Using Twitter to Develop an Online Listening (and Action) Plan for Your Ministry

by Paul on February 11, 2009

Matt Dickman, in his post ‘You Suck at Listening!‘  talks about the need for organizations to develop an online listening plan.  He also talks about the need for companies not to just listen, but come up with processes to act on what they hear.  He’s right.

While Matt focuses his attention on marketing and social media, I believe the ministry/non-profit world can learn from his post.  We need to take the principles of listening and action and develop a plan for meeting the needs of individuals and communities – online and offline – and share the Gospel when and where appropriate.


I spend a lot of time listening for people who may be in crisis.  I use Twhirl, a desktop Twitter client, for this service.  After reading Matt’s post, I think Search.Twitter.Com is probably more efficient. 

In the new Twhirl client you can manage multiple twitter accounts.  On each account you can set up multiple filters that grab tweets using specific keywords from the main twitter feed.  The advantage is that you filter these feeds in pretty close to real time. The disadvantage is that the filter isn’t archived and you miss some filtered tweets if you aren’t paying attention.

In you enter the keywords into the search box.  Then you subscribe to the RSS feed for that search.  You repeat this process for each keyword. The advantage is that these tweets are archived.  The disadvantage is that communication is delayed, which reduces it’s effectiveness in times of crises.

I set up my filters in Twhirl for the words “hurting,” “lonely,” and “pray.”  I look at the feeds periodically throughout the day and reply as I can.

I know there are a lot of hurting and lonely people in the world.  I had a suspicion that the ‘pray’ would be used Christians and non-Christians when they were in crisis.  What I wasn’t prepared for was the overwhelming hits on those search keywords.  I wasn’t prepared for the open candidness and the raw emotion people express in 140 characters or less.

I’m learning how not to be trite.  You can’t tell someone, “If you just trust in Jesus, it will all be better.”  No one in crisis – Christian or non-Christian – wants to hear that kind of rhetoric.  Instead, you have to genuinely care – I’ve found that I can’t help it – about the people you talk to.  You have to understand their emotional rawness.  You have to understand that, in that moment, they just want to know that they are not alone, and that someone cares.  As a follower of Christ, it is my responsibility to let them know that, on a micro level, I care.  And, on a cosmic level, that God cares. 

Although it changes with the circumstance, when someone asks for prayer, I tweet, “God brought your tweet to my attention.  He loves you.  I prayed for you just now.  Keep me posted.”  After doing this for more than a year, I’ve never had anyone – from atheists to Christians – get angry with me.  They might ignore me.  They often thank me.  But they’ve never yelled at me.  I hope that means that I’ve somehow communicated the fact that I really care and that God cares as well.

I also learned something about me.  My prayer time is more extensive and more intense when I’m listening to people in crisis.  When I get disconnected from this reality and wrap myself in my bubble that is when my prayer time suffers.  That is also when I run out of things to talk with God about.

I wonder if so many followers of Christ are dissatisfied with their relationship with Christ because they are disconnected to all the things in the world that point out our real need for Him.


When looking for online communities, I’ve found that listening for affinity is a great technique.  Using Twhirl or Search.Twitter.Com, set your filters for keywords related to the affinity you’re interested in.  For example, if you want to connect with people who share an affinity for photography, you might set keywords for photo, camera, picture, or specific camera models.  (You might also look for keywords used on specific picture-related websites like Picasa or Flickr.)

Once I’ve found a potential community, I look for community identifiers. (Something I’ve call social tags in the past, much to the consternation of some. :-) ) Multiple instances of these identifiers possibly indicate emerging, growing, or mature communities.  Unfortunately, identifying online communities of more of an art than a science, but you will know when you find a community and either participate or observe its interactions over time.  Possible community identifiers include:

  • High frequency of @ replies between a core group (Indicator of conversation rather than broadcasting.)
  • Indication of the online community meeting offline.
  • Conversation that grows beyond the affinity that catalyzed the group.  If the group started because of an affinity for photography, does the community share personal and family details, pictures, and video?
  • Indication that the conversation has spilled into other social media platforms or communication media – blogs, Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, YouTube, TokBox, email, texting, and phone calls.
  • Indicators of care and concern.  Does the community notice when someone drops off the grid for an extended period of time?  Has one of their members handled crisis?  How did the community respond to that crisis?
  • Encouragement and celebration – How does the community encourage one another?  How do they celebrate successes in the lives of community members?
  • Economy – Do they trade goods and services?  Has the community developed a cash and barter system of some kind?
  • Existence of social objects and markers – Do they all own a particular object?  Did the community form around that object, like an iPhone?  If you removed the object, would the community remain?  What does the community use to determine if someone is ‘in’ or ‘out?’  Do they use a particular set of books, movies, TV shows, vacation venues, etc?

