RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–When 79-year-old June Livingstone discovered she could see the latest pictures of her family and grandchildren on Facebook, she decided it was time to sign up. But it wasn’t her loved ones who completely hooked her on the social media craze. It was missions.
For about a year, IMB’s Office of Global Prayer Strategy has posted prayer requests and updates from missionaries overseas through CompassionNet on Facebook. But on April 1 the mission board IMB took it a step further and launched a prayer app — CompassionNet — which offers even easier access from smartphones (iPhones and Android phones) and iPads. There, users can also find missionary blog excerpts, video clips and MP3 prayer guides.
Since discovering CompassionNet on Facebook, Livingstone checks it daily and has become a regular commenter on the page.
“It’s my very favorite thing on Facebook,” said Livingstone, a member of Forest Hills Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn.
Livingstone is part of one of the fastest growing age groups — women over 55 — using Facebook, according to recent studies. And she is one of the more than 500 million people around the world using Facebook to stay connected. Livingstone enjoys logging onto Facebook to see the latest pictures of her four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. But she spends most of her time online reading prayer requests, praying and responding to posts with written prayers of her own.
“It’s given me a ministry,” said Livingstone, who used to enjoy volunteer mission trips around the globe. “I can’t travel very much anymore, but I like to pray.
“I’m amazed at how much more I do pray,” she added. “I think it does me more good than it does [the missionaries].”
Ed Cox, director of International Mission Board’s Office of Global Prayer Strategy, hopes others, like Livingstone, will continue to utilize social media to provide prayer support for God’s work.
“[Social networking] is a major communication force within society,” he said.
“I really became convinced that if we were going to communicate with Southern Baptists we need to be where they are … and they are on Facebook. They are on Twitter.”
That realization has kept the prayer office busy posting multiple prayer requests and updates each day through Twitter and Facebook. These posts not only create awareness, they also provide encouragement for missionaries on the field, Cox said.
“[Missionaries] hear constantly, ‘I’m praying for you,'” he said. “[But] this allows them to be able to kind of go into the prayer closet with the intercessor.
“I think the powerful thing behind Facebook, as opposed to our e-newsletters and our website, is the fact that people have the opportunity to interact.”
With more than 750 followers of “IMBprayerdir” on Twitter and more than 3,100 friends of CompassionNet on Facebook, Cox says there is a lot of untapped potential still out there.
“Charlie Sheen [was] getting 2,500 [followers on Twitter] a minute,” Cox said. “In the scheme of things, in the potential that’s out there, we are a pebble of sand. With 16 million Southern Baptists, 750 is really insignificant.
“We’re just trying to build that base.”
The social media channels also can help reach younger audiences looking for a quicker way to interact with global prayer needs. Younger adults are not as likely to sit down with a prayer list and pray for 15 or 20 minutes on missions, Cox said.
“They pray on the go … as it comes into their mind,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is go where they are.”
Cox acknowledges there are plenty of critics of social media.
In recent months, numerous negative stories about social media have surfaced. Some reported that sites such as Facebook have contributed to more infidelity in marriages. Some studies show that children who use them develop a lower self-esteem or become more susceptible to bullying and Internet predators.
Said Bert Yates, who serves with IMB in Kenya, “I had a missionary last week explain to me that Facebook is a ‘tool of the devil and no missionary should ever use it.'”
“I kept my cool and tried to share in a gentle way of how I’ve seen God bless the sharing of His work on Facebook.”
Yates contends social media can be valuable — if used properly — in educating people on the importance of global missions.
“My major goal is to use blogs, Facebook … to share what God is doing in our part of the world,” she said.
“I believe strongly that when people know how their prayers [are helping], they will respond with more prayer, more involvement.”
For more ways to pray for missions, visit imb.org/main/pray or find CompassionNet on Facebook. You can follow Ed Cox at “IMBprayerdir” on Twitter. Also, check out CompassionNet’s new app for iPhone, iPad and Android. Download for iPhone or iPad at http://bit.ly/dFI6De  or for Android at http://bit.ly/hu0JlT .
Alan James is an IMB writer.