This is a topic that is of particular interest to me. Having published a handful of scholarly and popular articles on the subject, including “Striving Toward Authenticity: Thomas Merton and the Millennial Search for Identity,” The Merton Annual 23 (2010), “Koinonia and the Church in the Digital Age,” Review for Religious 69 (2010), and “Digital Natives and Franciscan Spirituality,” Spiritual Life 56 (2010) [You can read these online], I was interested to see a recent article published in the San Francisco Chronicle titled, “Social Media Rebooting Religion,” by Elizabeth Drescher.
Drescher, a professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University, has written a book recently published titled, Tweet if You ♥ Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2011). Curiously enough, upon my arrival to Chicago, while talking with a Catholic bookstore manager who recently attended a Christian publishing conference, I was given a copy of this very book (perhaps more to come on that fuller text down the road).
Her article begins with the question: “Are Facebook and Twitter changing religion?” and proceeds to respond with some anecdotal reflections on the nature of social media and its impact on religious expression, community building and the like.
It seems clearer and clearer that the ever-growing dominance of social media – especially on mobile computing devices like smart phones and tablets – is bringing religion back into the daily lives of many, while challenging religious institutions to revise notions of spiritual identity and community in both online and face-to-face worship.
Naming a few recent instances where one could see a digital-“real life” correlation involving religious practice, Drescher highlights the potential intersection of new social media and more traditional religious expression. Ultimately, it seems that Drescher ends on an optimistic note about the relationship (fraught at times though it may be) between technology and religion.
More than new gimmicks for those who already love religion, these new digitally influenced practices have the potential to move those who love social media as well as those who dig a good brew or a healthy hike to re-engage with traditions that have for too long excluded them by functioning only outside of their everyday experience. They hold out the possibility to reboot faith communities that have long been flashing “fail” to believers and seekers alike.
On one hand, I think it might be too early to tell. Yet, on the other hand, I am certainly convinced of the necessity for today’s ministers to be present online through outlets like Facebook and Twitter, as well as through podcasts and blogs (such as this one!). Just as the printing press made access to Scripture accessible for the masses, so too this new technological revolution has begun to reshape how it is we communicate, socialize and minister. While social media and digital technology is not a panacea for problems that confront today’s spiritual seekers, it is (contrary to the views of those who refrain from embracing it) a necessary and even positive resource for engagement and continued communication.