8 ways social media can learn from church

I decided to start on my presentation for SOBcon 2010 early.

I haven’t been invited to make a presentation. I did, however,  spend most of two wonderful days in Chicago with some good friends, listening to people from marketing and PR and social media and communication and a bunch of other places talk about successful blogging. Driving home, I realized that I have some suggestions as well, drawn from an unexpected perspective.

Here’s my rough draft for next year.


jon swanson and liz strauss at SOBcon 09Good afternoon. Thanks, Liz, for that introduction.

As you heard last year, I’m a social media chaplain. Not a chaplain of social media, in the way that people are social media experts, but more of a chaplain in social media.

My expertise, if I may be so bold, isn’t in social media but in communication. And even more specifically, in church communication. I have been around church for five decades. I have talked a lot and listened a lot and learned a little.

As I listened to all the experts last year talking about how to move big businesses into social media and how to help bloggers build their businesses, I realized that there are a few lessons that can be learned from church. After all, we’ve been about communicating messages for a long time. We’ve done it well sometimes and poorly more often.

Let me suggest 8 lessons you may want to consider as you expand your social media efforts.

1. Great stories stick

Seems obvious. Everyone talks about story these days. And lots of people forget to tell them, even in church. However, over the years, it is the stories that get people’s hearts. Stories, for example, about shepherds who leave a whole flock in a field and go looking for one sheep that has somehow wandered off.  Arguments prove, numbers support, stories transform.

2. Some people will never believe.

Lots of people in church can’t accept this. They spend huge energy hammering on people who resist (and in the process, undermine everything about carrying that they are trying to say). Spend your energy on people who will listen, who are interested, who do need what you offer. And maybe, in the process, even the people who “never believe” will be eavesdropping.

3. If the customer is always right, you have nothing to sell.

I struggle with people who are in “the meaning business” always giving in. Part of my struggle, of course, is with myself. But there comes a point when there are lines, when the customer can’t stretch the belief system so far that it becomes completely transparent. Be willing to say, “you know, we just can’t do that.”

4. Admit hypocrisy or it will kill you.

There are lots of people who hate church because they were told one thing and they were shown something else. You can fill in your own examples. I can offer you some of my own, times when I have taught that faith brings confidence…and have been worrying about making that very presentation.  Where we often fail is by ignoring the reality that grace implies failure. If you are perfect, you don’t need grace. So acknowledge your hypocrisy. Point out your own failings. Show where your product doesn’t measure up. And offer hope.

5. Sometimes you do have to ask

There is a place for asking for commitment, for inviting people to make a choice. But don’t start there.

6. Looking at the edges takes your eyes off the core.

There are, if you haven’t noticed, approximately 1 billion protestant denominations. (There are days that I would love to slug Martin Luther for demonstrating that the way to solve theological differences is to split into two groups. However, it wasn’t his fault and it certainly has been preferable to killing the other group, which continues to happen too often.) Often, those splits happen because people begin focusing on fine differences between them.  Unfortunately for outsiders, this means that insiders spend huge amounts of time saying, “we don’t do this like that group and we don’t do this like that group and we aren’t as __ as that group and we care more about ___ than that group.” It’s much like spending time differentiating between blogging and tweeting and pr and marketing and sales.

What matters is the people you are trying to reach and what you are trying to connect them to.

7. Broadcasting feels wrong, but it lets you reach some people.

While driving home from SOBcon 09, reading @chriscree‘s tweets of the sessions, I was listening to public radio. There was a story about “bottle evangelists”, people who put Bible verses on slips of paper and seal them in bottles and throw them into the ocean. I was listening and thinking, “that is incredible one-sided, non-conversational, inefficient.” You are probably thinking something else. But then they talked about the period when Albania was completely closed to religion. No way in. And they talked about being able to drop bottles that would wash up on the shore.

Sometimes apparently ineffective and untrendy methods are what works.

8. Authentic identification isn’t a tactic, it’s the point.

If we are wanting to sell people on being transparent, we can use that as a tactic, we have to be transparent. If we want to come alongside someone to help them understand our message, we may have to actually come alongside them. You can’t put on the mask of openness, you have to be open.

If you are arguing that lives are transformed, yours has to be. Or people will see the inconsistacy. Church knows that one well. We mess it up often.

But it is, after all, where we started.


