The ELCA Youth Gathering Communications Media Team values social media as a means for interacting with Gathering Participants because it helps us live out the incarnational nature of our God, meeting our participants where they are.

Jacob Wayne Smith:

It takes a strategy. The Gathering is on social media because it’s the only way we can connect with 28,000 participants and volunteers at scale. Why does your church have a Facebook page? If it’s just another place to publish your content, then there are better ways to do that.

 We are told to preach the Gospel always which to me also means all ways. There is something your church should be doing on social media, but you have to commit to a strategy so you know why you are there. Is it for current members? Are you looking to reach out into the community? Are you ready to respond pastorally and prophetically?

I think social media can support many different strategies, but if you don’t have one you are a ship without a rudder on a very stormy sea.

Pastor David Hansen, Pastor at Spirit of Joy Lutheran Church, in the Woodlands, Texas. Pastor Hansen has written about social media in the Lutheran and uses social media as a major component of his ministry at was also on the team. He says,

In church, we often expect that our audience is our members (or potential members). At the Gathering, some of our most important interactions were with the community. The fact that we responded to people in the local community – and how we responded to them – shaped their experience of the Gathering, and by extension their experience of our church. The question for me is how our congregations are engaging their local communities?

 

Christopher Harris, a church communication consultant who runs Digital Ministry Solutions, a company that helps churches with their digital strategies was another team member.  He made most of the memes that would pop up illustrating a thought from the speaker or a theme from the day.

Social media helps build community and share the Gospel message without regard for geography. As volunteers on the Gathering social media team, we sat in the middle of this interaction. We sought to enhance and extend the experience of attendees by further connecting them to the Gathering, help take the gathering beyond Detroit – to parents and congregations back home, and to interface with the community of Detroit. All the time we are connecting the body of Christ together.

And our own Mark Anderson, Northeastern Iowa Synod Assistant to the bishop was on the team as well.  He says:

I think you should just believe Joelle when she says you need to be on social media.

 

 

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About The Rev. Dr. Joelle Colville-Hanson

The Rev. Dr. Joelle Colville-Hanson has been Director for Evangelical Mission, ELCA for the Northeastern Iowa Synod since late 2013. Part of her job description is to help leaders and congregations use social media and other digital means for outreach and mission. She writes and edits this blog as well as runs the social media accounts for the synod.

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