Thursday, January 15, 2015

What Social Media Has Done to Religious Life

This summer I'll be teaching at Kenyon College's Beyond Walls Spiritual Writing program in Gambier, Ohio. This one-week writing intensive program will teach clergy and seminary students how to be a more expressive, authentic, and skilled writer. The focus will be on writing op-eds, blogs, personal essays and social media. Below is the essay I wrote that was published in the Beyond Walls monthly digital magazine, in which I look at how the Internet and social media have disrupted religion and broken borders:

Social Media as a Borders Breaker in Religion
How the internet has disrupted Religion for good. Not just intrafaith, but interfaith too.

With billions of users between Facebook and Twitter alone (not to mention the dozens of other popular social networks), religion is being discussed in a borderless environment like never before. It's fair to say that the internet in general and social media in particular have disrupted religion for good. This disruption has not only been intrafaith, but interfaith as well. Religious leaders around the globe have never before had this level of engagement with each other and that means that religious life for future generations will be shaped by this new form of dialogue.

As social media increasingly becomes part of our daily lives, people will find new ways to interact with religion and spirituality. For some, this may be interacting with like-minded people on a synagogue or church Facebook page. For others, it may be learning a different holy text each day through a Twitter feed. In the Digital Age, religion and spirituality are being disseminated virtually and that means that time and location are no longer limiting factors. Answers to religious questions -- no matter from where they emanate -- are responded to in a fraction of the time they once were.

Each year of the 21st century, we are also seeing dynamic growth in the new communities of people of faith who do not affiliate with a bricks and mortar religious institution. These people, throughout the world, are nevertheless engaged in many aspects of a faith community through social networking. Increasingly, people will say they are religious or spiritual or inspired by religious texts, but only because they have chosen to plug in and engage with social media.

internet and faith

Jennifer Preston, writing in the NY Times explains that "while it’s too early to say that social media have transformed the way people practice religion, the number of people discussing faith on Facebook has significantly increased in the last year, according to company officials."

As a rabbi and a social media consultant for several synagogues around the country, I can report that congregational leaders (rabbis, educators and program directors) are noticing that large swaths of their membership are becoming more engaged in congregational programs, classes and discussion groups, but these folks are not walking into the synagogue building any more than they had previously.

They have found a new way to engage with their faith community and it's virtually. They might interact with prayer services from the streaming feed on the web or learn from the rabbi's weekly blog. If they have a question or a problem, they know they can chat with the rabbi through Facebook and receive an answer or pastoral counseling. An increasing number of synagogues have found that it is much easier to connect to the membership through social media. Events can be publicized and promoted with the help of other users who can like, comment and share (engage).

Virtual support groups, book clubs and study circles have emerged within congregations using the web. Sub-communities based on interest categories have formed in a grassroots format. Synagogue leaders report they have noticed a closer knit community thanks to the Digital Age as community members coordinate meals for bereaved families using Google Docs, know when a fellow congregant is in the hospital thanks to, and can easily find carpools to Hebrew School with the help of Google Maps.

A generation ago if congregants wanted to learn from the rabbi they had to come to the synagogue and hear a sermon or attend a class. Now, they can engage with their spiritual leader using social media, streaming video or by reading (and hopefully commenting on) a blog. There is still no surrogate for face-to-face human interaction, but social media has been a boon to religious engagement. As Rev. Kenneth Lillard, the author of Social Media and Ministry: Sharing the Gospel in the Digital Age, says, social media is "the best chance for religious leaders to expand their congregations since the printing press helped Martin Luther usher in the Protestant Reformation."

Today's faith leader may be apprehensive about embracing new media technology and feel ill-equipped to deal with the vast reach and immediacy of social media, but like any major innovation it will become second nature after a while. The average age of social networks like Facebook is on the rise (more grandparents are opening accounts daily) and this communication medium has become necessary in today's marketplace of ideas. An investment in social media can change the conversation a religious leader has with her congregation and community. Social media isn't simply optional anymore, it has become part of our social, mobile lives.

The borders are gone and this means the emphasis is no longer on the large bricks and mortar religious centers built in a different generation. Today's religious leaders must embrace this new technology if they want their institutions to be successful. Today's virtual spiritual communities through the internet are making religious life more attainable for millions and that will, in turn, drive more people into the pews.

The future is now and just as we're seeing other industries like medicine, automotive, and communication adjust to the rapidly growing innovation of the Digital Age, so too must the religious industry adapt. It behooves all religious leaders to get on board and embrace social media as a necessary tool in the arsenal of our ministry.

1 comment:

Lisa Colton said...

Jason -- thanks for articulating this so well. I'll add that I think there are a few dimensions that contribute to this.

1) Accessibility and flexibility: One can participate in smaller bites, from any location. It means more people can engage more often, and people who were maybe timid about a 'commitment' can put a toe in the water easily.

2) New understanding of the relationship between power and authority. While those in leadership positions and with deeper education (e.g. clergy, educators) may have some authority, power structures are flattening (in society, and in religious communities and institutions). Social media supports this flattening and is the medium through which we are starting to establish new cultures.

3) Peer to peer engagement. Faith-based communities are more than people who attend or belong to an institution. Social media puts the SOCIAL back in our understanding of community, which is so important.

I look forward to continuing the conversation!