Millennials, Social Media, and the Church

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Millennials — everybody wants them but no one seems to know how to get them. That’s the major take-away from a newly-released study by Pew Research, “Millennials in Adulthood: Detached from Institutions, Networked with Friends.” So the question for congregations naturally becomes, “How do we reach them?”

In this new space of communicating, authenticity is everything. People can sniff out individuals and organizations that are using social media because they want to reach “the younger crowd” in the time it takes to hit re-tweet with a modified comment.

Some like Keith Anderson, a Lutheran pastor and digital media maven, see in the report a reason for churches to become more engaged with online social media. Keith has become a leading voice in this movement, and has some fascinating ideas on the topic. And I have come to believe that he is basically right. The days of churches hiding within walls that members wish to be epicenters of people’s lives are largely over for much of Protestant America. But simply shifting to digital ministry, or outside the walls of ministry, is not a sure-fire path to restoring religious life in America.

In this new space of communicating, authenticity is everything. People can sniff out individuals and organizations that are using social media because they want to reach “the younger crowd” in the time it takes to hit re-tweet with a modified comment.

How do you know if you are not being “authentic”? Here’s an easy way. Look at your past ten posts/tweets/etc. Read them. Are these ten items pushing events, making announcements, delivering marketing pitches? If more than two are, your authenticity is in question. It’s this type of thing that sends Millennials, and others who “get” social media, scurrying.

Hence the Pew Report subtitle, which could well become a working definition of social media: “Detached from Institutions, Networked with Friends.” Social media is all about meaningful networks. And yet, this remains the major criticism of the medium — a charge largely leveled by those who don’t use the tools. The person who complains, for example, that “nothing meaningful can be said in 140 characters” fails to realize that good twitter communications are long series of 140 character statements among two or more users. In other words, conversations. Almost by definition, institutions have a hard time interacting this way.

To take this information from Pew Research as ammunition to integrate social media into your church marketing efforts is to misread it entirely. Social media is no savior. It’s a social gathering place.

Forget marketing. Embrace the conversation.

That is the path to the Millenials. Not a path that will lead them to your door, but a path that pulls you out of yours.


This article is adapted from a recent article on Martin’s website Read the Spirit and is used by permission.

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About Author

Martin Davis is currently a senior editor at US News and World Report. Previously, he was managing Director of the International Association of Religion Journalists and director of the Alban Institute's Congregational Resource Guide.


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