Urbana 2012: Social Media Engagement Future of Christian Conferences?

ST. LOUIS – How do you make sure 16,000 students attending a five-day missions conference have the best opportunity to engage in what God has planned for them? You "overlay" the event with social media, more specifically with Twitter, says Adam Jeske, who is leading a 14-member social media team during Urbana '12.

While perhaps breaking new ground with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship's triennial Student Missions Conference held through New Year's Eve, Jeske and his "squad," as they like to be called, do more than tweet announcements or post photos on Facebook or Instagram. They engage in real-time dialogue about matters of faith. Additionally, groups of similar interest and focus can connect with each other by simply following specific Twitter feeds. The conference hashtag (#u12) is just the beginning.

"We want to be a conduit for participants to connect with one another, with the program content, and with exhibitors more than they've ever been able to before," said Jeske, who is InterVarsity's director of New Media. "Social media overlays all of the conference programming. For example, if I'm interested in church planting in India, they can tweet to that affect hashtag U12 conference (#u12), hashtag India (#India), and hashtag church planting (#churchplanting) and you can connect with people around areas of interest and areas of calling at a much more focused level than has ever been possible before."

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Jeske leads the team primarily from two long tables side-by-side inside one of the conference rooms adjacent to the arena where Urbana is being held. A poster card at one end reads:

"May the words of our mouths, the meditations of our hearts, and the tweets of our fingers be glorifying in your sight, O Lord."

With laptops and smart phones in hand, members of the social media team listen as he imparts strategy and commands on such things as areas of the conference that need to be broadcast via Twitter.

"For this generation, this is the way they communicate," said squad member Charlene Brown, who is a campus minister at the University of Virginia. "If students want to get in contact with me they do it on Twitter."

She explained, "During this conference we are teaching them how to interact with the Lord with social media, not just to announce what speakers are saying, but also what is the Lord stirring in you. It used to be you would share it with the people in your hotel room. Now you can share that with 16,000 people plus some who are not even participants at the conference."

Jeske told The Christian Post that he feels using social media for the event in this manner helps others understand their purpose in God's plans.

"Urbana being an event with 250 organizations, 150 seminars, and 15 to 20 thousand participants, there's a lot that you could connect to. So finding the right things that you want to connect to and that are in line with what God has already called you towards, and from what you sense God calling you towards during the course of the conference on social media can be really helpful. That's my prayer and the reason I'm working so hard with this team," he said.

Jeske, 35, added that ultimately God is in control of what participants at Urbana learn and what connections are made.

"He is in charge of this whole thing. But we can partner with that. We can join in that mission of His in calling people and deploying people in His mission to do good for the world, to proclaim Jesus, and to get that great news to people," he said. "We see our role as enabling those connections to happen more easily, more effectively, and more efficiently."

Brown said the extensive use of Twitter hashtags for the conference is "a way to bookmark a conversation" and she added, "I think with conferences it's a way to bookmark what God is doing. These are the ways that the Lord is meeting them – a history. We will have a 140-character testimony of what the Lord is doing and has done through Urbana. I think that if conferences are going to step up their game they are going to have to use Twitter."

In describing the squad's strategy, she explained, "We use Twitter to interact with our participants, not just announce things at them. I think that's where most conferences fail. Our squad is interacting with everyone who tweets. It's not just a way to announce the Kingdom of God, but it's a way to get people to interact with the Kingdom of God."

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