How social media saved our church

social media and the church

A few weeks ago I offered the opportunity to write a guest post (among other prizes!) as a tribute to everyone’s support for 1,000 blog posts here on {grow}. Happily, Judith Gotwald won the random drawing for the guest post and she offers this unique and instructional lesson about an organization in crisis and how social media saved it.

By Judith Gotwald, {grow} Community Member

I didn’t become a blogger until I had no choice. It was the only way I could help my church survive.

A journalist by training, I have worked in publishing as a graphic artist for 30 years—good basic credentials. I am not a pastor, just a church member. My church’s dire need pushed me into the blogging pool, really as an act of desperation. Here is my story.

The mainline Church is in trouble. Attendance, membership, and giving are spiraling downward. Societal changes have left the Church behind—or vice versa.

Most churches operate on subsistence budgets. There is little money for service or outreach. Regional and national hierarchies, once defining elements of religion, are now difficult for congregations to support.

Yet hierarchies like to survive.

Social Media is tailor-made for Church purposes. Imagine the ability to reach people worldwide for minimal investment! Yet most Church leaders avoid social media like the Egyptian plagues.

Facing significant decline, our regional body, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, was routinely adopting deficit budgets, closing churches, and selling their property kept them afloat.

In 2007, my church, Redeemer Lutheran Church in Philadelphia was on the hitlist — the first of six targets identified by a newly-elected bishop. We owned prime real estate in a desirable neighborhood, had a small endowment, were debt-free, self-sufficient — and growing. Nevertheless, we were going to be shuttered and in this David and Goliath scenario, Goliath was the odds-on favorite.

The doors are closed

Our bishop appeared one Sunday at our doorstep with a locksmith, expecting us to hand over our $2 million-property upon demand. When we resisted, lawsuits naming individual church members ensured that many would skedaddle. Pastors led the retreat.

But this time David fought back.

It wasn’t easy. Through several years of legal challenges, courts ruled (never hearing the case) that they had no jurisdiction in church affairs. The First Amendment puts the Church above its own laws. Our property and money were confiscated.  We were on our own.

In February 2011, Redeemer asked me to launch a congregational blog — — to keep the remnants of our congregation connected.  I armed myself with a copy of Teaching Yourself Visually WordPress, and spent a few days pulling out my hair. Things finally clicked.

In our first month of operation we had exactly one visitor to our site, and then a few more each month.  I started to study to be a better blogger, following the advice of Social Media Examiner, Hubspot and veteran bloggers.

Content was posted daily. Traffic began to grow.

We wanted our blog to tell our story, but we also wanted to be a church — to serve. We focused on what we know best—small church ministry.

  • Earliest posts chronicled our social media journey.
  • Many of our new members were recent immigrants. This became a series on multicultural ministry.
  • General church issues are explored.
  • Resources geared to small congregations are featured twice a week.
  • The {grow} blog inspired the use of graphics and cartoons.

New doors are opened

This content actually began to drive significant traffic and shape our ministry. An original Easter play was downloaded 150 times when we posted it in 2012 and already 3,100 times in 2013.

Our little church blog began to attract a global audience. A mission in Pakistan shared their fear with us as violence erupted following the anti-Islam video that was posted a few months ago. Churches in Kenya sent us photos of the AIDS/war orphans they serve. Prayer and encouragement continue to fly back and forth across cyberspace. Our members know each other by name.

One day, a pastor in Pakistan asked to be connected to churches in Kenya. Within a few weeks, three churches from two countries and cultures that met through the blog were together in Kenya!

Before the opportunity of social media, this type of mission influence would take years and require coordination of an expensive national office. Two common denominators — the predominant use of English and the Internet — have placed mission work directly in the hands of congregations.

Our regional body justified their land grab by claiming Redeemer was too small to fulfill a mission purpose. Well, we no longer had our land, but with a blog, our mission is extending to every corner of the earth. Even the national megachurches have noted our effectiveness.

Our following is growing and with a demographic the mainline church has a difficult time reaching — young adults.

How does our ministry compare with the ministries of 160 churches who collectively claimed our property?

The largest church in our region has an average Sunday morning attendance of 725 (down from 1324 in 2002). Most churches are much smaller with fewer than 100 in weekly worship.

Redeemer had 72 members when the conflict started with an average weekly attendance below 30. We now have 1300 unique weekly visitors and are adding a few hundred each week at our current pace. An additional 200 subscribe to our daily mesages. The numbers are small by corporate standards but huge in the world of Church.

The reach of Redeemer is greater than any other congregation in the regional denomination that evicted us. The structure of “church” has been turned upside down.

So with this proven success, why do churches still generally avoid the use of social media?

  • Most don’t know how to start.
  • Church leaders tend to represent an older demographic.
  • Tradition prefers failure to innovation.

Redeemer, through our social media outreach, has proved that there is more economic potential in an open church than a closed church. Social Media made all the difference.

judith gotwaldJudith Gotwald owns and operates Gotwald Creation, a communications design company in Philadelphia. Two books—one on social media and the church and one on branding for evangelism—will be available by Fall 2013. Follow her on Twitter @jigotwald and @2x2Foundation.

Illustration by the author.

All posts

The Marketing Companion Podcast

Why not tune into the world’s most entertaining marketing podcast!

View details

Let's plot a strategy together

Want to solve big marketing problems for a little bit of money? Sign up for an hour of Mark’s time and put your business on the fast-track.

View details

Share via