Local group creates social networking platform for faith community

The first thing the creators of The Table Project want to make clear is that their site is not simply a Christian version of Facebook.

While it does share many of the same features — the ability to create a profile, post photos and organize groups, for example — the site is less about projecting than it is sharing, serving and community, they say.

Instead of photos from a night out, the site has been used to post a prayer request by a couple having difficulty conceiving, an offer by an auto mechanic to help anyone in need and a long thread about why people don’t believe in God.

“The conversation is just radically different,” said Jason Wenell, who helped develop and launch the site and now serves as The Table Project’s vice president. “It’s less about broadcasting and more about having a conversation.”

It’s a conversation that churches are increasingly joining, too.

Since fully rolling out the site in February, more than 1,600 churches from around the country and of every denomination have created accounts allowing their church members to begin sharing their information online.

Another 80 more churches join each month, and creators believe the platform could ultimately be used by more than 50,000 of the 350,000 churches in the United States. It costs churches nothing to sign up, and takes less than four minutes to create an account.

Many of the first churches to use the site are located in the Twin Cities, where the site has been developed and tested over the last three years by Wenell and a small team of developers whose work is funded by Youth Works, a nonprofit that sends students on mission trips around the country.

Churches that use the site range from older, established institutions such as Bethlehem Baptist in South Minneapolis, to newer churches with smaller congregations and younger memberships accustomed to engaging online.

Those who use the site say it has become a vital tool, used by members to make unanticipated connections and by church leaders to connect with members in ways that might otherwise be impossible.

While none have given up Facebook or Twitter altogether, they say it is an important supplement to their online offerings because they can control who has access to the site, allowing more candid and relevant conversations to take place.

“I would say this is very similar to the bulletin board where people can just tack up whatever they need but that it’s accessible 24-7,” said Anna Braasch, who manages the site for City Church, 2501 W. 56th St.

City Church was among the first churches in the country to begin using the site, testing it first last fall then doing a full rollout this spring.

Although she acknowledges some members may never sign or, Braasch said it has been largely embraced by church members in the months since and that nearly 70 percent of those who attend regularly have now created profiles.

“Now that the learning curve is done and people are using it, it’s just become a part of how we do ministry,” she said. “It’s really been integrated into everything we do.”

Among the users at City Church is Chris Thomas, who turned to The Table Project when her family was recently preparing to go out of town for 10 days.

Not wanting to obligate her friends or family, she asked fellow church members if anyone would be interested in taking care of her dachshund while she was away. Within an hour, she got three responses.

The dog was ultimately taken in by a family that was interested in getting a dog, and saw it as a chance to test the waters.

“It was a way of putting it out there without making anyone feel guilty if they had to say no, and here I ended up meeting a family at church that I wouldn’t have otherwise met,” Thomas said.

Such interactions go to the heart of what The Table Project’s creators sought to accomplish when they came up with the idea for the site three years ago and floating the idea among church leaders to see if it was something they would use.

The idea, they said, was to take the church away from a one-day-a-week experience and to turn it into a living body where members are able to communicate, serve and pray for one another in real time.

“Right now, a lot of churches operate from the top down,” said Wenell, who ran a men’s Christian magazine before working on the site. “It’s really turning the whole paradigm of the church on its head.”

And although there may be some concern that online interactions could detract from real world relationships, Wenell said he believes the site can actually promote more face-to-face connections.

He pointed to his own experience — sharing his truck with fellow members of Bethlehem Baptists — and a Pew Internet and American Life survey released in June that showed social media often translates into more meaningful relationships.

The survey showed people who used Facebook several times a day had an average of more than 9 percent more close, core ties in their overall social network compared with other internet users.

Church leaders such as Stephanie Williams, the associate Pastor at the Mill City Church in Northeast Minneapolis, are also using the site to develop stronger bonds.  

Williams said she has used the site to pose provocative questions to church members, glean ideas for Sunday sermons and keep abreast of important events in members’ lives, such as the anniversary of the death of a loved one.

Taking part in that conversation is an important function of being a church leader and members have come to expect her to communicate with them through the web, she said.

“If we’re [church leaders] not present online, then people won’t think we’re present at all,” Williams said. “In this day and age, presence means being online.”

For creators of The Table Project, though, the bottom line is that the site is intended to help the church be the church. And that, they say, means fulfilling a mission to serve.

“Serving and sharing resources — that’s what the Bible talks about,” Wenell said. “The Table Project is a real catalyst for that.”

To learn more about The Table Project, go to tableproject.org.