Mormons face challenges on social media

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LDS Church on PinterestThe LDS Church has announced that in addition to its ongoing presence on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube (and Google+, but who actually uses that?), it’s now taken the leap into two other social media platforms: Pinterest and Instagram.

In case you’re waiting for me to say something sarcastic about this, you’re going to be disappointed, because I think it’s terrific for a couple of reasons.

First, the Church’s presence on Pinterest acknowledges the shift of information in our culture toward the visual, rather than the textual.

This came home to me in Primary on Sunday when our excellent teacher was trying to get the kids to tell her where they could hear the message of modern prophets. Online! they said. At the church’s website! they said.

No one, not one kid, mentioned a print magazine like The Ensign or even The Friend.

When faced with rapid, even tectonic, shifts like this, churches have two choices. They can either change or die. There’s no other way to put it.

I’m glad my church is not only coping with the new realities but leading the vanguard in embracing social media.

I compare this to some of the other churches I know and work with. I realize that in some ways this is not a fair comparison because those churches are so much less centralized around a denominational identity than Mormons are, and so much less able to coordinate any kind of joint effort on social media. Still, it’s striking to me how slow some other churches have been to adapt to social media as a method of communication.

Second, it’s encouraging to me that the LDS Church is utilizing Instagram in particular, since it appeals to a younger demographic. According to Business Insider magazine, over 90% of Instagram users are under age 35.

This is an age group that Mormonism risks losing, despite the Church’s great efforts in running singles wards and expanding its force of young missionaries. The national tide toward disaffiliation is so strong in this age group that it’s going to take some very creative efforts to keep them.

Social media can be one of those tools. One challenge for the hierarchical LDS Church is in realizing that it’s precisely the same centralized, hierarchical structure that enables it to present a strong and unified social media presence that also stands as a potential obstacle if it does not engage in the participatory give-and-take of social media.

Doing so in uncharted territory. It’s great for Mormon apostles to be on Twitter, which was the big news three weeks ago. But Elder Holland hasn’t posted anything since that first tweet on May 6, and Elder Ballard — the first leader to have an official Twitter account — has been silent since May 4.

Social media is only social if you use it — and engage with other people who are using it too. I hope the Church’s official accounts do more than broadcast their own message, though that is certainly important.

Social media is just not the same as broadcast media, in which a single authoritative voice presents a carefully prepared statement or program for mass consumption. Social media is a two-way street in which success depends on interaction.

Involving ordinary people not just as recipients of content but as co-creators is of course unpredictable and messy but also deeply fruitful, as it creates ties of investment and reciprocity.

I have high hopes for Mormonism’s official overtures into social media. I hope these official LDS accounts do more than just broadcast a message. I hope they retweet, repin, and share inspirational content from other people too — both members and non-members. I hope they engage the world outside the LDS bubble.






  • Paul

    Have to admit, my head is exploding! Jana Riess said something positive about the church! I mean, yeah, she still used the faux-Mormon’s favorite word, “Mormonism”, when speaking about it, and she still had to throw in a criticism or two, but this is big progress!

  • EmJen

    Yes. So much in social media is based in conversational frameworks. In fact, that’s why I have to laugh a bit about the news that some of the apostles are now on Twitter. Twitter is a platform for people to talk to one another in 140 bit bits. However, I would be really surprised if the apostles used it that way. I think instead of having conversations, they will say something and then wait for it to be retweeted (or quoted over and over) throughout the interwebs. Then they will say something again, and watch it happen again. No conversations, just “and thus we see” proclamations set in twitter scriptural stone. Not really different than what they do over the conference pulpit.

    But maybe I’ll be surprised.

  • Daniel

    Since when is “Mormonism” “faux-Mormon?” I don’t get it.

    In any case, this could potentially be a positive development, or it could go the way Emjen said. I am curious about the apostles’ Twitter accounts. Is it the apostles themselves who are tweeting, or a professional PR person writing in his name?

  • I also think it’s good news–but for another reason. Social media (if managed correctly) can help communicate a message in a way that a more static medium (like print) cannot. It humanizes both people and institutions, makes them more approachable, and again when done well, can help create an iconic presence that’s reflective of the best parts of the individual or institution. I hope we’re employing people who understand social media well enough to do it right–we’ve such a reputation as being closed to the outside world this could really make a difference.

