How to Build Your Online Church Campus

Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

If you’re a leader in a typical church struggling with the challenges of pandemic and shrinking resources, you may pick up Nona Jones’s new book in hope and set it down halfway through in despair. The first half of her title From Social Media to Social Ministry:A Guide to Digital Discipleship catches the eye of leaders who were caught up short when COVID-19 pushed churches online, ready or not. Who wouldn’t want a book that helps you understand the turbulent landscape of social media?

By the time you reach the nitty gritty of the book, however, it’s clear that what Jones, (a pastor, author, and speaker based in Gainesville, Florida), is advocating is not an easy workaround until we can get back to doing what we’ve always done, but an entirely new way of being church that will require the same vision, commitment, and resourcing that we’ve provided to IRL church. In other words, we’ve got work to do.

It’s worth giving Jones a hearing, even if you’re not going to end up hiring a full staff to launch your Facebook campus. She’s got a good sense of what’s at stake and her book, published in late 2020, is timely enough to reference the changing landscape caused by the pandemic. She also has a passion for moving online ministry away from merely providing content to aiding discipleship, something that has been needed for quite awhile.

Herein lies the philosophical difference between a social media plan and a social media strategy. A social media plan focuses on getting people to the building for a couple of hours every weekend, whereas a social ministry strategy focuses on how to help them grow in their faith through social technology after they leave. You need both. (13)

Her vision is inspiring. She makes the case that, in an environment where “two out of every three [churches] are declining or plateauing in attendance,” (4) the future of church must, in part, be going where people are. And, as Jones puts it, “If you knew that 80% of your community gathered every day in one place, wouldn’t you strongly consider building a church there?” (53)

The ‘there,’ of course, is social media, and Jones sees the potential for building connection that can lead to discipleship. When churches lead people into relationship in virtual small groups and teaching environments, allowing for “multidirectional  communication,” something more like social ministry can emerge. But this means choosing platforms that allow for true interaction rather than just broadcasting event notices or recorded worship services. And after a brief survey of options like YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok, Jones lands on her preferred platform. “Facebook,” she says, “is the only truly social media platform.” (50)

This is a problem for this book. One quick glance at the table of contents will tell you that From Social Media to Social Ministry is also a gigantic advertisement for that troubling blue behemoth of the social media world. The back cover lets you know that Nona Jones is also the “head of global faith-based partnerships at Facebook,” but this is never mentioned in the chapters extolling the tools Facebook has to offer.

Given our societal dis-ease, and my personal discomfort, with Facebook’s reach and influence on our politics, lifestyles, communities, and brains, I wanted a little more struggle with hitching the church’s online horse to this particular cart. Jones makes a convincing argument about the potential of all the dazzling tools available on Facebook, but there’s also a certain inevitability to her tone. Since we’re all under the sway of this particular power, why not enjoy its tempting fruits?

Nona Jones

But I digress. If you’re going down this path, Jones does help you do it right. Her prescriptions for an online campus strategy built on the Facebook platform sound solid and they provoked me to dream about what one could do in such a space. The online church she describes has a non-denominational vibe as does her description of the Great Commission’s purpose as “helping people learn God’s truth so they can apply it to their lives.” (29) But I can imagine a United Methodist version built in a similar way that looked at discipleship with more liturgical and social justice-oriented values.

What may cause heartburn for leaders is the assumption that an online campus is going to require a dedicated staff. No doubt, in order to do it in the way Jones describes, it will take more than the current staff to pull off an online church launch. But its worth discerning whether that is a calling that your church should develop the resources to pursue. And if so, why not put the effort into seeking those resources?

All in all, Nona Jones has given church leaders a stimulating read that begins to delineate the dimensions of the coming post-pandemic faith environment. It’s been emerging for some time. It’s time to engage with the possibilities.

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