Why are some tweets more popular than others?
When a Twitter staff member set out to answer that question 10 months ago, he thought the answer would emerge among posts from N.B.A. players, politicians or actors. Instead, he found a mystery: a set of messages that were ricocheting around Twitter, being forwarded and responded to at a rate that was off the charts.
“They were punching way above their weight,” said Robin Sloan, who discovered the anomaly but did not recognize the names behind the tweets.
Joyce Meyer, Max Lucado and Andy Stanley were not well known inside Twitter’s offices. But they had all built loyal ranks of followers well beyond their social networks — they were evangelical Christian leaders whose inspirational messages of God’s love perform about 30 times as well as Twitter messages from pop culture powerhouses like Lady Gaga.
Fifteen percent of adult Internet users in the United States are on Twitter, and about half of those use the network every day, according to a report published this week by the Pew Research Center. But Twitter is always looking for ways to add new users. And so, with this new insight, the company sent a senior executive, Claire Díaz-Ortiz, on a mission: to bring more religious leaders into the Twitter fold.
“We had looked at different groups, like C.E.O.’s and high-level executives, thinking, oh, do we need to spend more time with them?” she said. “And then this religion thing popped up.”
Last month, Ms. Díaz-Ortiz — who has an M.B.A. from Oxford, and whose many years abroad include work at a Christian orphanage in Kenya — moved from San Francisco to Atlanta to be closer to the evangelical leaders she would be calling on. With religious leaders, she said, “it’s so much about being at the table and breaking bread with folks.”
Now she spends half of her time on the road, offering training, analytics and help to swat away impostor accounts, as well as encouraging leaders to be less promotional and more personal in their posts. Twitter has offered similar support to celebrities and athletes since the company’s founding.
In early May, Ms. Díaz-Ortiz, 30, traveled to a megachurch in Carrollton, Tex., for the Catalyst conference, where she navigated around D.J.’s remixing Adele and among booths for Chick-fil-A, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism and the retro eyewear maker Warby Parker. She led a workshop session, gave interviews, posted conference highlights on Twitter, defended occasional oversharing and reflexively corrected the verbal fumblings of the uninitiated.
“I don’t Twitter,” one pastor confessed. “Tweet,” she sighed, with her eyes closed, for what seemed the hundredth time.
Perhaps her most important work, however, was among the many pastors in attendance, some of whom, she said, have 3,000 or 4,000 followers at their church — a built-in network of potential Twitter users who are already familiar with the power of short messages.
“Pastors tell me, Twitter is just made for the Bible,” Ms. Díaz-Ortiz said.
It’s close. On average, verses in the King James Version are about 100 characters long, leaving room to slip in a #bible hashtag and still come in under the 140-character limit.
And proverbs are powerful draws on Twitter.
Consider this post in April from Bishop T. D. Jakes: “Your words will tell others what you think. Your actions will tell them what you believe.”
His message was forwarded 2,490 times — just shy of the 2,491 retweets that the pop singer Katy Perry generated the same month with this message to her fans: “Sometimes jet lag makes me feel like a cross eyed crack head #muststayawake.”
Both messages performed remarkably well. But there was a key difference: Bishop Jakes has 450,000 followers, while Ms. Perry has 20 million.
Voices less famous than Bishop Jakes also benefit from this “engagement” effect, suggesting that it is driven less by fame than by inspirational content.
Ann Voskamp, a mother of six who lives on a farm in Ontario, is one of those voices. Her book “One Thousand Gifts,” about moments of everyday grace, started a Twitter conversation that is still going 18 months after its publication.
Under the hashtag #1000gifts, readers share their own moments, like “seeing the beauty in the mess” and “sitting down at the table to eat dinner as a family.” Dozens of #1000gifts posts are still sent every day.
Mrs. Voskamp says the network is successful as a source of spiritual support because it is tailor-made for today’s culture. “In a fast world, they get what they need from that one little tweet,” she said.
While many ministers say that Facebook is better for staying in touch with church members, Twitter can connect Christian leaders to new audiences.
In particular, women — like Mrs. Voskamp and Lysa TerKeurst, author of the book “Made to Crave,” about women’s relationships with God and food — have found Twitter surprisingly effective for building influence outside traditional church hierarchies, in a way that they say would not have been possible 10 years ago.
Despite these advances, many religious leaders say spiritual humility can be lost in efforts to “build a platform,” leaving some to wonder if there are dangers in relying too much on public conversation for matters of the soul.
“Social media’s like a brick — you can use it to build an orphanage or throw it through somebody’s car window,” said Jon Acuff, the author of “Stuff Christians Like” and a regular speaker.
He added that he struggled with the lure of social media, and that he used a printed Bible in church, rather than his iPhone app, because of the temptation to check Twitter. It is a new gray area that Christians are still trying to figure out, he said.
“There’s no precedent,” he added. “We can’t go, ‘Here’s how C. S. Lewis handled Twitter.’ ”
Jeanne Stevens has wrestled with the same issues in her ministry. With her husband, Jarrett, she started a church, Soul City, in Chicago that has had an immediate payoff from Twitter.
“My life has changed because of it. I know that sounds kind of hokey, but it truly has,” Ms. Kirkland said. “Twitter opened my eyes to something that was bigger.”
Still, her new pastor, Mrs. Stevens, said she was trying to understand the fine line between an inner spiritual life and a very public Twitter feed.
Mrs. Stevens noted that there was a passage in the Scriptures in which Mary, upon learning from an angel that she was going to have a baby, “pondered these things in her heart.”
It is a line that Mrs. Stevens said she thought of often in the age of Twitter: “How do you know the difference when you should ponder something in your heart versus when you should tweet it?”
The advice that Ms. Díaz-Ortiz offers is simple.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” she said, pausing to add, “on Twitter.”