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Twitter and Facebook help churches reach new audiences.

Recently, Pastor Kerry Shook sent a midweek Twitter message to his 6,033 followers, "The Christian life is not a set of rules to follow but rather a Person to follow!"

He could have elaborated; he had 60 characters left. But Shook, senior pastor at Woodlands Church in Woodlands, Texas, is a social media rock star and knows he can expand his thoughts in his next tweet.

Glenn Shuck, assistant professor of religion at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., says evangelical churches, like Shook's, were quick to jump on the social media bandwagon.

"They've always been on the forefront of changing technology," he says, noting that Facebook, Twitter and Skype have become natural tools for some churches. "In mainline churches it's becoming quite normal."

In addition to inspirational messages such Shook’s recent missive, church leaders are using Twitter to create an e-dialogue with the online community and to broadcast announcements, such as snow closures or changes in ministry meeting times.

The majority of churches, though, don’t use social media. According to the Center for Congregations, which provides consulting resources to Indiana churches, two-thirds of congregations do not have a Facebook group; 87 percent do not host online conversations; three-quarters do not have a blog.

Shuck says that’s changing.

Tweeting in particular, is becoming commonplace among megachurches. It's a tool, he explains, for church members to engage with the ministry staff who are often too busy to meet with churchgoers one-on-one. Online communities, Shuck says, are ways for churches to deepen interpersonal relationships.

The Center for Congregations recently compiled a list of ways churches can effectively use Twitter — to call for volunteers, reach people addicted to technology or inspire the faithful. 

But social media can be a double-edged sword.

"If one depends on those kinds of technologies to maintain a church, and I think there are certainly evangelical groups falling into that trap, it certainly can carry them into great danger," says Shuck.

Churches should use social media as an extension of their overall mission — not as a substitute, he recommends.

Some scientists too, have warned about the dangers of social media. Tools such as Twitter can numb people’s sense of morality and make them indifferent to human suffering, according to a University of Southern California study. The 2009 study suggests people surfing the web may be bombarded too quickly with bad news and can’t process it.

"If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people's psychological states and that would have implications for your morality," researcher Mary Helen Immordino-Yang says in a CNN report.

That’s why Schuck urges ministers and churchgoers alike to remember the value of physically attending church.

"There's something to gathering as a community and being part of the worship," he says. "That's something that doesn't get zapped through electronically. These technologies can't do all the things a traditional brick and mortar church can do. With each new jump in technology there is a corresponding loss in quality of what's being communicated."

Kathleen Carly, professor at the Institute for Software Research in California, agreed that social media needs to be used properly, but says the benefits are undeniable.

"It becomes a safe environment for training and teaching," she says.

Carly adds that churches should take advantage of sites like Flickr and YouTube as well. She explains that the web provides numerous church doors.

"You have to have a multi-presence," she says. "If someone doesn't use Facebook and that's all you have, then you're going to lose people. You want social media to be an extension of your website."

Web guru Greg Atkinson provides tips on how to use social media. He says churches without a digital presence are becoming irrelevant.

"A lot of [religious congregations] are at a crossroads,” he says. "They have to decide whether or not they are going to be digital missionaries who speak the language of our culture… Church is wherever two or more people are gathered to worship God. It takes place in buildings, schools, theatres, prisons, and coffee shops; it happens online and in Second Life (a 3D virtual world where users can socialize). It happens wherever people gather."

Technology evolves quickly in the digital age and he urges churches to stay on top of the newest trends.

For more information on changing technology, visit the Center for Congregations and the New Media Project online.

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