Twitter use by religious leaders has major impact

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Twitter gives the impression of being obsessed with mindless trivia, from Justin Bieber’s latest heartfelt tweet to his Beliebers to LeBron James’ reflections on winning the NBA championship.

Bryant Wright, the outgoing president of the Southern Baptist Convention and the pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga., is among many religious leaders in the South who use social media to reach their flock. Data show that their tweets are retweeted in high numbers.  VINO WONG/ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
VINO WONG/ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Bryant Wright, the outgoing president of the Southern Baptist Convention and the pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga., is among many religious leaders in the South who use social media to reach their flock. Data show that their tweets are retweeted in high numbers.

But Atlanta-based Twitter executive Claire Diaz-Ortiz learned something surprising from an examination of the most popular tweets: Spiritual tweets were whooping up on the mundane.

“We came upon data that religious leaders were completely punching above their weight on Twitter,” she said. “They were super-engaged.”

Though Lady Gaga might have 26 million followers to Joyce Meyer’s 1 million, Meyer, a charismatic evangelist in St. Louis, was having a bigger impact because of her connection with followers.

“Joyce Meyer will send out … a mes­sage, and we see her being retweeted more than Lady Gaga,” Diaz-Ortiz said.

Such retweeting produces more ripples than the original message, because the rule in social media is that a message from a friend has more impact than a message from an institution.

Twitter is dedicated to serving its big customers, so Diaz-Ortiz relocated to Atlanta for easy access to megachurches in the Southeast and to the religious leaders that set Twitter on fire.

Among them are heavy hitters such as Andy Stanley of Atlanta’s 25,000-member North Point Minis­tries, with 177,000 followers.

Stanley, 54, has embraced social media as a way to stay in touch with a large congregation without being spread too thin.

“You don’t have all the time in the world to do this face-to-face relationship building,” Diaz-Ortiz said. “Twitter is an excellent way for him to reach his flock.”

Stanley’s tweets range from Bible verses to personal notes to name-checking amusing pro­duct reviews in Amazon. He re­tweets folks ranging from Gene Sim­mons of KISS to Albert Ein­stein. (“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it’s stupid. Ein­stein”)

Churches conservative and progressive connect with their congregations through social media, even preachers who never learned how to use a computer.

Bryant Wright, the outgoing president of the Southern Baptist Con­vention and the pastor at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, still writes his sermons and daily radio spots in longhand on yellow legal pads. But the advent of the iPhone has launched the self-described “Neanderthal pastor” into the online world.

A member of his ministry helps load his devotionals onto Facebook and Twitter, and using his smartphone, he tweets personal thoughts and news, recently tweeting from the convention in New Orleans. His Facebook postings are read by more than 4 million people a month, he said.

His first reaction to Twitter was typical of many in his generation. “Some of the things people were tweeting I thought, ‘That is ridiculous. Who would want to read about so-and-so going to the bathroom?’ ”

But then he saw the potential. “It is about reaching people for Christ through the use of media,” Wright said.

It’s a natural fit for churches that are led by the Bible to spread the word. Lee Rainie, the direc­tor of Pew Re­search Cen­ter’s Internet and Amer­i­can Life Proj­ect, said evangelists have long been skillful at pursuing new media.

“This follows a longstanding historical relationship between the evangelical community and technology,” Rainie said. “Some of the popular early radio shows were evangelical shows, and Billy Graham was one of the earliest stars of television.

“Churches instinctively understand when new communications tech­nology come into being, then they should figure them out,” he said.


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