Welcoming in the Age of Social Media

By Donald E. Skinner

As recently as five or ten years ago, visitors to our congregations showed up full of questions—and brought with them some apprehensions about what Unitarian Universalism might be.

Times have changed. Thanks to the Internet and social media, today’s Sunday guests have a pretty good idea of what they’re getting into by the time they make their first in-person visit.

Peter Bowden, a Unitarian Universalist media consultant who often gives workshops on the relationship of changing culture and social media to ministry, wants congregations to adjust their thinking when it comes to welcoming.

“Nearly 100 percent of visitors today check out our websites before they ever come in person,” he notes. “If what they see there appeals to them, their next step is not to visit. Instead they’ll opt to add the congregation to the stream of media they receive.”

Bowden says potential visitors will subscribe to sermon podcasts, read newsletter columns and blog posts, like the congregation’s Facebook page, or choose to follow the congregation on Twitter. If available, they will look at photographs and videos of congregational life.

“Over time, through the stream of information they receive, they will experience the congregation in many ways and determine if it’s a good match for them,” he says. “They may even contribute to your social media-based conversations. If, after that, your congregation and Unitarian Universalism still seem like a good fit, then they’ll visit in person.”

By the time they come through the door, Bowden says, they are largely beyond the church shopping stage. They did that part online and are now “prequalified” for membership. “They’ve educated themselves about Unitarian Universalism and what your congregation says it is about, and now they’re standing at the visitor table, looking for ways to get connected.”

Bowden says: “Fifteen years ago church shoppers might have come to a service and then spent six months or more getting to know a congregation before joining. Today they may spend three months online checking out multiple congregations before deciding which to visit. When they do come, they may still be tentative or anxious—it isn’t easy visiting a new church—but they are far more prepared to engage and get involved than many volunteers might realize. It’s critical they be well-received.”

And that means it’s important to do more than just smile at them. Bowden tells the story of when he and his wife, the Rev. Amy Freedman, moved to the Boston area from Rhode Island several years ago. They visited many churches full of friendly people, but he says smies and hellos are not enough to address the need for connection and belonging that visitors have. “Congregations are quick to self-identify as being friendly, but friendly doesn’t cut it. We need to help people connect, make some new friends, share a bit of their story, and be signed up for a group, program, or other event within several visits,” he says. “That’s a lot to accomplish. It requires having deliberate conversations.”

He adds: “Thanks to digital communication people now expect to do the awkward church shopping online, and when they’ve found what appears to be their spiritual home, they want to visit, verify it is true, and connect in a significant way.”

Today welcoming should actually start well before someone walks in the door. Social media can allow your membership team to reach out to people before they visit. “If someone comments on Facebook or on Twitter,” Bowden says, “we can have a conversation with them right there and then. And that may be the perfect opportunity to personally invite them to visit. Or let them know you’ll be there to greet them if they do choose to come on Sunday. Just knowing that someone they’ve already talked with is expecting them can relieve a visitor’s stress.”

Bowden wants membership teams to ask themselves the following questions:

  • What is your system designed for—the world as it was twenty years ago, when church shopping happened in person? Or today, when people expect to do research online, make an informed choice, and then connect quickly when they come in the door.
  • Are you ready to connect people after a visit or two? “I think we have on average three visits to help someone get on a fast track to membership,” says Bowden. “Or to recognize they’re not ready. If we wait too long, they’ll leave.”
  • Ask new members how they perceived your online presence when they were seekers. What would have helped them in their decision to visit, get involved, and join?

Bowden says if he wanted to change the welcoming culture in a congregation he would first invite a minister or lay leader to do a sermon on how technology is affecting our lives and how it might help the congregation’s ministries. After the service he would gather those who wanted to talk about the sermon because that is when people step forward who want the church to do more with social media. “Then you can start feeling out where there is energy, where there are volunteers, and what skills they bring,” he says. “Maybe there’s someone who could do amazing videos or is good at website development.”

There will always be guests who need months to make up their minds, Bowden reminds. Experienced membership people will know to give them that time. They’ll also recognize those who are ready to jump in. “We need to expect that more and more people will show up ready to join us. We need to have processes in place to connect them and to get them on a path to membership.”


Learn more about Peter Bowden’s work with congregations at LeadingCongregations.com

Four workshops on the use of social media by congregations will be offered at General Assembly June 25–29 in Providence, R.I. The series is titled #UUsGetSocial.

About the Author

Donald E. Skinner

Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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