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Iowa City churches connect with followers through social media

BY JORDYN REILAND | NOVEMBER 14, 2011 7:20 AM

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Pastor Jeff Gilmore has found a way to communicate with members of his congregation in their daily lives.

Gilmore, a senior pastor at Parkview Evangelical Free Church, 15 Foster Road, said he sends out frequent texts to members about church activities.

Leaders at several other local churches also say digital media have become an important part of informing and connecting with their congregations, young and old.

Gilmore said using various forms of social media — Twitter, Facebook, text-messaging, amother other outlets — provides the church with an easy way to share information.

Gilmore's church compiled statistics on the effectiveness of the media products it uses, and it found approximately 59 percent of emails are deleted without being read, making it one of the least effective means of communication. The church found 94 percent of text messages are read immediately, making it the most effective form of communication.

Beyond the increasing role of technology among local churches, even Pope Benedict XVI has acknowledged the role of social media in religion.

"The development of the new technologies and the larger digital world represents a great resource for humanity as a whole and for every individual, ant it can act as a stimulus to [communicate]…" Benadict said in May. "But this development likewise represents a great opportunity for believers."

Through Twitter, Gilmore updates members about events, photos, blogs, and general church-service reminders.

Although Gilmore believes social media are important, he said, people should remember live interaction with others fosters the best relationships.

"If you try to use social media for the development of friendship, it only increases the opportunity for superficial contact," Gilmore said. "The deep relationships with God and one another are not going to come through social media."

Father Ed Fitzpatrick, the director of the Newman Catholic Student Center, 104 E. Jefferson St., said the center also uses a variety of social-media outlets.

The center's Facebook page was created around six months ago. Fitzpatrick said being able to reach out through a variety of old and new media helps to connect with generations of parishioners.

"Different people relate with different media," he said. "Our goal in using social media is to keep people informed and connected."

One social-media expert said all institutions — military, government, educational, and religious — are trying to find ways to more effectively reach out to the generation that has been raised on the Internet.

"Social media can be good for drawing people in, but at the end of the day, religion is about face-to-face person and group interaction," said David Perlmutter, the director of the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication. "It will always be a supplement of the church, but not a focus."

Iowa City Church of Christ lead pastor Tom Steele said social media are important tools used to connect with younger generations, using mostly Twitter and Facebook. Each Friday, Steele sends out a mass email and updates the church's Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Some people are more open to sharing information on social feeds, he said.

"Social media create a new dynamic when it comes to pastoring and working with people," he said.

Though he prefers to connect in person, he said, social media have helped him identify with the younger members of his congregation.

"We have screens in front of our faces all of the time, always looking at some kind of a screen," Steele said. "Do I like it? Not always, but sometimes, it has benefits."


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