With the increasing popularity of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, there are lots of advantages for missionaries to use these media for both local ministry, and ministry with supporters in the home country. I have been using Facebook for about two years now, and Twitter for one year. There is lots to like but it is a continual challenge to make them work for me as a ministry tool and not turn into an entertaining distraction.
I speak as one who uses both Facebook and Twitter and is continuing to think through how best to use them. Facebook and Twitter are not used in exactly the same way, and depending upon what you want to accomplish, you might choose one over the other. In general, Facebook is good for connecting people that you actually know, whereas Twitter is good for connecting with people who share common interests. Soren Gordhamer’s article, “When Do You Use Facebook vs. Twitter?” gives a more detailed breakdown of why you’d choose to use one over the other. However, for the purposes of this post, I am going to lump Facebook and Twitter together because there are a lot of commonalities between them.
There is lots of talk about social media being revolutionary but I am not here to tell you that if you aren’t using social media, then you should be. If doing stuff on the computer is a real chore for you, or if you really don’t like writing, then Facebook and Twitter might be more of an annoying burden then a blessing. Also, if you are a missionary working among a semi-literate people who may not even have telephones, or living out in the jungle someplace with extremely limited or slow Internet access, then you may want to skip the social media revolution for the time being. Facebook and Twitter can be useful ministry tools but they won’t necessarily be helpful to everyone in every situation.
In this post I want to take a look at both the advantages and the dangers of using Facebook & Twitter to help missionaries think about whether these social media are something that would be worthwhile to invest some time in or not. But before we get to the advantages of using Facebook and Twitter, let’s talk about the...
1. Time Consumption
Once you log on to Facebook and Twitter, there is so much to look at that it is really easy to waste a massive amount of time reading and commenting on everyone’s updates, looking at their photos, and discussing current events. It’s not that any of those are bad in and of themselves, but it is easy for social media to eat up the time that would really be better spent elsewhere.
It is easy to get addicted to checking your email often, but with Facebook and Twitter the addiction potential is even worse. There is almost always something new and interesting to read or look at every time you open up Facebook or Twitter. And if you have some kind of notifier installed in your browser, on your desktop, or on your handheld device (mobile phone, iPod, etc.), then you keep getting little messages and beeps saying “Hey! Look at me! I am much more interesting than whatever you are working on right now.” I couldn’t deal with it anymore so I deleted the social media add-ons from my browser and took the Facebook and Twitter applications off of our iPod touch (which is connected via a wireless network at our home). So far, I am happier and more focused without these unnecessary add-ons.
When family life or ministry is stressful, it is way too easy to check out via Facebook or Twitter. When I have trouble thinking about how best to put my sermon together or have some unpleasant but necessary task that I should do, it is way too easy to “just” check Facebook or Twitter quickly to see if there is anything new. And lo and behold, there is almost always something more interesting to look at, and it is never very quick. My own weakness is to read missions or theology articles that I find on Twitter or to get involved in a theological debate on Facebook that doesn’t always have much direct relevance to my local ministry. Some of that is fine and can be helpful, but too much is escapism and exhibits a lack of self-control.
For the missionary living abroad, there is the added temptation to “go home” via Facebook when language, culture, or ministry are difficult. When you have a “what-on-earth-are-these-people-thinking” moment, it is very easy to escape home via Facebook and “spend time” with people who understand you much better. While staying connected with family and friends from home via Facebook is a good thing, doing it too much can be a way of avoiding the hard work of learning to love and understand the people around you. It is more important to be invested local and incarnationally, and to understand the issues that people are talking about locally than to stay current on sports, politics, and church issues from “back home”. I am not saying that missionaries should stick their head in the sand about what is happening in their home country, but rather we need to ask ourselves, “How much do I REALLY need to know about this issue? How important is this? Is knowing about this, and engaging my mind and heart in this issue going to aid or distract from the ministry that I am called here to do?”
4. Overestimating the Importance of Social Media
There are lots of people using Facebook and an increasing number of people using Twitter, so it can be easy to assume that everybody is on it, or if they are not, then they should be. Most of the missionaries whom I know, and most our family, friends, and supporters from the U.S. are on Facebook. However, here in Thailand there is only a small minority of Thai people who use email, Facebook, or Twitter. Most of them are students or more wealthy and well-educated.
The majority of Thai people whom I meet on a regular basis don’t do email, Facebook, or Twitter. They know about the Internet and many have used it at some point but they are not “connected” and many probably care less whether someplace they go has wifi or not. This is not a value judgment, but merely a statement of fact. To “connect” with them, I need to go visit them or give them a call on the telephone (if they have one). There are a handful of Thai whom I keep in touch with via email or Facebook, but whether or not I have an “online presence” makes very little difference to the majority of people whom I am here to minister to. And face-to-face or on the telephone is usually better for real communication anyhow.
Despite all of the above dangers that need to be watched out for, I have found a lot of advantages to using Facebook and Twitter as part of ministry as a missionary.
1. Staying Connected with Supporters
A regular prayer letter is probably still the most important way for missionaries to stay in contact with supporters but a few shorts updates per week on Facebook can give people a greater sense of being connected with you and your ministry. At the very least, a Facebook update from a missionary is a reminder to people that you still exist and are not just “out there somewhere” in missions land, inaccessible except by machete and Land Rover.
