Some say God is everywhere but last month, we discovered that social media is everywhere too—even in our churches! On October 20, 2009, the Sacramento Social Media Club held a panel discussion on the use of social media by local churches. The event, “Pray for Social Media”, was hosted by The Sacramento Press, and was moderated by Jeff Marmins of Social Media Path and partnership director for the Sacramento Social Media Club. Panelists included Josh Trevino from the Parish Council of St. Anna Greek Orthodox Church in Roseville; Robert Mees, Director of Evangelism at Sierra Baptist Church in Pioneer in Amador County and CJ Alvarado, Director of Communications and Technology at Bayside Church in Granite Bay.

I was posting live tweets during the event, and was joined by several other tweeting guests in reaching over 50,000 followers on Twitter (Sacramento Social Media club uses the hashtag #smcsac to live tweet all of our events).

In what could have been subtitled “Finding God on Facebook,” panelists agreed that the most active use of social media in their churches is individual members connecting with each other on Facebook which allows them to share more about lives than they could from the pew. Members, they said, are using Facebook to build a stronger internal community.

While none of the churches represented reported having an official social media strategy yet, Bayside Church developed and implemented a campaign to introduce their staff of about 75 people to Web 2.0. Alvarado, their communications and technology director, is charged with the church’s presence online, which primarily centers on their website and “listening” to online dialogue to “improve the church experience.” Mees, from Sierra Baptist Church, said that “internal relationships are growing organically on Facebook”, and Trevino said that at St. Anna, "the church blog is the most effective social media tool being used."

Where the speakers differed most was on the issue of how to use social media for outreach and evangelism. Both Alvarado and Trevino said that face-to-face dialogue is essential. “The single best way to evangelize is through the example of a life lived,” said Trevino. Alvarado commented that there is not a big difference in how he approaches evangelism in person versus online–“It’s always permission based.”  Mees articulated a vision for using social media to be present in more lives. “In a world where church members either have no significant relationships outside the church, or segregate their Christian and non-Christian friends,” he said, “all of their friends, churched and unchurched, wind up as their friends on Facebook, followers on Twitter, and contacts on LinkedIn.” All three panelists agreed that spiritual dialogue was important, but Mees was a strong proponent of using of social media to initiate that discussion. Mees said "social media is an effective tool in building relationships that enable spiritual discussions to take place both online and off."

Following the moderated panel discussion, the audience was invited to ask questions. Several wondered if any of the congregations have people tweeting in church. Alvarado answered that Bayside has experimented with tweeting and texting during conferences but not during church service. A question about how the churches monitor their congregation’s online activity led to a discussion about how church youth have embraced Web 2.0. Mees shared that the teens in his church bring their computers and use Google to check facts during youth bible study. The teens are also using Facebook groups to communicate events and to “go deeper” using the discussion features.

After the official program ended, many of the attendees stayed to engage the panelists in additional questions and discussions. There was a tremendous amount of passion around the topic of using social media to share the message of the churches. At my small church, Grace Fellowship Church of San Andreas, we recently created a Facebook Page. We are hoping this outreach tool helps us to better connect with our community. How is your church using social media?

Social Media Club brings together journalists, publishers, communications professionals, artists, amateur media creators, citizen journalists, teachers, students, tool makers, and other interested collaborators. The Sacramento chapter was founded in March of 2009 by local users of social media. Free events are held on the third Tuesday of each month. "Social Media for the Social Good" is the topic of the November 17 event hosted by Sacramento State College of Continuing Education from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Local non profits River City Food Bank, CARES and the Sacramento Hispanic Chamber of Commerce will share how they are using social media to educate, engage, and build lasting relationships with their communities. For information about the Sacramento Social Media Club, join their groups on Facebook and LinkedIn and follow them on Twitter.

About the author: Laura Good is a member of the all volunteer leadership team for Sacramento Social Media Club. Follow her on Twitter at @goodlaura.  She is also director of programs and operations for SARTA.