I f churches want to reach people where they are, they can’t overlook social media. Nine in ten internet users are on social media every month. In fact, the average social media user spends more than an hour every day on social media. In this landscape, having an effective church social media strategy can be a big deal. Social media has the potential to help your church share the message of Jesus with hundreds or even thousands of people.
And yet your church’s Facebook posts may only be getting a few likes or comments, maybe none at all. If you’ve been at the social media game awhile, it might even seem like reaching your church community on social media has gotten harder. In many ways, it actually has. You have to craft a post that resonates perfectly with your followers just for a sliver of them to actually see it.
So, how should churches use social media? Why has reaching people on social media gotten harder? What strategies should churches be trying in 2022? And how can churches ensure that the way they are using social media is actually helping people to follow Jesus?
The social media business model
I’m going to let you in on a secret: Social media users aren’t the customers who social media companies really serve. They are the product. Social media’s actual customers? Advertisers.
Social media companies like Facebook and Twitter make their profit by selling ads to businesses. And the major selling point that social media companies offer advertisers is the ability to target specific social media users with ads based on extensive data about who they are.
Facebook knows a lot about you: your friends, your family, your political beliefs, where you live, and even where you do your shopping. This is all invaluable information for companies who want to advertise to you. Based on all that data, you—the ability to influence you, sell products to you, and cultivate a relationship with you—are the product Facebook sells to advertisers.
But you might be wondering, where do churches fit in this picture? And what about all the other businesses and nonprofits who post on social media themselves? At first glance, it might seem like they don’t have a place in this business model at all. But that’s not true.
Why free church social media accounts are a threat to the business model
Your church only matters to social media companies as a potential customer. And if you can succeed on social media without paying, that actually makes you a threat to them.
When organizations post on social media for free to promote themselves, social media companies don’t make any money. From their perspective, that’s a problem. They don’t care how good your intentions are, and they don’t care that you’re not out to make a profit.
If you can reach the people you need to on social media for free, you won’t be very motivated to run paid advertisements on social media. And on top of that, you will be taking up valuable real estate on social media feeds that could be used for a paid advertisement instead. In other words, organizations who successfully use social media for free, including churches, threaten the business model.
Technically, none of the social media giants require you to pay in order to use them as a church or a business. But believe me: they are doing everything they can to ensure you don’t get what you need out of social media for free.
The reason nobody sees your church Facebook posts anymore
If you don’t pay for advertising, social media companies will literally sabotage your posts. I’m not kidding. Their goal is to make it so hard for you to reach even your own followers that you give up and pay for advertising.
Unpaid Facebook page posts only reach 5.2 percent of your followers, on average.
It wasn’t always like this. In the early days of social media, you could get a lot of engagement just by sharing great content that resonated with your audience. But, for years now, social media companies have been eating away at your church’s ability to share its message without paying.
The percentage of people who see your Facebook page posts has been declining steadily since 2014. In 2020, you were reaching 5.5 percent of your followers. It was 7.7 percent the year before. I’m not at all optimistic about this trend turning around in 2022. Things aren’t quite as dire over on Instagram and Twitter, but they are headed in the same direction: increasingly, you have to pay to play.
Social media and mental health: is it good for you?
There’s also the question of ethics when it comes to social media. Is engaging with people on social media actually helping them? Studies have repeatedly shown that spending time on social media negatively impacts people’s wellbeing.
You may know the saying, “Comparison is the enemy of joy.” That certainly seems to hold true with social media. Most people present an airbrushed version of themselves, a highlight reel of their lives, on social media. Not surprisingly, the highlight reel of someone else’s life often looks rosier than the unedited version of your own. Does seeing the best version of others help us embrace who God calls us to be, to love our neighbors well, or does it just leave us feeling worse about who we are? The evidence seems to point toward the latter.
I also seriously question whether social media is the right forum to have fraught, divisive, and at times deeply personal debates and arguments about major issues, including issues within the church.
I managed the Reformed Church in America Facebook page for about two years. And in that time, I moderated debates about several deeply divisive topics on the Facebook page. Honestly, it got pretty ugly. And I don’t think the arguments we hosted on Facebook made anyone a better disciple. I also doubt they changed anyone’s mind. If anything, they might have strengthened the feelings people already had.