There it is. I’m still working on the slide deck. And I’m open for questions. In fact, if we start talking now, this will be something more by next May.

Photo credit Becky McCray


30 responses to “8 ways social media can learn from church

  1. Christopher Bowser


    Wow. You said a mouthful! I wish that everyone wanting to share with others would read this…with an open mind and not with a chip on their shoulder. We need to focus on reaching others; not so much on bringing them to the edge of a decision but on loving them enough and sharing with them poco a poco building relationships as we go. Thanks for your thoughts…CBB

  2. Jon–

    Long time reader, first time commenter. Figured it was time 😉

    I love point #2–it’s the old 80-20 rule, right? That’s a basic tenet that some people completely ignore.

    And #1 is so important. It’s all about storytelling. I’ll do you one more, Jon. When you’re giving your presentation at SOBCon 2010 (which I hope I’m at, by the way), why not present without a slide deck. You don’t need it. I’m guessing with your background and your insights, you could do just fine without the crutch. Resist. Some of the best presentations I’ve ever seen were without slide decks. Share your messages and key points through stories–much more powerful.


  3. Why am I surprised that #1 is #1?!? 🙂 (And you are TOTALLY right.)

    And do you think they will let you do an eight-part mega session?

    I see another e-book in the making here.

    We need to consider #2 more often in the church and in our personal interactions with people.

  4. Wow- what a great way to look at things. I never thought about how relatable my faith would be to marketing- but in all honesty it was very rare when I felt comfortable enough to share my faith. I guess my problem was your point about confidence.
    I have a bunch of questions.
    1. If not at SBCON 2010, where do you next speak?
    2. Can you talk a little more about how to be transparent in social media? I have my degree in journalism and know how to be transparent in an article- how can you acheive it in twitter/blogs/linkedIn?
    3. The point of transparency is trust. A newspaper depends on the faith of readers- just like a church. Is that what a company wants? What do they want?
    4. I like your comments about having two-sided conversations. What are your favorite ways to acheive those?

    Thanks again for a great read.

  5. thank you chris.

    I’m getting around to answering comments on Monday morning. By now there are
    comments from my current congregation, my former congregation and people I
    have never met. I think that is significant, somehow.

    The challenge, Chris, as you know, is this: am I trying to convince myself
    or am I telling what I know/believe to be true. The former is far more

  6. Arik – thanks for saying hi!

    As I haven’t been asked (I’m just being presumptive), I may not speak, but
    will be glad to meet you. And I agree. There are times that looking into
    eyes and hearts is enough for the idea to last. Even for a visual person
    like me. But thanks for the reminder.

  7. this isn’t mega, I can do this in 30 minutes. (right).

  8. Hi Brindey!

    1. This Sunday, Grabill, Indiana, 9 and 10:15.
    2. part of being transparent is being consistent. Am I consistent/congruent
    in all of my online interactions, acknowledging that there will be levels of
    privacy, but trying to not surprise anyone. (I didn’t see *that* coming is
    pretty disruptive to conversations). I think bart of transparency is
    disclosing intention.

    I’m gonna give a little rant.

    I am a little, um, confused, by people who look at the internet as a great
    new tool for evangelism, and may write posts about how to witness to the
    godless people using the internet…as if those godless people can’t read
    what is on the internet and know what you think of them. It betrays an
    ignorance about the medium.

    okay. sorry.
    3. this is a GREAT point. Do you want trust or do you want sales? Do you
    care about people or do you care about people buying your product? If your
    software, for example, is consuming braincells, are you willing to tell
    people to go outside for awhile? This could be a post of its own, but is a
    great question.
    4. Like this. (listen. talk about what you heard. Listen to what is said
    back. respond. look into eyes. Look into hearts. go slowly. see the person
    and the history and the pain behind the words.)

    thanks for helping me think.

  9. Wow! You always have lended great insight and wisdom to those surround you.

  10. Jon,

    Even though you aimed this at the church, your points all apply just as well to business. I think this would make a great presentation at SOBCon next year!

  11. Point 7 – so true. God uses ALL kinds of people and ways to lead people into relationship with him.

    I’m a pretty weak vessel, and yet he uses me, somehow. And I may not even know how or see any results, but he does, as long as I’m open and honest as I move forward.

