Religious groups were the original social networkers. The word synagogue comes from the Greek synagein, meaning to bring together, while the Greek word for the Christian church building, ekklesia, means a marketplace or assembly of people.
So it should hardly be surprising that religious groups have embraced Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social networking tools in order to promote their message and reach out to their followers.
Perhaps the most celebrated example was during Iran's contested elections last summer. It was dubbed the 'Twitter Revolution', as rebel Muslims used the site to publicise meetings and marches. Whilst critics claim that the media frenzy around social networking was overdone, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were certainly used by Muslims inside and outside Iran to let the Western World know what was going on. This was a heady mixture of politics, faith and technology.
In a far less spectacular fashion, though, religious leaders and laymen across all faiths are getting to grips with the opportunities offered by social networking. It is now normal to join a Facebook page relating to your church, or receive tweets about Passover from your synagogue. But are social networking sites ever more than a glorified 'Parish Pump' magazine, and if so how are they reaching people with a religious message?
Tim Davies, who helps charities to engage with social media through an organisation called Practical Participation, says that although many of organisations just use the sites to get the same old message out, there is a lot more that can be done.
'Organisations can treat social media tools simply as new channels by which to 'broadcast' and send out messages in new ways, but social media really comes into its own when it's used for two way communication and conversation,' he says. 'Just as a church hall can be used for many different sorts of groups: from existing friendship groups, to study groups, to events for outreach - so social media spaces and social networks can have different uses.
'Groups and pages on social networking sites like Facebook can provide a way for people already involved in a faith community to keep in touch between face-to-face meetings, and to share links, photos, videos and messages. Tools like Twitter can be used by leaders to keep in touch with members of existing groups, but with fuzzy boundaries so that new people can find out about activities and start to get involved. Video platforms like YouTube and Blip.tv can provide a way for faith communities to offer new people an insight into what the community gets up to - and to communicate on issues that matter to them.'
A progressive approach
Rabbi Laura Baum is one religious leader who has really embraced what it is to share her faith with the Twitterati. She runs ourJewishcommunity.org, which has reached over 30,000 people in 138 countries.
'People can log into Facebook and Twitter, see what we've posted, and based on their interest level decide to explore the post further,' she says. 'We use these as models to engage Jews who haven't responded to more traditional forms of outreach in the past.'
For Rabbi Baum, social networking is not about 'hooking' an online audience back into an ordinary synagogue life. She believes that Jews can have a valid religious experience within the social networking communities themselves. 'We appeal to a wide range of Jews who want to participate in meaningful Jewish experiences but haven't found a way to do so in brick-andmortar congregations,' she explains.
'There are many people out there who want a religious connection but don't find the traditional synagogue model compelling or convenient. Thus, we reach many people who prefer a more 21st century Jewish experience. I have seen the value of social networking every day and it truly opens our opportunities to connect with and learn from others.'
Not all faith communities are using social media at such a high level. Ant Hodges, social media consultant at To Infinity, says the Christian community in the UK, in particular, needs to think about what it is posting in the ether. 'They need to try to think about how they can effectively use this medium to interact and build relationships with new people,' he says. 'The language that is used in some videos shows that the non-believer has not really been thought about, as many of them are riddled with Christianese and Biblical jargon.
'Why, as churches, do many leaders neglect the opportunities available to them by not using as many of these marketing methods as possible?' he asks.
Peter Crumpler, director of communications at the Church of England, says that while websites are now vital 'shop windows' for churches, many have not yet engaged with social networking sites.
'We are using more video and audio on our sites and want to help more people experience the Church within a digital environment,' he said. However, unlike Rabbi Baum, Crumpler is not content to leave it there. 'We would see this as a step towards them experiencing the 'real thing' and joining a physical, caring community in their local area and engaging with the Christian faith. The most effective communication will always be face to face, between two people who know and trust each other. Anything else is second best.'
The Church of England has added online prayer sites, including sayoneforme.org, which allowed people to submit prayers during Lent, and an online calendar for Advent. The Church Mission Society (CMS), the mission wing of the Church of England is currently launching its own social media website We Are Saying Yes which it is hoping will harness the power of social media for Christian mission. Jeremy Woodham, Internet head of CMS, says that the church should be present in social networking 'because that's where people are'.
'It's like life - if you are willing to be there and build relationships, some may want to find out what makes you tick,' he says. 'In my experience it's more about Christians finding each other in new networks - perhaps coming across new organisations or realising that old ones like us have new things going on. I once recommended a church in another city to a friend on the strength of the vicar's tweets!'
Promoting intercultural dialogue
Other religious groups use social networking in an attempt to build tolerance and understanding. Muslim Voices, based in Indiana, aims to promote intercultural dialogue between Muslims and non Muslims with its Twitter and Facebook usage and podcasts. Its major concern at present appears to be whether women can wear full Islamic veils in certain communities.
However, for those communities that feel that Twitter and Facebook may be the answer for communicating their faith to the young, Davies, at Practical Participation, has cautionary words. 'Social media is not a quick-fix for getting people's attention,' he says. 'If young people are not interested in what a religious community has to offer, then that community needs to look at their offering first - and only think about messaging second.'
He has this advice for any religious community thinking about joining the Twitter revolution: 'Think about your goals first, and look at the tools and sites second. Most successful social media projects involve experimentation - trying different approaches to find out what works for your communities.'
A coherent strategy
Woodham warns religious organisations that they shouldn't chase after the next big thing in order to communicate online. 'Find a way to make it sustainable and straightforward. There's always a next big thing and you can't spend your whole life trying to catch up. Concentrate on being what you are meant to be.'
To Infinity's Hodges says that religious organisations need to be coherent in their marketing strategy in order to use social media successfully. 'Aspects of marketing and communications touch all parts of a business or organisation. Internal communications, business development plans, internal memos, brochures, social media, newsletters, reports, intranet sites and external websites to name just a few - these all need to be part of a coherent strategy and be backed up by solid implementation if they are to be useful in helping the business achieve its goals. With the millions of people interacting and forming communities online, in some senses it is in these places that the church [and other religious groups] can become more visible than in the 'real' world,' he says.
Thanks to @chatbible (Richard Littledale) for pointing out this really interesting article.