If conventional wisdom is right, God, Santa Claus and the National Security Agency are watching you. And if you're on social media, you can now add another name to that list: Focus on the Family.
Last week, the conservative Colorado Springs mega-ministry announced the grand opening of its social media hub, the first in the Rocky Mountain region. Eight dedicated specialists here "listen" to filtered social media, forum and chat room posts, and jump in when they feel it's warranted. They have help from some 100 staff members currently, and the ministry is hoping to soon include trained volunteers, who could respond to posts on behalf of Focus from their home computers.
While the organization is currently only monitoring public Facebook, Twitter and other accounts in the U.S., it has global aims.
"I think the visibility of this digital outreach center is going to be a change agent for our ministry ... to become more constituent-centric," Paul Bae, vice president of digital media and strategy, told a large crowd of employees and media at the hub's unveiling.
Focus' program uses specialized software like Radian 6, Sprout Social and Google Analytics — also used by Fortune 500 companies for the purpose of online marketing — that sort posts based on search terms like "marriage," "crisis" or "abortion." The ministry is focusing on five main topic areas described as "evangelism, marriage, parenting, advocacy for kids and engaging the culture," which encompass hundreds of search terms. Focus staff say the goal is to emotionally support people in difficult situations, and to provide resources, including those offered by the ministry's other arms.
"God is using this to make a big difference in people who are hurting and desperate," senior family help specialist Bryan Merritt told the grand-opening crowd.
Of course, not everyone is receptive. Focus Chief Operating Officer Ken Windebank says that if someone doesn't want to communicate with Focus, they lay off. "People understand that when they're engaging in open forums, that anyone can listen in," he says, "and we're very, very respectful of folks."
A brave, new, godly world
In Focus' administrative building on the northern edge of the Springs, specialists type away at flat-screen computers, while seven large wall monitors flash information about visitors to the ministry's website, relevant social media posts, and online photos. Stainless steel art climbs glass walls. The lighting is somewhat dim.
Young, hip-looking Sam Hoover, a digital content strategist, helped plan the space for Focus, which cost $143,000 and was completely funded by donors — a plus for the nonprofit, which has seen lagging donations lead to layoffs.
Hoover says that the idea emerged a couple years ago, when a few staffers began doing Google searches and responding to relevant posts. Today they respond to an average of 833 posts a day.
"For the last 30 years, our family help center has received phone calls, emails. People would handwrite letters; in fact, they used to fax them in as well," Hoover says. "And that's how the communication would start. Now with what we're doing, we're proactively going out on the Web and engaging with families where they're at."
This is what board member Lee Torrence, in a dedication prayer for the hub, called, "redeem[ing] all the systems in this world for God."
Interestingly, the social media hub won't just serve Focus' needs. The ministry also plans to open the room to nonprofits, local groups, and government agencies in times of disaster, for use in emergency communication.
To local social media consultant and radio personality Tonya Hall, this sounds like an idea whose time has come. "Listening" technology has been around for years — many regular folks use it on a smaller scale through applications like HootSuite or TweetDeck — and she thinks churches are behind the times.
"It's about sharing a message and about getting out there and listening," she says. "... I don't get why it's not happening."
Friends with Focus?
The Rev. Nori Rost, who leads the Springs' All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, says she uses social media, and may recommend a book or some other teaching online. But she thinks the idea of a church "listening" is "icky."
"I would say that it feels a little Big Brother-ish to so actively try to insert their influence on unsuspecting people and to eavesdrop to try and get their resources out there," she says. "Because it doesn't feel to me like it's genuine caring, it feels like it's getting their name out there."
Focus staff say they eventually identify themselves in posts, but Rost says their association should be shared up front. People deserve to know who they're talking to, she says, especially on sensitive issues like abortion. (Focus is perhaps most famous for opposing LGBT rights. Spokesperson Carrie Kintz says Focus isn't targeting LGBT posts, but hub literature does make note of an interaction with a lesbian, in which Focus "respectfully" expressed its views on same-sex relationships.)
From a minister's standpoint, Rost says her biggest concern is that such a system seems to operate in the opposite way that a trusted family minister normally would. It takes people out of context, she says — reducing them to a single post on a single subject — and then tries to offer help.
"To me," she says, "I find it kind of insulting."