  12. “…grace implies failure. If you are perfect, you don’t need grace.”

    This is as true in business as in faith. I’d go one step further and say that if you aren’t failing at something, then you’re not doing enough. Grace is a gift we receive despite our best intentions. Thanks for your insights, Jon.

  13. Jon, I think you’ve spurred a new concept for @lizstrauss and @starbucker to consider for next year’s SOBCon. The wild card SOBCon presenter. An attendee presents the concept via a blog post on Saturday (something the conf has inspired), the attendee’s vote and the winner shares their thoughts on the last day.

    I would have loved to have you share this Sunday morning with us and open it up for Q&A.

    BTW, I have Chris Brogan to thank for his 09/07 tweet: http://twitter.com/chrisbrogan/status/265097662
    which led me to you! Your “What I Mean When I Pray” post is one of my all-time favorites.

    Looking forward to watching front and center at #SOBCON next year.

  14. Chris – in the revision, i’ll make that focus clearer. It’s actually one of
    those posts that is aimed both ways. The more business is borrowing the
    images of evangelist and meaning and all, it is worth looking at the people
    who have been trying (and muffing it often) for millenia. Thanks.

  15. Paul – i understand weak vessel all too well. And yet, if a message “works”,
    if an idea, a relationship, a product claims to work in a variety of
    settings, then part of the evidence is that the most unlikely candidates
    become the most compelling stories.

  16. Annie –
    “Grace is a gift we receive despite our best intentions.”
    Brilliant. Thank you.

  17. Zena – of course I had reasons to not be there after noon on saturday,

    why i came home early #sobcon

    but I love the idea of the immediate conversation. It would allow for an
    immediate next level of thinking (although this is working in a fun way

    Thanks for commenting.

    (when you were talking on Saturday morning, I was wishing that the embarq
    trio could have been there for backup)

  18. Jon, I just have one question: You started off, “Good afternoon…”. What if you’re given a morning time slot; what will you do? 😀

    Wow, what a wonderful “first” SOBCon09 post! This is pretty much the first one of many I’ll be seeing over time (including one or two of my own), and I have to say, it was as if you’d spoken at SOBCon anyway. I loved the way you captured the essence of communication, both spiritually and socially, within the same framework.

    Thanks for hearing – and saying – what we needed to hear, Jon. Most definitely a tip o’ the topper to ya!

  19. because I want to go when people are starting to fall asleep. It’s a great

    What made this easy to write is that I was still ‘looking’ at all my

  20. Jon,
    You are a light in this space and smile in our hearts. The wisdom and simplicity that you offer here and in the clarity of your thoughts raises us up. We need that. We need the observer you are. How you observe while you participate is a gift and joy.

    Your humanity is our sanity. Thank you.

  21. Very interesting post and I am glad that Liz put it up on twitter at the right timing for me to find it
    Thank you

  22. Great article!

    You’ve got twitter pegged!

    Instead of focusing on differences… its the similarities that tweeple need to see clearly.

    Twitter may be a tool to overcome The Test presented to mankind at the Tower of Babel.

    Keep up the good work!

    – Girard Frank Bolton, III.
    aka TheDevelopersAdvocate at MySpace and @gfb3 at http://Twitter.com/gfb3

  23. I’m glad, Patricia, for Liz’s timing.

  24. Frank, thanks!

    Though I wonder, at times, who is testing whom in this?

  25. Pingback: SOBCon09 … Words and Images of the IRL-ROI - Liz Strauss at Successful Blog - Thinking, writing, business ideas … You’re only a stranger once.

  26. Wow. All eight points could be expanded — through story of course, with authenticity and including yourself, but only as an observer while your readers get to be (or at least identify with) the heroes. 🙂

    Just found your blog through Liz and am following you on Twitter so I don’t miss your posts. I like how you thing…

  27. Jon – love the article and meeting you at Sobcon. (And look forward to your speech in 2010!)

    As a PK (to you non-PKs, that’s “preacher’s kid”), I love how social media is reaching so many people in so many ways. We get to share what we’re passionate about – and find others who are liked minded.

    And I love pt. # 4 – we all need grace!

    Thanks for sharing and I’ll be there, on the front row, at Sobcon2010!

    Debba / Girlfriendology

  28. Great read, very use info here. I will definatly bookmark this site for future reference. keep up the good work!