Social Media Ministry as Art
Painting with Boldness, Brightness, and Beauty
In the middle of my work as the social media assistant at Bearings Magazine, I came to an important, perspective changing realization: media is art. Surveying our contributors’ pieces, looking for quotes, scouring the internet for relevant pictures, and then diving into my favorite design platform, Canva (which is available free to nonprofits) to bring the words to life. I came to see that strategically placing words on an image accomplishes much more than exposing others to a quote or idea. Rather, it offers a multi-faceted representation of an idea that can allow for almost instantaneous insight, interpretation and inspiration—just the way art can.
As I got into the groove of typing, my fingers grazing across my keyboard, It seemed oh-so-similar to a musician playing the piano or a painter carefully choosing the most evocative colors for a portrait. Composing a seamless piece of content, choosing the notes and colors, intentional choices that guide the viewer and invite the audience into deeper reflection—that is art. This applies to ministry, too. The point of media is to share a message in an expressive way. It’s how we all stay connected—through retweets, likes, and comments. In the same way, ministry fosters a community under a common purpose. When media and ministry come together, the creative potential is multiplied and media finds a greater purpose.
The intersection between media and ministry is an art which, I’ve begun to learn, must employ three elements: authenticity, relevance and beauty.
First, ministry demands authenticity. Sometimes, this requires vulnerability.
This is challenging when translated to the world of social media. Social media rightly has a reputation for being grounded in the artificial. People tend to only post the “good” parts of their lives: exotic vacations, fancy restaurants, or their latte with a flower made out of foam. We don’t see the family drama, heartbreak, or financial issues. The images and stories on social media distort reality rather than reflect it. At the very least, social media is heavily filtered. The people we encounter in social media, the content, all of it together, come off as fake, staged, insincere.
Vulnerability in social media is when my friend posted an honest, angry, vulnerable post about her feelings regarding the Catholic clergy abuse scandal. It’s when a family member posts to celebrate being 5 years sober. Vulnerability builds trust.
Young people have some sense of this as they engage different social media platforms. For instance, in a survey I composed in one of my marketing classes, my team and I found that most young adults aged 17-22 prefer using Snapchat over Instagram because they believe Snapchat is “more authentic.” In comparison, young adults view Instagram as a platform steeped with “artificial” people and pictures.
An explanation for this perception is that Snapchat has an in-the-moment feel, as “snaps” quickly come and go on the app. By contrast, Instagram seems more planned and composed, with images and hashtags fixed on a user’s stream like a never-ending photo diary. This lays the foundation for crafting what can seem like a more simulated, less authentic persona. This obviously won’t work for ministry, and that’s probably just as it should be. Social media ministry is just, well, different.
One thing is that ministry in social media platforms is unlikely to be viral. The likeliness of any post going viral directly correlates to the shock value of said post. Why did the David Dao and United Airlines video go viral? Because it was shocking. People had an emotional reaction. Viewers stopped their endless scrolling when they saw the first two seconds of a man being dragged off an airplane.
So, shock value can equal virality. It can generate more followers. But does that create real connection with those followers, real relationships? Are we all still deeply concerned—if we ever really were—about David Dao’s well-being? Probably not so much.
The good news for social media ministry is that the goal is not necessarily for your post or profile to go viral. Followers are not always a mark of success. Let me say that again for the people in the back: followers are not always a mark of success. Engagement is. This is where understanding both media and ministry as art is so important.
For example, a friend and I started a student-led ministry at Santa Clara University. There are 15 to 20 people in the face-to-face group, and on Instagram we only have forty followers. Compared with other Instagram profiles, we’re a total failure. But, we’re more than happy with our 40 followers because it means that our ministry is reaching beyond the space we create on campus, which might not work for everyone’s schedule. The point of our feed is for people to get engaged with our biweekly worship nights. We send reminders, post member shout-outs, and hope to extend our in-person ministry online through our feed, even if people can’t make it to the campus gathering.
Between us, we really do know the forty people who follow our Instagram feed. We know what’s going on in their lives. We know what we have in common in terms of life experience, day-to-day concerns, and the spiritual practices that help us deal with that, whether it’s appreciating the gifts we believe God shares with us, celebrating the depth of our relationship with Jesus, or offering prayers for each other during finals or other challenging times. So, the feed is an extension of real relationships, not a construction of what we might think of as an “ideal” representation of ministry to young adults. It’s art, not artifice.
