Synod of the Northeast seminars encourage online church relationships

‘Digital Disciples’ can keep members and friends engaged by telling the faith community’s story

by Erin Dunigan for the Presbyterian Foundation | Special to Presbyterian News Service

How can we not only “watch church” but actually give people the opportunity to live out their faith and participate?

This is a question that John Fong, Hybrid Church Growth Communications Consultant, wants to help congregations put at the center of their online presence. Fong, a Presbyterian himself, works with Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) churches and ministries to help them enhance their online presence and increase their engagement online and in person. What we need to ask ourselves, Fong suggests, is, “How can we use the technology to facilitate a personal connection?”

Fong led a series of workshops this month for churches in the Synod of the Northeast. The Synod of the Northeast includes presbyteries in the states of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey and Rhode Island. The synod is focused on supporting presbyteries and congregations, as well as fostering innovation.

Digital Disciples

In the first of the three-part webinar series hosted by the synod, Fong led online participants through a basic strategy to move from mere “likes” of a church’s Facebook page to what he calls an active group of Digital Disciples.

This Digital Disciples group, as defined by Fong, is an online Facebook group of members of the church who are already active online. “Don’t attempt to get your entire community as part of this group at the beginning,” Fong said. “Concentrate on church members who are online.”

Once the group is formed, consider ways to involve the group in the online life of the church. “Perhaps you might want to consider doing a Bible study with the Digital Disciples group,” Fong suggested.

Engaging with members

Another option is to use the group as the core of different acts of service or virtual volunteering opportunities. “You can use the Digital Disciples group to collect food for the local food bank, or to put together a project of surprising neighbors with a bouquet,” he said. One church used this as a way to reach out to people they knew were going through a difficult time, using the online group to arrange the delivery of flowers.

John Fong

“The idea is, this is no longer just casting general information out there with a Facebook post by the church, but actually creating a personalize contact,” Fong said.

“I recently met with a pastor who felt that because of the pandemic he wasn’t connecting with his members anymore,” Fong said. “So, we started a Digital Disciples group in the beginning of the year and now there is so much engagement in the group that he has four other administrators to help him with it.”

Fong also wanted to make sure that participants were clear on the differences between the use of a Facebook page for the church itself and this Facebook group. “The Facebook page for your church is more like a storefront,” he said. “That is where you post ads, general information. But the group is where the more personal interaction comes in, where people are more engaged and will share content, which helps increase the exposure for the Facebook page.”

Once the group (which Fong created for the webinar participants ahead of time) is active and up and running, Fong suggests keeping things simple. “Begin with learning names, developing relationships and getting to know people within the group,” he said. Once the group has formed, then begin to use it for facilitating further connections.

Inspiring generosity

Another suggestion Fong has is to create a Virtual Online Service Campaign. “One thing we did was to ask people to share an act of kindness and we posted these each day,” Fong said. This gave ideas to others in the group and it inspired them to go out and share acts of kindness with their neighbors across the street. “People began dropping off food to neighbors, sending a card, delivering flowers, offering to mow the lawn — all because of the acts of kindness posts,” Fong said.

Additionally, once these acts of kindness are posted online, it becomes easier for those in the Digital Disciples group to share them with friends and family beyond the limits of the church congregation.

“I don’t really consider myself a tech person,” Fong said. “For me it is really about relationship building.” He is willing to help a church at whatever stage in their technology journey. Most often he finds that he is helping small and struggling churches with limited budgets for technology and limited staff able to dedicate to implementing the solutions. This has helped him focus on strategies that are practical and effective.

“The real key is meeting people where they are and at their point of need,” Fong said. In these pandemic times this is even more important. “The church could provide so much to so many who are having a difficult time. I see this as an opportunity for our churches to really connect with folks.”

Erin Dunigan is an ordained evangelist and teaching elder in the PC(USA). She is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary. She serves as a photographer, writer and communications consultant and lives near the border in Baja California, Mexico.

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