It is easy to give just one or two sentence nuggets of info in a Facebook update to let people know what ministry activity is happening that day, to share a prayer request, or to tell people something that you praise God for. Bits of info about the local culture, language, or religion of the place where you are living can be a simple educational tool to help people understand more about what your life and ministry looks like. If you post Bible verses, testimonies, or links to articles on missions or theology, this can be a way to minister to those who are praying for you, giving back to them something of benefit in appreciation for their partnership with you in your ministry on the mission field. Whether regular Facebook updates really help people to pray more remains to be determined. I would optimistically like to think that it does.
If you don’t like the idea of logging on regularly to post little updates, you can even schedule them in advance with a free application like HootSuite. In one sitting, you can write updates for an entire week or month, selecting when you want them to appear. Spacing them out increases the likelihood that they will be read and not just skipped over as people drink from the fire hose of information that comes at them on the computer everyday.
2. Build New Connections for Ministry
Missionaries on home assignment (furlough) can meet a lot of people while speaking at various churches and other Christian groups but it is very difficult to follow-up on most of the relationships started at one-time meetings. However, via Facebook or Twitter you can connect with people you have met, and there is greater opportunity for conversation and interaction in the future. You have a convenient way to find them, and they you. People who are interested in missions, or are even thinking about becoming a missionary themselves, can keep up with you and ask questions about missions as they see you sending short updates on Facebook or Twitter. I have had a number of people contact me through Facebook with questions about missions. Most of them I had met at some point, but not all of them did I remember.
3. Increased Blog Readership
An increasing number of missionaries are writing blogs, sharing stories and testimonies from their lives and ministries abroad. However, those blogs don’t always get read, especially if they are not updated regularly. While the best way to get your blog read is to
1) write relevant content,
2) post regularly (once per week is a reasonable goal for many people), and
3) tell people that you have a blog,
you can also pull a lot of people to your blog site by linking it together with Facebook and Twitter. In Facebook, I use an application called Networked Blogs that automatically pulls in new entries from my blog and posts them on my Wall. Many people who would be unlikely to visit my blog site regularly will read a blog post by following a link from Facebook or Twitter.
4. Discussion with Other Missionaries
Missionaries often face issue of language, culture, and ministry that are not shared by the people immediately around them or by people back home. However, there are other missionaries out there who have “been there, done that” and can share helpful advice or experience. Facebook and Twitter can be places for missionaries to connect and to exchange information and ideas about living and ministering abroad. I don’t want to reinvent the wheel if I don’t have to. Also, a word of encouragement from another missionary can be just the thing that you need to hear because you know that they understand the ministry or cultural situation that you’ve run into. Via Facebook and Twitter, I’ve had some really interesting discussions with other missionaries about preaching, language study, church buildings, snakes, and other topics of interest to missionaries in this part of the world.
5. Keep up with Current Missions Issues
Facebook and Twitter can be helpful for getting any idea of what’s going on in the worlds of sports, politics, movies and so on, but I like to use them to read up on missionary issues and theology that will be helpful to me in my ministry. Questions of theology, strategy, and contextualization are being continually examined and written about by missionaries and missiologists around the world, so there are always new bits of information and new perspectives to be considered. And by following some Christian publishers and ministries, Twitter can be a good place to hear about new book releases as well.
Some controversial issues in the church back home will show up on Facebook or Twitter even though they are currently irrelevant to one’s local ministry situation on the mission field. However, issues from home often show up on the mission field sooner or later. Missionaries need to be somewhat knowledgeable about what is going on in the church back home so that they are prepared to interact with other missionaries on the field and also with supporting churches when they go on home assignment (furlough). In the mid-19th century, the tiny missionary community in Bangkok had a split because of disagreement over Charles Finney’s teaching that a Christian could achieve perfect obedience to God in this lifetime. Even 150 years ago when communication was much less advanced than now, the big trends in the church at home made it out to the mission field eventually. Seeing news of such issues on Facebook or Twitter can function as a early warning sign that something significant is coming down the pipeline. And if it lands on your doorstep, you can no longer ignore it.
In the final analysis, Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media can be helpful ministry tools depending on how they are used. Some missionaries may find them to be great but others may conclude that they are a harmful waste of time.
Hopefully this post has provided some food for thought to both missionaries and those who pray for, and support them. If I have missed something or if you have some helpful experience to share, please add your thoughts in the comment section below to make this post even more useful for other readers.
For Further Reading:
“Should Christians Be on Facebook?” (R.C. Sproul Jr. - Ligonier Ministries)
"Is Social Networking Good or Bad for Missionaries?" (Chris Wynn - Missions on the Frontline)
"Fundraising Through Facebook?" (C. Holland - Missionary Confidential)
“When Do You Use Twitter Versus Facebook?” (Soren Gordhamer - Mashable)
“How Often and When do You Check Your Twitter and Facebook?” (Vijay - MsiGeek)
“Facebook’s “In House Sociologist” Shares Stats on Users Social Behavior" (Justin Smith - InsideFacebook.com)
Facebook Usage Statistics (Facebook.com)
“The State of Twitter: Who is using Twitter, When & How” (Mark Clement - Think Again)