Faithbook: Lawrence religious groups tap into social networking to expand outreach


The Facebook prompt is persistent, helpful and ever-questioning: “What’s on your mind?”

The answer? For the places of worship in Lawrence who have tapped into the social networking tool, the answer is simple, yet complicated: God.

More and more, social networking sites like Facebook and now Twitter are showing up on the radar of those in the religious community as the perfect way to get a message across to a large group of people. More efficient than a snail mail newsletter and more personal than a mass e-mail, social networking sites have become a way to get out the word of God, one click at a time.

Places of worship in Lawrence — most especially studentcentric ones — use the networking site to set up groups like Bible studies, send invites to specific events, recruit new members and stay in touch with current members.

Tony Bedora of Campus Christians has been using Facebook to keep up with Kansas University students for three years. He says he started with MySpace but couldn’t stand the ads. Once Facebook became open to users not in college, he hopped right in and made a page for the organization.

“For any event that we do, we create invitations on there,” he says. “All our students are obviously on Facebook because they’re in college.”

Rabbi Zalman Tietchel of the Chabad Jewish Center also has found Facebook useful for getting in touch with the students he works with — mainly because it’s something that’s constantly checked, unlike a standing Web site.

“Facebook is the here and the now. It’s on the spot,” Tietchel says. “It gives you the opportunity to quickly give out a message to many people — much quicker than a Web site, where it’s not in front of them all the time, they check it often, but not as often as Facebook.”

Other area religious organizations also use Facebook in more of a one-on-one capacity. The Revs. Jonathon Jensen and Paul McLain of Trinity Episcopal both use their personal pages to connect with church members and Malinda Kimmel of KU Hillel says that Hillel interns often make contact through Facebook. Additionally, Jesse Brinson of Midwest Student Ministries has also dabbled in using the site to reach out to students.

Also in use, though not yet as popular, is Twitter, the micro-blogging site. Through the site, places of worship and religious organizations are sending out sermon pointers, reminders on activities and daily scriptures in 140 characters or less.

Steve Caton is banking on the idea that places of worship will want to move past the use of generalized social networking and into a more personalized social atmosphere. Caton is the vice president of sales and marketing for Church Community Builder, a Web-based subscription software that is in use at more than 1,000 churches. He said the software, which is often described as “Facebook-like” allows for members to each have their own profile and the ability to share files, create calendars and groups and have discussions with other members.

“It really does take the social networking into … more of a church context,” Caton says. “It isn’t meant to replace Facebook. What we tell our churches is basically if you have a Facebook site out there, that’s great because that’s kind of external to the community as a whole and anybody can be a part of that. Whereas, the social community pieces that we provide are really unique to those who are already part of that church.”

Soon to be enjoying Church Community Builder’s social network is Lawrence Free Methodist Church, says Doug Heacock, the director of media and communications for the church. Heacock, who has a background in computers, says that though he and other church staff members currently use things like Facebook, Google Chat and texts to relay messages, this software will add another layer of communication.

“Everybody in the church basically is going to have a profile on this system, and it’s a Web-based thing that will allow them to interact in groups,” Heacock says. “If you are a part of the ministry in the church, you’re on a ministry team or you’re part of a group like a Bible study group or even things like a church softball team or something like that, there will be groups available for you. And in those groups there is a lot of opportunity for interaction and messaging back and forth.”

Kimmel, the director of engagement at KU Hillel, says that while social networking has been helpful within the community and with introducing others to the organization, she can’t find anything more useful than face-to-face interaction. Mainly because it’s something that isn’t exactly what everyone else is doing these days.

“People like the personal outreach and that little personalized touch,” Kimmel says. “Although we do still use Facebook and we do still do e-mail connection, we’ve just found … making those calls or running into friends and saying, ‘Hey I’m doing this activity you should really come,’ (is more effective) because they recognize that’s a personal thing, even a personal e-mail is far more effective than a mass Facebook message.”