We’ve all seen them. Whether on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, blog posts, in the news, on TV and anywhere else media is consumed. For those of us older than 30 or so, it’s the character that we have always called “pound” or “number sign”, but this old familiar crosshatch symbol has been repurposed and give new technological life as the famous “hashtag.”

So, what is all the hashtag buzz about? Is it just a cute little social media thing that people use to be funny, or does it have a purpose, and even more importantly, can we leverage it for the furtherance of God’s kingdom? Let’s find out…

How hashtags work:

Let’s say you have a collection of items and you have a collection of labels describing the features of those items. To organize the items, you would take the feature labels and apply them to the items which they properly describe. Any item could have any number of labels applied that accurately describe the item’s features. Let’s say one of the items was a small blue marble. That particular item might have the labels “blue”, “glass”, and “ball.” If someone wanted to quickly see all the items in your collection that were “blue” in color, they could choose the “blue” label to isolate every item in your collection to which that label was applied.

This is how hashtags work. They allow us to label or tag content that is of a certain subject nature, so that it can be quickly called out or filtered with a simple search. On social networks, this is often accomplished by simply clicking or tapping any given hashtag to aggregate all content (posts, articles, etc) to which that particular hashtag has been applied. Let’s say you wanted to see the latest Tweets from across the world that had been labeled “creation.” With a quick Twitter search of “#creation” you could accomplish that.

What hashtags are not:

1. Hashtags are not an opportunity for you to try your hand at comedy. Now listen, if you want to use “#idontknowwhatimdoingsojustleavemealone” with your Facebook post, you’re allowed to do that, just know that it will not serve any purpose other than its slight humor value. Nobody else is going to use that tag, and it has no searchable value!

2. Hashtags are not a contest to see who can use the most of them in any given post. At the point you have more hashtags in your post than actual words, you’ve gone way too far.

3. Hashtags are not common words. Once you understand how they work, it doesn’t make sense to make a post such as “We had a great #time at the church picnic #today. Lots of fun #and games for #everyone!” The hashtags you used have no real significance and provide no searchable value. Only use them when they make sense, such as “Had a great time serving our #Fresno community this weekend.” In that scenario, this unique hashtag would have searchable value.

So how can we use hashtags effectively in our churches?

1. Establish a universal hashtag for your ministry. Decide on a simple but unique hashtag to use for your church, and make it known to your congregation often. Encourage them to use this hashtag on social media whenever they are posting content that is related to your ministry. At our church, we use the hashtag #FresnoChurch often. By searching that hashtag you can quickly view a collection of posts and comments related to your church.

2. Establish hashtags for ministries within your church. It’s a nice option to be able to quickly find out what’s going on in social media with your children’s ministry, outreach ministries, evangelistic efforts, etc by using unique hashtags for those ministries. Why not encourage people to use “FBCKidZone” for your First Baptist Church children’s ministry? With one or two clicks, you can get the scoop on what’s being shared socially.

3. Use unique hashtags for special events. It’s a great idea to use a unique identifier for your special meeting, conference, or event. The challenge is to make it unique, but also simple. If it is too complicated, people will easily misspell it or avoid it altogether. For instance “#TrainUpAChildInTheWayHeShouldGo2016Conference” is unique, but way too long. People won’t use it. Something like “#TrainUp2016” would be much simpler and more relevant. Again, it is very important to broadcast your hashtag to event participants and encourage them to use it in their posts. If they don’t know what it is, they won’t use it.

A few important tips:

Research hashtags before using them. Before you decide on a particular hashtag for your church, ministry, or event, make sure you search it on the social networks first to make sure it’s not being used by someone else already. The last thing you want to do is inadvertently use a hashtag that brings objectionable search results. Also, have a couple of other people review your hashtag ideas to make sure they don’t communicate something that you aren’t intending them to communicate.

Avoid symbols and punctuation in your hashtags. Dashes, periods, exclamation points, underscores, etc can clutter up a hashtag and detract from your clarity. Avoid using these special characters as much as possible!

Don’t overdo it. We’ve got to keep it real with hashtags. While they can be a good tool, they can also start getting annoying if people get the idea that it’s all you care about. Make sure the hashtags are known, and then move on with your ministering. At the end of the day, we know that God will build His church with or without hashtags. They are just a communication tool, not a ministry breaker!

What successes or failures has your ministry had with hashtags? We’d love to hear about it, whether good, bad, or ugly. Make sure to comment with input and suggestions!