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Using social media to listen

April 10, 2012
By Verity A. Jones

Best practices: During February, March, and April, 2012 the New Media Project bloggers are looking intentionally at new media “best practices.” Join the conversation: What are the new media best practices in your church or organization? What are some other examples of how communities engage in new media well?

A few weeks ago, guest blogger Gregg Brekke asked, “Hello. Is anybody listening?” He meant, I believe, is anyone in church leadership listening to the new sounds of digital communication so that the church might offer a relevant message in this new day? It’s a good blog post; he addresses basic questions like whether attempting to control the message is faithful or even possible today.

But the title of Gregg’s post also reminded me of one of the best social media practices I’ve come across recently—the practice of using social media to listen.

Several pastors in the New Media Project case studies describe how they use social media to attend to the lives of their parishioners. Eugene Cho, the pastor of Quest Church in Seattle, says, “One of the job duties of pastors is to know our congregations, to know the flock that we’re ministering to. Social media, in part, is a platform by which people are sharing about their lives. … Social media has helped provide a place where I get a chance to check into people’s lives throughout the week, here and there.”

They are checking in, but also listening to what concerns parishioners may share online. Nadia Bolz-Weber, the pastor at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, once introduced a Facebook conversation about an upcoming sermon topic. The format enabled her to see (hear) the deeply embedded associations many of her church members had with the particular passage she had chosen. It caused her to change her sermon accordingly.

How might a pastor or church leader—or even just a good friend—listen well using social media?

On Facebook, don’t think you have to post status updates yourself all the time. Read others updates for a while instead. Consider what you see or hear therein. Perhaps all you need to do is “like” their status update or comment to show that you’ve seen or heard them. I think of the “like” button on Facebook as my own “I see you” button, a la the movie Avatar in which the lead characters learn to convey love by saying to each other, “I see you.” If you are overly concerned with adding your own clever updates or comments on other people’s stuff, you may miss an opportunity to listen well.

Listening on Facebook requires being present on Facebook, just as it does on Twitter. A couple of years ago, a blogger named MickMel ran a blind test on 11 churches in the Atlanta area who featured their Twitter accounts on their website. MickMel mentioned the church Twitter handle in a Tweet and asked what time worship was on Sunday. Of the 11, only one church responded with an answer. His conclusion? Most churches likely didn’t see (or hear) his request because they weren’t paying attention, or they were following so many people that his question was lost. His advice? If you are going to use Twitter as a church, it’s important to devote the time it takes to notice, listen, and respond to your Tweeps, both near and far. Applications like TweetDeck and HootSuite make it easy to track Twitter and Facebook accounts, including a mentions column that tracks all of the church’s call outs.

What other best practices have you discovered for listening well on social media?

Verity A. Jones is the project director of the New Media Project, and a Research Fellow at Union Theological Seminary.

The New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact

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