The online community: authentic, real, needing ministers

By the Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell
 
I began using social media in ministry back in 2005. I didn’t know that was what I was doing at the time. I joined an online forum for women in the Boston area who were planning their weddings, as I was marrying in May 2005. A few of us met for dinner, talked about our upcoming wedding, and decided we liked each other enough to keep in touch. Following our weddings, we continued to meet in an online forum, although some of us made the leap to meet in person now and then.
 
 I didn’t expect that these other women would turn to me when they experienced loss — pregnancy loss, divorce, death of a family member, loss of a job. When a tragedy struck the online community, I would offer a written prayer. Later, people would send me messages, thanking me for my prayers. Other times, they would reach out to me to request a prayer. 
 
The online community is authentic, real and in need of ministers. Digital space is an extension of our physical selves, and the prayers we share and our online presence matter to others, especially those without a church of their own.
 
This move outside of the physical church space manifests itself in many ways. In a previous church, I was expected to hold office hours within the church building. Except for pastoral visitations, I was in my office most days. For the last five years, I have moved out of the office to coffee shops, diners, pubs and the local library. Ministry is moving into the physical and digital community outside of the church’s walls.
 
Through Facebook, I have reached out to extended family and friends of my local church. These are folks who have prayer requests or theological concerns but don’t step through the church’s doorway. I have never met any of them in person. On one occasion, a prayer request was shared with me via the messenger component of Words with Friends. Both publicly on Twitter and through the direct messenger part of the app, I have offered to pray for others and have received prayer requests.
 
Using Meetup.com, I have set up in-person meetups at a mall Starbucks for a mothers support group. In the group’s description, I posted that the group was connected to the church but that all are welcome to attend. Over the four years of the group’s existence, several of the moms brought their families to Sunday worship as well as to the church’s picnics and family camp. But much of our conversations happen during the week through the Meetup forum or Facebook messenger.
 
Through the use of NextDoor, another social media site, I got to know my church’s neighbors. I invited them to church events and encouraged them to think of us as their community church. Through NextDoor, I met a Muslim woman and her family. Together, we arranged a “Meet Your Muslim Neighbor” event at my church. Around 100 people attended, including local government officials. It was an amazing success. And it all began because of a conversation on NextDoor.
 
Social media is not simply a tool for ministry but an extension of our presence. As pastors, we need to become savvy in using social media to extend our pastoral presence, especially in these divisive times. We have an opportunity to share the Good News in ways unimaginable 15 or 20 years ago. More importantly, we have the opportunity to share our authentic pastoral presence, which is desperately needed in the world. We have the opportunity to share, pray, teach, preach and be present with people around the world at the touch of our fingers. 
 
But this work is not for us alone. We are called to equip the saints for ministry. Be sure to have your church members participate by liking and sharing your church’s Facebook page, events and photographs. Hashtags offer the ability to tag a post or event so that it can be viewed when searched. On Twitter, hashtags are used to have chats about specific subjects. Develop a hashtag for your church that is unique but speaks to who you are. For example, at my previous church, we used #littlechurchbigheart to share about our work in the greater community. Equip your members to do the work of sharing the Gospel on social media.
 
When I moved from the Boston area, I left the online forum in which I began, but I keep in touch with many of the members through Facebook. Recently, I learned that one member donated a kidney to the sister of another member, without ever having met in person. The group remains closely connected, praying and raising money for each other in times of need.

This is not the future of the church. This is the church now. And, as American Baptists, I hope that we can engage in finding and building authentic community online, as well as in physical space.


The Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell is pastor of Queen Anne Baptist Church, Seattle, Wash., and ministry associate of social media for the Evergreen Association of American Baptist Churches. Learn more about churches’ social media use in her monthly “Social Media Corner” column of the Evergreen Association’s newsletter.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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