Religious leaders take to Twitter

2012-07-14T15:30:00Z 2014-09-30T14:36:38Z Religious leaders take to TwitterBy Bo Emerson Atlanta Journal-Constitution missoulian.com

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

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 based in St. Louis, was having a bigger impact because of her connection with her followers.

“Joyce Meyer will send out, whether a Bible verse or uplifting commentary, or an aphorism or 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, like other social media, is dedicated to serving its big customers, so Diaz-Ortiz relocated to Atlanta this year for easy access to the megachurches in the Southeast, and 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 history to name-checking amusing product reviews in Amazon. He also 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, outgoing president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, still writes his sermons and his daily radio spots “Right From the Heart” in longhand on yellow legal pads. But the advent of the iPhone has suddenly launched this self-described “Neanderthal pastor” into the online world.

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A member of his ministry helps load his devotionals onto Facebook and Twitter, and using his smartphone, he also 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 at such and such a place?’”

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

“This follows a long-standing 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.”

The Internet simply opened up a new world of channels, he said. “Churches instinctively understand when new communications technology come into being, then they should figure them out.”

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