This kind of social media ministry authenticity is an art form in itself. By ending the stigma that all series of social media is fake, we begin to tread water in the pool of authenticity. What does this mean? What can I share, and what can we not share?
So, authenticity is key to social media ministry, but there’s more than that. We also need to focus on relevant content. For example, ProChurchMedia (@prochurchmedia on Insta and Twitter) is a social media design and consulting firm focused on “creating with a purpose.” Their firm provides resources, inspiration and a community for members and leaders of churches around the world. Their Instagram feed is seamless, with beautiful images crafted to inspire churches to engage their congregation with beautiful content. Their content is relevant to their audience and their mission. Additionally, Noel Shiveley—a/k/a on Insta as @noeltheartist —is a young, hip freelance designer. His main medium is tattoos, but his art translates into the wider religious spectrum. He posts his designs not only to showcase his abilities, but also to inspire others and draw them in to learning more about the ideas his images portray. For his more than 81K, young adult followers, he’s got both authenticity and relevance down.
A good test to know whether or not your content is both relevant and authentic is to place yourself in your followers’ shoes. Who are your followers? Luckily, most social media platforms provides demographic analysis where you can see the sex, age, and geographic region where your followers are from. Would this post appeal to them based on what you can see in their feeds? On Twitter you can see what your followers’ interests are based on hashtags. What will they gain from the post that is meaningful in their lives?
Importantly, don’t sacrifice your own authenticity to relevancy. Is the post keeping with the mission and aesthetic of your ministry? Social media ministry is an art of balance.
Lastly, social media ministry requires that we create beautiful content. Now, this may be obvious, but you’d be surprised how many ministries do not understand the concept of a non-blurry photo. Beauty is what will make people stop scrolling and “like” your picture—a split second gesture that shows they’ve noticed, they’ve engaged. Beauty is what captures someone’s attention and holds it. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest are already saturated with bogus pictures. Our job is to fill it with beautiful content that upholds authenticity and relevance.
So, what qualifies a beautiful image? Beauty is understood in context and can vary across different ministries. And, it doesn’t equate simply to “pretty.” Images that show challenge, heartache, even suffering can be “beautiful” in the sense of lifting up the beauty of human dignity or the wonder of creation. Jamye Wooten’s Instagram feed, for instance, shows lots of smiling faces and compelling graphics, but the feed also lifts up the real struggles of African American people in his beloved Baltimore and across the U.S. The Catholic Worker feed shows people engaged in the beautifying the real mess of life all around us and inspires with quotes from Dorothy Day, Paulo Freire, Thomas Merton, the bible, and more.
“Beauty” is a notoriously difficult thing to define, but there are some tips that can make it come to life in social media platforms. (I’m going to focus on Instagram, but these tips apply to Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms as well.) A color scheme is always helpful to establish cohesiveness on a social media profile and feed. The @unitedchurchofchrist Instagram feed regularly uses an idiomatic UCC blue in posts. They also use the same Sans Serif font on most posts. On the one hand, the blue and the font consistency creates an sense of durable, recognizable identity. But they also mix it up with other complementary colors to keep their feed dynamic.
The art of social media ministry is also shaped by the message you’re sharing. If you are hoping to send a reminder about bible study tomorrow night, a text image may be more helpful than a picture of a dog. (Though dogs do get a lot of attention!) The Jacksonville Campus Ministry feed artfully puts together images and words to make sure the message shines for local college students.
Another important detail: think twice about quality before posting an image. Is it blurry? Can people understand what it is? And, here’s a newsflash: most people do not spend time reading captions. So, if the information you’re sharing is important, use a text image which highlights your point that rather than hiding it in your caption.
One final thing that most of us know, but often forget: ministry is not about you. That’s as true on social media as anywhere else. As much as it may seem that social media is a direct reflection of your ministry or your amazing accomplishments, when we use media as a tool for ministry, the goal is always outward facing. We want to make a direct, spiritual impact on people in our networks, online and offline. Authenticity, relevance, and beauty are the primary colors in our social media ministry palette. Paint boldly and brightly!