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5 Ways Social Media is Changing How People Join Congregations

This article is cross-posted on my blog for congregational leaders and is excerpted from my online video course Church Social Media and Membership Growth.

With approximately seven-in-ten Americans now using at least one social media site (Pew Internet), faith leaders can’t afford to ignore the impacts of digital culture.

Here are five ways social media is changing the process of connecting with and joining congregations.

 1. Visitors do extensive research online

People research congregations and their faith traditions extensively online.

In our digitally oriented culture, if you are going to buy or choose something, or make an important life decision,  you do your homework.

You do a Google or other search. You watch videos, read reviews, and do everything you can to educate yourself so you can make a well-informed decision. People interested in a congregation default to a similar process.

 2. Before visiting, people participate remotely

After their initial research, many people choose to follow the congregation for a time on social media.

Observing and participating remotely through Facebook, Twitter, audio podcasts, and other channels helps to determine if the congregation is a match for them.

Whether it takes weeks, months, or a year, at some point (hopefully) they will learn and experience enough to say, “YES! This is the congregation for me. I belong here.”

3. A higher degree of certainty is required to initiate an onsite visit

This calls us to use social media for more than an outreach.  We need to use it to meet people where they are — online — and to proactively help them with their process.

If we want people to visit,  they need access to information, have questions answered, and receive some affirmation that they are going to fit in.

Once someone is confident that the congregation is likely to be a great match,  then they’ll visit.

4.  High-stakes visits verify the match

After weeks, months, or a year of interacting with a congregation online, it is a big deal to visit onsite and see if people like them.  Will they?  Won’t they?

This isn’t a regular “let me check this place out” visit.  This is the moment of transition from ONLINE participation to ONSITE participation with very high hopes and expectations.

This sort of visitor needs affirmation and to connect with others almost immediately.

5. Visitors need immediate affirmation and connection

How long do you think a visitor will hang around waiting to be affirmed and connect with the community before they give up and leave?

In my trainings, I tell congregational leaders to play it safe and assume they need to offer this affirmation during the first visit.   Because if you don’t, it may very well be the only visit.

Now everyone’s different and you may have more time, but not much more.  It is essential to affirm visitors quickly and offer clear next steps for connecting with your community.

There are many ways we can use social media and online communications to offer this affirmation and start the connecting process before the visit.  We can start the process online.

These changes create a wide range of challenges and opportunities for congregations.  In my next post, I’ll share some of the ways congregations can start to respond.

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Related Training

Interested in this topic? My new course Church Social Media and Membership Growth is a 3-hour on-demand training sharing the top strategies from my day-long seminars.

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Retaining Born UUs Through Lifespan Group-Based Ministry Model

This post was originally published on the UU Small Group Ministry Network website.  I launched the UU Small Group Ministry Network as a resource website in 2001 and later re-launched it with others in 2004 as an organization .  While we had UUA Affiliate Organizations, it was an affiliate. Today it is a thriving volunteer driven nonprofit supporting group ministry acorss our association.  ~ Peter

Toward a True UU Lifespan Ministry Model:  Retaining Born UUs Through Group-Based Ministry
by Peter Bowden

In our Unitarian Universalist congregations, we retain only 10% of the children we raise as UU’s. Why do we lose 90% of our born UU’s? I believe it is because they are not integrated into our community early enough and that ministry to children and youth is perceived as being significantly different from our adult offerings. Though our culture is starting to change, historically we have maintained a system that is designed to encourage them to leave.

Ministry with children has a tradition of strong small groups (classes) and worship (chapel). After coming of age, ministry for our youth has focused on a single strong group (the youth group) lead by adult advisors, with little worship outside of the group and minimal connection to the larger church. Our adult ministry has been centered on Sunday worship.

In the context of small group ministry the problem of retaining born UU’s makes sense. We start children off with strong small groups and dynamic participatory worship, move them to a nearly 100% small group experience, and then ask them to move to attending adult church services.
For the majority of born UU’s, pew-based church isn’t going to cut it. Once you give them intimate and meaningful small groups you can never take that away. If you do, you lose them. It doesn’t matter how old they are. As an adult who has participated in a small group ministry would you attend a church without a small group ministry?

Where does this leave us today?
To retain them we have to create small groups for adults of all ages – youth, young adults, and adults. In doing so we can create continuity in the ministry we offer and move youth into our adult community efficiently, preferably before they have the chance to graduate from high school.

How to keep them
It is my opinion that we need to focus our attention and resources on cultivating an explicit culture of small group ministry in our congregations for people of all ages. Just as we talk about integrating small group ministry into the life of the church (the adult church), so too must we integrate it into our children and youth ministries. This involves using similar meeting formats and language with people of all ages and starting formal small group ministry at an earlier age.
Small Groups: Instead of talking about classes, talk about small groups. This alone will create a connection with “small group” ministry and further serve to distinguish church groups from school classes.

Common Format
Right now a huge percentage of all groups in our congregations have adopted a basic format for their gatherings. This includes an opening ritual, check-in, core topic or activity, likes/wishes (a group process check) and closing ritual. Regardless of what core content is covered, this basic format can be used with children of all ages.

Empowerment with a Purpose – Group Leadership!
When our children “come of age” we start to shift from teaching to empowering and advising. In many congregations the meaning of empowerment is not clear. Leadership development is very clear in the small group ministry model. We empower individuals to lead small groups of 8-10 people, ask them to mentor less experienced group members helping them step into leadership roles, and expect new leaders to share our faith with others by leading new groups. Can we do this with youth? Absolutely! Go ahead and ask them…

Creating Continuity
In our youth small group ministries we can share a Lifespan vision of small groups, give all youth experience both participating in and leading small groups, show them how to mentor their peers as leaders and equip all outgoing youth with the resources they need to start small groups wherever they go.

Closing the Gap
The best place to create leaders for our young adult and campus groups is in our youth small group ministries. When our youth leave youth group as seasoned small group leaders they will start ministries wherever they go. We need to equip them to do this important work.
Adult Ministry: An important step in creating a continuous lifespan shared ministry model is to see that our youth and young adult ministries are adult ministries. Instead of being the end of our children’s ministry, these should be intentional starts to participation in adult ministry. When we use a more intentional small group ministry model with youth leaders and advisors, they may be included in the support structure of the adult small group ministry system.

Age Affinity Groups
There is no question that many youth and young adults desire to be in groups with their peers. When we support these age affinity groups but include them in a larger adult small group ministry system, youth will no longer be looking to get away from children. Instead, they will feel valued and respected as participants and leaders within the adult community. They will know they belong with us.

Have thoughts on this? I’d love to hear from.