I believe it’s important for us to discuss hard questions and engage with people who see things differently than we do. Social media can be a way for us to hear different perspectives than our own and learn from one another. But separating someone’s opinions from their face, their voice, and their story makes it so much harder for us to truly understand them and so much easier for us to dismiss and villainize them. Unfortunately, that’s what social media often does. It is more challenging to speak to someone out of love as a sibling in Christ on social media than it is in person.
Posts on platforms like Facebook that get a lot of comments get prioritized in the algorithm. But that doesn’t always mean they’re good for your mission. Social media engagement for the sake of engagement—or worse, engagement that breeds division and hurts people—is not spreading the gospel. It’s just getting attention.
Is social media for churches even worthwhile?
So, why bother with social media at all? It’s a fair question. Personally, I wish at least some aspects of social media mattered a lot less than they do. But there’s one simple reason we can’t afford to ignore social media. Social media is where people are. It is the modern town square.
Like it or not, social media plays a powerful role in influencing our culture. It shapes the way people think. Churchgoers and non-churchgoers alike are being discipled from the pulpit of their social media feeds. This is a reality churches need to acknowledge. And it could be an opportunity, depending on what we make of it.
If you’ve read this far, you’ll know I’m a realist about social media. I don’t think it’s going to solve all the world’s problems. And I’m pretty sure it’s responsible for creating some of them. However, I do still think there are ways that churches can be positive presences on social media and use it to bring people closer to Christ.
Effective social media strategies for churches by platform
So, what does an effective social media strategy for churches look like today? Well, it depends on the platform—and, regardless of platform, your audience is also a factor. What works on Facebook might be a total flop over on TikTok. Likewise, what works for boomers might be a total miss for millennials.
There are important differences between social media platforms that should influence how your church approaches them. In particular, YouTube works differently than the other major social media platforms in a few key ways. And it’s partially because of those differences that YouTube might offer churches the biggest opportunities for digital ministry right now.
Here’s what you should know about each of the biggest social media platforms for churches and the strategies you should consider trying on them.
Why YouTube is different and how churches can use it effectively
YouTube is the second most popular social media platform in the world (only Facebook tops it) and the second most popular website (only Google tops it). Among U.S. internet users aged 16–64, YouTube is actually the most used social media platform. While TikTok is giving it a run for its money with short videos and Twitch with streaming, YouTube is still the leading video platform on the internet, especially for longer videos.
YouTube combines the strength of Google’s search engine with the powerful personalization technology of a social media algorithm to show users videos that will draw them in. And because YouTube has a different funding model than most social media platforms, you don’t have to pay to play when you use YouTube for your church.
YouTube’s popularity with millennials and Gen Z also makes it a good place to connect with generations you’ll have a harder time reaching both through in-person worship and via Facebook, which now has an older user base.
YouTube is the number one platform I’d recommend to churches for livestreaming worship services and sharing videos of worship. Unlike most social media platforms, YouTube is fully accessible to people who don’t have a YouTube account themselves. Livestreaming or posting your worship services on YouTube ensures that they are available to people, whether they personally use social media or not.
I know Facebook Live works well as a livestream host for many churches, and Zoom worship can provide a totally different type of digital worship experience that has a lot to offer. But if your goal is to make your worship services as digitally accessible as possible, YouTube is your best bet. It’s free, popular, broadly accessible, and easy to use.
YouTube strategies for churches
- Stream your worship services live on YouTube.
- If you don’t stream worship to YouTube, post worship videos to YouTube later.
- Embed or link to a YouTube playlist of your worship services on your church website.
- Write captivating and descriptive video titles to catch people’s eyes and help people looking for insight into the topic or themes of your service find you. For example, consider titling a worship service exploring the Great Commission like this: “What the Great Commissions Means for You | Matthew 28:16-20 Worship Service.”
- As the previous example shows, you should always include the Scripture passage being preached on in the title and in the video description for worship videos. This way, people who are searching for a message on that passage can easily find your worship service.
- Consider creating custom thumbnails for your videos. Thumbnails are the preview images shown for YouTube videos before you play them, and they play an important part in catching people’s attention. YouTube will automatically pull a still from your videos if you don’t select or upload a thumbnail image. But you will be missing a valuable opportunity to communicate your message if you don’t specifically create a thumbnail.
- Use the video description space on YouTube videos to both summarize the video you’re posting and provide information about your church for visitors. Always include a link to your church website in the video description.