    Oh, and for what it’s worth, I think Jana may be among the best Mormons I know. What one sees as criticism another views as helping make things better. The role of holding up a mirror to the people (and institutions) we love is seldom an envious one to have–but it *is* a necessary one if people or organizations are to improve. I, for one, love the fact that she loves us enough to want to help us improve.

  • Your second point is great (let’s hope that officials do more than broadcast a message!). Although not a believer, I care about my culture and hope for progress.

    As per your first point, my personal feeling (as a disaffected under-35) is that the *content* of the conversation matters much more than medium of communication. As long I (and others of my generation) feel that the leadership does not value what I (we) value, I’m not really impressed by their efforts to “connect” in contemporary ways.

  • RTC

    I’d like to second Mitch’s comment.

  • Katie

    Exactly how is “Mormonism” a faux-Mormon’s word? I’ve seen and heard that term used in official church and church-affiliated settings all the time. For example, see the Encyclopedia of Mormonism at BYU (

  • Jana, I have to say you scored a bingo on this story! You have to give it to the Church, they’re smoking everyone in religious marketing. Could be they have the insight too?

  • Fred

    I have to admit, there is a big part of me that resists the thought that the Church’s survival depends on engaging in social media. I don’t have Facebook and other forms of social media because it takes so much of my slim spare time responding to friends and family in astoundingly superficial ways. I can barely keep up with the flood of new books like Mormon’s Codex, Mormon Christianity, the Nibley corpus (I know this isn’t really new, but I haven’t really had time to work through all of it), The Testimony of Luke by Kent Brown, and on and on and on. How does the new social media really help in getting a testimony of Christ and the Book of Mormon and the Restoration? How does becoming an adept member of the texting culture really promote this? I love interacting with someone say through email over truth seeking matters, questions of genuine substance, but in my opinion the new social media mark the decline of serious conversation and reading and truth seeking. We are slowly returning to the medieval marketplace of village banter. I assume that someone, somewhere, has found Christ through their social media experience, but I bet the numbers are low, at least in my experience from listening to conversion stories. So why the excitement?

  • I don’t see it as an either-or. We can still have deep reading and serious conversation. But you don’t dive into gospel conversations via a door-stopping tome right at first, if ever. I have “Mormon’s Codex” here on my shelf, and haven’t read it yet, though I’m sure it’s excellent. But I wouldn’t give it to someone who was just dipping her toes into learning about our faith. One of the opportunities of social media is that it allows people to be exposed to other people’s lives and doings in small pieces, and if they want to know more, there are more substantive ways to follow up.

  • Excellent point. You’re quite right that the substance of the message is, at the end of the day, the most important thing.

  • Thank you very much, Mitch. Much appreciated!

  • Daniel — Since in both of those cases the apostles sent a tweet from a live meeting, I think it was them tweeting on their own. That also seems more likely given the total lack of activity since then. If an intern were in charge, and not a busy GA, I imagine it would be done daily. But I am only guessing here.

  • SanAntonioRob

    One of the promises and blessings of living in the latter days is that we can hear the Gospel in our own language. Via today’s advances in technology, that blessing is not limited to our standard definition of language (Spanish, English, French, etc.). The Gospel can reach many people in their native language, in their preferred form (print, audio, video, Twitter), from a variety of perspectives (eg. General Authorities, life-long members, new members, conservative members, liberal members, etc.), regarding a variety of topics they are curious about, 24 hours a day.

    One of Christ’s best traits was that he talked to people at their level, as long as they were willing to listen. Why shouldn’t we rejoice that the Brethren are doing the same?

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    The church is investing its resources, including the time of missionaries, in communicating with people over the internet. Apparently, the LACK of personal commitment frees a lot of people to feel safe talking to Mormons and expressing their religious questions, without fear of being sucked into a weird religious commitment, or of ridicule from their peers. It makes the barrier between the high-powered Mormons and the rest of society much more permeable, because it is casual, without fear of consequences. Once they peek across that boundary and see something they want more of, they can then make more of a commitment, one step at a time.

  • john

    One of the biggest problems for our general authorities and social media is that they don’t have the liberty of making off-the-cuff statements and not having people think the world is coming to an end.
    If you are a member of the Quorum of the Twelve your every statement is analysed and repeated over and over – so the instantaneous and informal nature of social media comes with significant risks.