Religious leaders take to Twitter

Pastor Bryant Wright of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga., is among the many religious leaders in the South who are increasingly using Twitter and other social media to reach their flock.

Twitter gives the impression of being obsessed with mindless trivia, from Justin Bieber’s latest heartfelt tweet 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.

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.

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.”

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 launched this 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 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 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 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.

“This follows a long-standing historical relationship between the evangelical community and technology,” Rainie said.

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