How not to evangelize on Social Media

Theologian Roger Olson says that an evangelical is someone who displays five characteristics: a high view of scripture, belief in a personal conversion, a life devoted to serving Christ, concern for society, and missional compulsion. It’s how that last one relates to social media that I want to talk about in this post.

Though the perception is that the church is a slow moving machine when it comes to changing times, it is also an undeniable fact that from the very beginning the church has always been early adaptors of technology.

Sound crazy?

Think about this:

  • Roman roads were innovated in their time, making travel safer and easier than ever before. The early disciples used the Roman roads to spread the new message of their risen Messiah, the hope of the world.
  • Or how about this: the Apostle Paul was a prolific writer. He wrote so much that we don’t even know how many documents he composed. What we do know is that we don’t have all of them. Some don’t exist anymore. Paul was an avid user of two pieces of amazing technology: a pen and a paper. I know. Sounds crazy. Something we take for granted today wasn’t actually easy to come by back then. It was, like the Roman roads in a way, innovative. But Paul had a message, a skill, saw the technology and, without hesitation, took to the writing and distribution of letters.
  • Today I have no doubt the Apostle to the gentiles would be a prolific blogger, maybe even a YouTuber, definitely a Twitter-er. He had so many powerful 140 character statements that someone could turn the Pauline corpus into a steady twitter stream (if you do it, remember to give me credit for the idea!).
  • Then of course there’s the printing press. It changed the way literature was created in terms of quality, quantity and speed. What was the first item printed on the newly invented press? The Bible. Followed quickly by Christian tracks and other types of material.

Christians haven’t been quick to adapt every form of newly invented technology. But historically the church has embraced communication technology fairly quickly, and the reason for that should be quite clear: we have a message that we need to get out. Period. And any new technology that will help us do that, we generally embrace and leverage.

But embracing a communication technology is one thing. Learning to use it correctly, that’s a whole other challenge.

Take social media for example. Easily the most powerful communication technology in history. But for churches that tend to emulate the approaches of historical figures like Jonathan Edwards or George Whitfield, or modern approaches like Kirk Cameron, will fail hard in the social media realm. The reason for that is simple: a bullhorn doesn’t work in social media.

So when you’re consider a social media strategy for evangelism, consider what does work:

1. Relationships not Bullhorns

In evangelism, as in marketing, the “buy, buy, BUY’ approach is dead. If you scream into social media, “Get saved! You’re going to BURN IN HELL.” Not only will people stop listening, not only will they unfriend you, unfollow you, unlike you, possibly ignore you and maybe even block you, but you’ll quickly develop a reputation. Others will hear about you and avoid you without even stopping to take in your blunt message. You want to get a message out to people, build a relationship with them. Yes, an online relationship is a real relationship.

2. Emotion not Rhetoric

I know. I know. We want people to use their minds and not just their emotions. But people on social media are far more likely to hear your message if it touches, inspires, motivates, or challenges them, than they are if you use sharp point-and-shoot rhetoric. If people feel threatened or like their worldview is under attack they’ll do all of that stuff I mentioned under point #1.

3. Dialogue not Monologue

Social media is all about dialogue. The ability to talk back, to respond and to make comments, is what made social media social in the first place (you know, when articles online opened up a comment section and became “blogs” back in 1999). A lot of people make the mistake of tossing their message on a variety of social media platforms, without sticking around to engage. But social media is a dialogue, not a monologue. If you’re expecting a monologue, you will be ineffective in your mission.

4. Genuine not Generalize

People on social media have, what one famous Christian blogger referred to as an “overly sensitive bs-meter.” By that I think she means that people on social media (especially the younger generation) are very sensitive and attuned to whether or not you genuinely care for them, of if they’re just a random number you’re trying to save from hell. Traditional thinking says, “most people are not saved, I want to reach as many as I can.” On social media you need to make it personal, “Kathy follows this blog. Kathy doesn’t know Jesus. I want to introduce Kathy to Jesus.”

Change your thinking, change their lives

We often say, “eternity begins right now.” But we don’t act like that. Rather we act like eternity begins when people die. This comes out clearest when all we think about, when our entire approach to evangelism, is all about where someone will go when they die. People on social media don’t respond well to that question. What they do respond to is, how can I help save the world?

The good news is that those two ideas are two sides of the same coin. Twenty years ago, or two hundred years ago, the question “where will you go when you die?” may have worked quite well. Today, not so much. Fortunately God is not just concerned with the afterlife. God wants to change people in this life, and by doing so, he want’s to save the world. And people who have committed themselves to following Jesus are people who join God’s project for saving the world. And those are the people who will forever be with Him. See how that works.

Question: What effective ways to evangelize on social media have worked for you? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. Thanks for helping to keep the conversation focused and for being courteous.

  • As usual Derek, good stuff. Where do you think there would be a place for bullhorn evangelism online? I agree social is not the place, but some folks just gotta get the message out. Is anyone effectively evangelizing online?

    • I think there is room for a blunt evangelistic message online. But only after – long after – you’ve built up enough clout with your followers. In other words, a blunt message should be rare and well earned.

      I know a lot of people who successfully evangelize online, but not in the traditional sense. Ultimately I’m not sure it’s possible (pragmatically speaking) to create “converts” online (though the Holy Spirit may work His stuff no matter the venue). I believe the purpose for online evangelism is to progressively move people toward Jesus through real life encounters. That’s why I emphasize local churches using social media. To move them from “online” to “real life” connections that are then sustained through regular “online” and “real life” discipleship.