If you or someone you know shares their particular affinity, you (or they) can join that particular community.  As you get a chance, you contribute to the conversation and to the overall health of the community.  If people in the community indicate a desire to discuss spiritual things, you engage.  If not, you hang out and live a Christ-like life within that community waiting for the appropriate time to share what you believe. 

You may be able to identify goods and services needed by the community.  Start a business that benefits that community and gives you a reason for being part of the community.  Once again, be the presence of Christ in that community.  Love on them and care for them.  If an appropriate opportunity arises, share your faith.  If not, wait for God’s timing.

This is where a little strategy is necessary.  You may not be the best person to start a business for a particular community, but you may know a Christian who is.  You may not share their particular affinity, but you might know a Christian who does.  You don’t have to do everything, neither does your ministry.  Your job may be to simply connect people and other organizations with the need you’ve identified. 

Of course, this means that you must be more committed to growing the Kingdom of God and glorifying Christ than to growing your organization.  Also, you must be willing to invest the time to introduce people to Christ and letting them make up their own minds about Him rather than strong-arming a fake conversion just to make you feel good.  Conversion-oriented mentalities do more harm than good and usually inoculate people against the Gospel.


If you use the ‘Advanced Search’ feature on the Search.Twitter.Com page, you can set your filter to pull tweets from people living in cities or countries.  This is especially valuable if your organization wants to focus on connecting with, and meeting the needs of, people living nearby.  You use the same listening strategies as above to listen to the needs of these geographically close communities.  You can also use the same tactics to meet their needs, but you are more likely to connect in person.

Keeping Strategy Personal

For whatever reason, people often equate strategy with words like ‘cold’ and ‘calculating.’  Christians and their organizations often shy away from strategy saying, ‘We listen to the Holy Spirit for our strategy.’  In my experience, my caring and concern for people drives my desire to develop strategies and tactics that meet the physical and spiritual needs of people.  In my experience, listening to people drives me to my knees because I’m overwhelmed with the intense needs of people living online. In my experience, my strategy puts me among people so that the Holy Spirit can guide my hands and feet to meet felt needs in a way to glorify and honor Christ.

Strategy facilitates my obedience to commands of Christ and helps me demonstrate my love, and His love, for people.

Obviously, using Twitter in these ways is just one tactic in an overall strategy to reach the Online Generation with the Gospel by intentionally listening, meeting felt needs, and sharing the Gospel as appropriate.  How would you adapt this tactic within the various social media platforms used by you and your organization? 

P.S. – I’d love to share examples of how I’ve found community and who’ve I’ve engaged using the methods above.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel right to do so in a searchable media that might compromise the privacy of those individuals.  If you want to call me, though, I’d love to talk with you.  Email me at blackstaffusa at gmail dot com and I will send you my cell number.

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{ 1 trackback }

Digital Evangelism - how? at Brownblog
April 21, 2009 at 4:21 am

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Kim and Eric February 27, 2009 at 11:27 am

This is great stuff. I find myself doing some of the same “listening”, and it was happening a lot when I participated in Yahoo Answers. I found multiple people wanting to know how to commit suicide. Breaks my heart.

Thanks for the tips and reminders about being intentional.


Anglican Bible Study in Second Life March 29, 2009 at 9:44 am

Thanks for your work & thought on this. Your thoughts have helped inspire me to try a twitter stragegy for keeping our group in prayer during the week –

Jan June 26, 2009 at 3:35 pm

Thank you for sharing this. I am going to add it as a resource in our blog about Twitter. I’m hoping another church member will see this great opportunity for ministry and take the lead with our Twitter site.

Andy September 17, 2009 at 2:46 am

Thanks Paul again for inspiring me to use the tools I take for granted to touch others' lives.

Paul March 4, 2009 at 7:55 am


It’s always an encouragement when you stop by. You’re right, listening is heart-breaking many times. Sometimes I have days where I walk in the room and Christi (my wife) take one look and says, “Rough day, huh?” Yet I found that the more time I spend listening, the more time I have to spend praying. The more time I spend praying, the more I spend in God’s Word and in connection with Him. For me, there is a direct correlation between my connection with lostness and my connection with God.


Paul April 9, 2009 at 4:34 pm

Thanks. I’m glad God could use some of my ramblings this way. You’ll have to let me know how it goes. We need to connect on Skype again sometime soon.


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