This article is from PRAXIS Volume 18 Issue 1: Digital Media

My generation is rapidly disappearing from the Church. It is commonly known in the Orthodox community that there is an epidemic of youth leaving the Church and not returning. (By youth, I mean the millennial generation, those born in the 1980s and 1990s, and Generation Z, those born in the late 1990s and early 2000s.) According to the Barna Group, only two in ten millennials believe church attendance is important, and 59 percent of millennials raised in a church have dropped out. As a graduate from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts, and someone who travels around speaking to Orthodox youth all over the United States, I’ve been on the front lines of youth engagement, and it has given me an understanding of the “pulse” of our Church in this regard. To understand this issue, we must understand that social media in the digital landscape are relevant, how the internet social structure is important for targeting audiences and what our Church can do to meet these youth where they are.

The first step and key to understanding the youth generations begins with understanding digital media as a meeting place and community for Orthodox individuals and youth from all over the world. Let’s start with the first, and easiest, part of our discussion—where the youth “live” today in terms of digital media. This consists of social media platforms and online communities. Major social media platforms include Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Reddit. You may be wondering why Facebook did not make the list. According to a study from investment bank Piper Jaffray last year, only 9 percent of teens say Facebook is their preferred social media platform. I myself do not have Facebook anymore, as it has not only been taken over by my parents’ and even grandparents’ generations, but it has also become diluted to the point where I can no longer quickly see my friends’ and families’ content.

In terms of online communities, they are not just for social activities and having fun. They can provide a lot of useful and necessary services, such as health support services, advocacy services, news services and personal interest groups, to name a few. According to REACHRIGHT, an organization that seeks to help churches maximize their online presence, an estimated 30,000 Google searches related to online church offerings, such as livestreaming, occur each month. We need to ask ourselves, what are these 30,000 people finding? If we aren’t satisfied with the answer, we must work to improve it.

Within each platform and service there exist smaller social communities. These communities are used for marketing, awareness, broadcasting information and most of all engaging with other people. When we look back in the Book of Acts, it is clear that the Apostles did these same things in communities. They advertised and engaged with others, sharing the word of God. This is the root of apostleship. What took them days and weeks by foot and word of mouth we can now accomplish in a matter of seconds with the click of a button. Now we know that an online presence is not only worthwhile for reaching youth generations but also necessary. It is a reflection of the real-world communities that are most important to us, but it spreads a much wider net that includes our youth. So how do we use it? Let’s dive into internet social structure and how to target audiences.

Today, the internet has over three billion users, but internet culture operates by a very simple rule. It is called the 1-9- 90 rule. This rule states that 1 percent of internet users create the actual content, 9 percent contribute to that content (via forums, blogs, comments, etc.) and 90 percent “lurk” or watch from afar. This phenomenon of lurking is a key aspect of online culture and is important in considering how to engage youth in the Orthodox online community. It is important to understand that just because “lurkers” are not contributing to a certain community does not mean that they are not fully engaged and absorbing information in a meaningful way. Remember, just because somebody is not posting does not mean that person is not listening.

If we take another popular social media platform, Instagram, and dive deeper into how it works, we will see the importance of engagement. Say you post once a day and you only get nine likes. That doesn’t mean no one has benefited. According to the the 1-9-90 rule, up to ninety people still might have seen that post and benefited from it. Such is the way of the internet. However, while providing quality content is important, just posting a picture and leaving it isn’t enough; we can do even better. User engagement is a huge factor in the success of social media outreach, and it is generally a positive, organic way to reel more people in and keep the following you have.

Let’s use Instagram again. The root of Instagram is simply posting a picture or a video, and your followers can then like it, leave a comment or just keep scrolling. This platform is controlled by an algorithm that dictates who sees your post and when they see it. The algorithm combines interest, timeliness, relationship among users, frequency, following and usage. So to simply post a picture without much thought doesn’t cut it anymore. For example, according to a 2015 article from HuffPost, the top times to post on Instagram are 2:00 am and 5:00 pm (EST), on average. We must learn the algorithms and understand how best to engage followers on these various platforms.

Now that we have reviewed where our youth are in the digital media landscape and how to view internet community engagement, we as a Church community can pull this information together and use it to our advantage when thinking about how to reengage youth. Measuring the effectiveness of our online ministry presents an analytical difficulty with such a high percentage of lurkers. We must all understand that our ministry online does not come down to how many likes we get, but how well we are engaging with our followers and the quality of the content we are pushing out over these platforms. Social media and other online communities, types of internet users and online culture provide various perspectives and intricacies to consider when untangling the web of how the Church should engage youth online. The online community does not take the place of the Church, but it must be a vehicle to help youth return to the Church. We must make them interested in living the life of an Orthodox Christian everyday and this can be done with proper techniques and usage of social media. While I don’t have all the answers for each unique community, I do have some general guidelines.

  1. Find out who your youth influencers are. Influencers are media users with a significant online presence; an influencer may have his or her own YouTube channel, a high number of social media followers or be verified on certain platforms (meaning that the platform has verified that an account of public interest is authentic). You will be surprised by how many of your youth are already influencers in their communities.
  2. Consider whether your church has a brand. For example, is there a signature post, saying, phrase or, most importantly, a hashtag associated with your church?
  3. Plan out your strategy. Targeting the 9 percent of users actively contributing requires a different strategy than targeting the 90 percent lurking, and each strategy should be different for adults than for youth. Plan your posts in advance and know that there are tools available to help you plan your posts across multiple platforms all at once. Finally, always remember to generate quality content that engages and interests youth.

Social media is no longer just a fun place to post pictures and see what is happening; using social media now is a craft that requires skill. It can be learned at any age, and it can be done correctly and incorrectly. We must have combined efforts from various organizations and focused consumer targeting. Your church must have a representative, influencer or a brand ambassador (someone whose specific job is to promote a brand or service) guiding youth from the digital frontier back to the church. These are just the starting points for the many next steps to come as the social media environment continues to evolve. Social media and online communities are of course a key player in involving younger generations. Used in tandem with other initiatives, these media can be the catalyst for a youth movement returning to the Church. But for now, the next frontier of missions and evangelism is already upon us: It is the digital world. Followers online can become followers in Christ.

As a proud millennial, Niko Savas uses his love of the Church and passion for digital media to make Orthodoxy accessible for younger generations. Niko graduated from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and has dedicated himself and his career to youth and young adult engagement in the Church. He currently works for the Orthodox Christian Network where he does speaking engagements discussing the integration of digital media into our Orthodox Church.

This is a revised version of a paper delivered at the 2nd International Conference on Digital Media and Orthodox Pastoral Care held at the Orthodox Academy of Crete in June 2018 and organized under the aegis of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

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