When I was a kid, my grandparents owned a small, community store in Browning, Kentucky where I grew up. It was the hub of social activity a the end of each workday. Commuters from town would stop for gas and maybe an ice cream cone and would catch up on life with one another before driving on home.

That store, along with multitudes of others like it across the country, is closed now. But I’m convinced the social aspect of the community store lives on in the form of online social networking. People hang out in community with each other on Facebook, sharing about life and tuning into the lives of others, discussing news and culture, and sharing their faith.

It’s that final aspect of online social networking that intrigues me the most. When we started Grace Hills Church, we didn’t have a bunch of money to drop on mass mailers or newspaper ads. So we turned to Facebook. Most of the first 35 people who showed up at our very first public meeting heard about us through Facebook, either directly from one of our posts, or from seeing something about us on their newsfeed from a friend. And more than two-thirds of the people who are now a part of us found out about us either from Facebook or Google.

Social media works. And it works because it connects us with God’s original intent for us. He always wanted us to share media (truth and information) socially (person-to-person). So for any church leader still on the fence, or who may be ready to jump in, here are my five big challenges for you…

1. Develop a communication mindset.

Everything is communication! Everything! From the appearance of your church’s parking lot to the smiles on the greeters’ faces, everything we do communicates something about the values of your church. One of my personal pet peeves is churches that stock only micro-thin, cheap, commercial toilet paper. It ultimately says you value pinching pennies more than the comfort of your guests.

The gospel is worth communicating, right? No other message on earth is more important. And if it’s worth communicating, then it’s worth communicating well. So give some thought to your overall communication strategy. What does your bulletin, newsletter, website, and social media presence say about what your church values?

2. Decide to lead.

If you’re reading this, then I’m talking to YOU! And I especially mean this for you if you’re a Senior Pastor living under the illusion that social media is something you can skip in hopes someone else in your church will take up the slack. Just as people follow your example in evangelism and living a godly life, they will follow your example in using social media to share the gospel, too.

Always remember, you can’t outsource relational ministry.

3. Define your story.

One of the most important questions you can ask about your church is, what story do I want people to tell when they’re talking about us? This is a question that requires more than just “the gospel, of course.” Every church has a unique story, and when people talk about your church, they tell their version of it.

Social media puts some measure of control in our hands when it comes to the story people tell. Don’t misunderstand – you can never completely control what people think or say about you. But you can put your best foot forward and frame the story well. Here’s what I continually challenge church leaders to do:

  • Write down eight words or short phrases that you feel best captures your church’s unique story and culture.

  • Use those words and phrases in your preaching, in your bulletin, on your website, and on social media.

  • Repeat them until the staff is tired of hearing them – then you’ll know the congregation is just picking up on them.

  • Listen and rejoice when others catch the vision and begin to tell the same story!

4. Determine your strategy.

I want to offer what I think are some basic starting steps for churches to extend their local reach online. When it comes to your church website, it ought to be clean, simple, and designed around the end user. Make the basic information easy to find. Who are you? When and where do you meet? And how do people get in touch? I’m a proponent of using services like Ekklesia 360 and Church Plant Media if you have the money, but not the expertise to develop your own site.

If I had to choose just one way for my church to be represented online, right now it would be with a Facebook page. While Facebook isn’t my personal favorite online social network, it is by far the best solution for building a multi-generational community of people online. And here are my top tips for using Facebook well as a church…

  • Build a page. Groups are great for volunteer teams and profiles are great for individual people, but your church needs a public-facing page, and it needs to be a local business that can be check into as a location.

  • Complete the profile. Be sure you include a short description, long description, link to your website (and add this link to the short description as well), correct address, and cover and profile photos.

  • Get real, local likes. If you ever buy fake likes, you’ll destroy your reach and harm your credibility. Promote your page to people locally to invite them to like you, but focus on real human beings who will stay engaged.

  • Ask people to check in. It’s the single most effective way for people to recommend your church to their friends. Ask them in your bulletin, with a slide, and even from the pulpit from time-to-time.

  • Understand the social graph. You don’t have to be an expert, but you need to know that when people engage with your page’s posts by liking, commenting, and sharing, your posts are considered more relevant by Facebook’s algorithm and travel further for more exposure.

  • As Gary Vaynerchuk says, “Jab, jab, jab, right hook!” That is, give, give, given, then ask. Or to put it into church-y terms, share posts that are inspirational, then share more inspiration, then even more inspiration, and then after all of that inspiring, announce things. Never let your page become a mere bulletin board or it will die a quick and tragic death.

  • Use video, even if you’re an amateur. Videos automatically start playing (though without sound) as people scroll their newsfeed, so if you post a video that grabs attention in the first eight seconds, you have a winning piece of content.

  • Share good-looking photos and graphics with tools like Canva, iMovie, and Instagram.

  • Use advertising! Facebook is, dollar-for-dollar, the single most effective way to spend money on promotion and advertising. You can target by geographic area, age, relationship, and interest. And the ads are relational, especially when you advertise to people whose friends are already connected to your page.

  • Be conversational. Respond to comments, and “Like” them too. Be available, accessible, and personable.

I also consider email an overlooked and still very important communication channel, so I use MailChimp to manage all of our church’s email news, and it’s fantastic!

5. Deploy your church.

You don’t need a committee to manage your church’s social media. And you don’t need a social media “ministry.” You just need to lead your church to engage, to BE social, and to release people to use content you create to spread the word and share the gospel online! It’s possible for every member to be a missionary!