- Consider posting sermons or even excerpts of sermons as YouTube videos, in addition to streaming full worship services. This is a way your church can better reach people who specifically need to explore a particular topic or Scripture passage. They may not want to watch an hour-long worship service.
- Take advantage of YouTube’s captioning services. YouTube can automatically generate captions for videos you upload to it. Although the auto-generated captions are not perfect, enabling this free feature is a simple way you can make your worship videos more accessible. And you can take it a step further by editing the captions in YouTube to fix any transcription errors.
Facebook for churches
Facebook has weathered its fair share of controversy in recent years. Amid the bad press, you may have even heard speculation that Facebook is on its way out. While Facebook isn’t exactly cool or trendy these days, it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Facebook is still the most popular social media platform, boasting 2.7 billion monthly users in 2021. And if there’s one social media network most churches are on, it’s probably Facebook.
Facebook really is less popular with Generation Z (currently ages 6–24), so it may not be the best way to connect with the youngest people in your community. You’ll also need to contend with the reality that, without paid advertising, you can only expect 5.2 percent of your Facebook page followers to see your posts.
Given the limited reach church Facebook pages have, what you do post to your church Facebook page needs to be in tune with what your members and followers care about most. Be prepared to play to the preferences of the Facebook algorithm. (That means video content should definitely be on your radar.) You should also pursue more Facebook ministry strategies that don’t rely on your church Facebook page. And if you’re serious about using Facebook for outreach, you should at least consider paid ads.
Here’s a few specific strategies I’d recommend:
- Use a Facebook group to stay connected with church members instead of relying on your Facebook page. Groups are more relational and encourage the whole community to share. Plus, people are more likely to get notifications when there are new posts in groups they have joined on Facebook. This makes groups a more reliable way to communicate with members.
- Build relationships and share your church’s ministry on your personal Facebook page. Facebook is more likely to show people personal posts from friends than posts from pages they follow. Plus, even if you’re a pastor, your friends want to hear from you more than they want to hear from your church Facebook page. Sharing how God is at work on your personal account will mean more and probably allow you to reach more people than you would from a church account.
- Run paid ads promoting your worship services and/or community events. You can run an ad on Facebook for as little as $15! This is a way you can use Facebook to reach people in your community who don’t know your church yet.
- Post videos and stream on Facebook Live. Facebook loves video content, and the algorithm often gives it an extra boost. Remember, Facebook’s goal is to keep people on Facebook. Compelling videos can do that.
- Talk about what your community cares about. Facebook shows people posts based on what they’ve responded to in the past. For example, liturgical seasons like Lent and Advent hold a lot of meaning for many people. You could make a point of celebrating liturgical events like Holy Week with a Facebook post featuring photos or videos of your church honoring these days in worship.
- Tell a story that inspires deeper engagement. Posts that many people like, share, or comment on get shown to more people. Personal faith testimonies can be a wonderful way to inspire deep and positive engagement on social media.
Instagram for churches
Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, isn’t quite as popular as Facebook overall, but it does have an advantage with 18–34-year-olds. Among older Gen Zers and younger millennials, Instagram is a favorite social media platform. And its 1.39 billion users are nothing to sneeze at.
You will also have an easier time making your way into your followers’ Instagram feeds than you will have over on Facebook. On average, 26.6 percent of your followers will see your regular posts on Instagram, and 8.4 percent will watch your Instagram Stories. That may not be as high as you’d like, but it’s a lot more than the 5.2 percent of followers that might be reached with an average post on your Facebook page.
Getting started on Instagram
If you’re dipping your toes into Instagram as a church for the first time or are still getting the hang of it, here’s some basic tips that might help:
- Post real photos, not stock images; get permission before you post photos of others.
- Use filters to make your pictures pop and establish a visual identity.
- Reply to your comments, and take the time to comment on posts from other people in your community and church.
- Post regularly! Schedule a few posts each week; try to update your story every day.
- Leverage your bio: share your mission, a link to your website, and your contact info.
- Tell a story with your captions; share reflections, experiences, and spiritual nuggets.
How to go beyond the basics to reach more people on Instagram
If you already have an Instagram presence and know the basics, here are some strategies you could use to increase your impact on Instagram:
- Experiment with Instagram Reels (30-second videos set to music) and IGTV (up to 10-minute videos); Instagram highlights these videos to people, even if they don’t follow you. A benefit to trying Reels or IGTV is that these are newer features. As an early adopter, you won’t face as much competition. And Instagram may reward you for using a feature it wants to promote.
- Use Instagram Live to engage with your followers in real-time.
- Write long captions and include keywords that reflect the content you’re sharing (examples: church, faith, liturgical, lent, advent).
- Make people feel seen and valued by sharing their stories and highlighting them in photos and videos.
- Work with micro-influencers to raise your profile; ask them for a shoutout, invite them to do a takeover, or host an Instagram Live conversation with them.
Church Instagram content ideas
- Instagram takeovers by church members, leaders, and community partners.
- Ask people about their favorite verse and share one each week.
- Lead people through listening prayer or lectio divina on Instagram Live or IGTV.
- Do an Instagram version of Jesse Tree for Advent or Resurrection Eggs for Holy Week.
- Try sharing 10-minute preaching clips on IGTV or 60-second clips as main feed posts.
- Post a video teaser for Sunday’s sermon on Saturday in your Instagram story.
TikTok for churches
TikTok is the new kid on the block in social media land. And it’s still got that new car sheen to it. Quirky trends, dances, and comedy shorts spread rapidly among the app’s youthful audience. Filters, special effects, audio clips, and video formulas also trend their way to ubiquity on TikTok.
Although TikTok’s user base is still considerably smaller than giants like Facebook and YouTube, it officially surpassed 1 billion users in late September 2021. TikTok is no doubt a social media platform for churches to watch, though it shouldn’t yet be at the center of the average church’s social media strategy.
Growing rapidly, TikTok saw 62 million new users download its app in January 2021 alone. And TikTok currently holds the crown as the favored social media platform among teens and young adults. In fact, 62 percent of U.S. TikTok users are under age 30.
Many social media platforms are known for their addictive quality, and TikTok is no exception. The average TikTok user spends quite a bit of time on the app—52 minutes a day. Like Facebook and Instagram before it, TikTok has a powerful algorithm that learns from your behavior to show you more and more personalized content that will keep you on the app.
A creative youth pastor or even a young adult with a heart for faith could use TikTok to great effect as a way to share what faith means to them and how they practice it with a young audience. Your church’s youth group may enjoy making TikToks. And you may want to consider discussing TikTok and faith together with teens and young adults in your church.
I’d also recommend that all church leaders spend some time on TikTok personally as a way to listen to and understand teens and young adults better. This is how many of them are expressing themselves, and it may help you connect with the teens and young adults around you more meaningfully.
Twitter for churches
Most churches don’t need to be on Twitter in 2021, but some pastors should be. Twitter can play host to valuable and important conversations about big ideas, including big ideas about faith. However, its smaller user base makes it a less natural choice for a church to rely on in its social media presence than other platforms.
Twitter has a potential global audience of around 400 million people. And, in the U.S., the country where Twitter has the largest number of users, about 1 in 5 adults are on Twitter. This is a significant audience, but is much smaller than the reach of the other major social media platforms.
The people who do use Twitter tend to be well-educated. Forty-two percent of U.S. users have a college degree. Twitter users are not the youngest or the oldest; 57 percent of them are between 25 and 49 years old.
Pastors who serve churches in urban areas with many highly educated members may benefit from having a Twitter presence. And Twitter could be a valuable place for them to dialogue with people who might be interested in faith but not likely to visit their church. But, ultimately, most churches do not need a strong Twitter presence for effective digital ministry.
One-on-one personal connections and relationships ultimately mean so much more than maximizing engagement on social media ever will. Your church does not need to have hundreds of Instagram followers to be a wonderful home for Christ-followers. And having hundreds of Instagram followers is no guarantee that you are a home for Christ-followers.
Social media isn’t going to replace your church any more than letters and books would have in the past. Like letters and books, it can be a tool to share the gospel of Jesus with people we might not otherwise reach. But the gospel is not the only thing that social media is capable of sharing. And we need to be careful with how we use this tool.
Although social media needs to be a consideration for churches in ministry today, how you use social media in your ministry can look a lot like the way you already do ministry. You don’t need a church account on every social media platform. And you might find that the best way to use social media is as yourself, messaging people directly to let them know you’re praying for them or to ask them out for coffee.