Over the Easter weekend, the Church of England encouraged its congregation to share photos of their services and celebrations on social media using the hashtag #EasterJoy. It’s not strange for a large organisation to interact with its members and promote its message in this way. But the democratic nature of social media is allowing the church to play a much more unusual role in such a traditionally hierarchical body.
In contrast to the conventional top-down model of preaching Christianity via trained priests, social media is enabling many ordinary Christians to have one-to-one conversations about their faith with non-believers. As one minister, Rev Pam Smith, author of Online Mission and Ministry, put it to me:
This provides a much more realistic picture of the church as a collection of followers of Jesus rather than a monolithic organisation which occasionally pronounces unfavourably on contemporary society and is, in turn, judged by its organisational failures. Jesus often encountered people individually. Social media gives us the same personal access to people. This is an every-member ministry, and it’s exciting and inspiring.
Many established churches, such as the Anglican and Catholic churches, have moved from relying heavily on audience participation in their services over the last few hundred years, to a passive model where the congregation receives a presentation. In particular, the design of churches changed after the Reformation to reflect a wider cultural shift from a networked, social form of religion to one where spirituality was broadcast to more passive consumers. TV and radio have helped reinforce the idea that they would quietly receive information rather than joining in the service.
Similarly, while many churches are finally starting to understand that engaging their followers online is important, they still need convincing that the way to do this involves more than just setting up a website. Many of those in the church have bought into the idea that what happens online is virtual, rather than an embedded part of our everyday lives.
Social media offers much more space for congregations to actively engage with sermons by tweeting along, asking questions, sharing photos of church activities, or continuing discussions throughout the week, not just on Sundays. For example, between 2010 and 2015, the Big Bible Project hosted online conversations about the bible for local reading groups and encouraged people to share digital case studies of personal experiences. More experimental parts of the church have held online services and used streaming to reach people who can’t be there in person.
As well as becoming part of church practice, social media is taking church activities back out into the online world. Faith is a full-time activity and social media is part of our everyday lives, so it is not surprising that the two can overlap. For example, church members can use Twitter to share insights from the bible or stories of their lives within the organisation, but they can also bring their Christian viewpoint to discussions on local, national and international politics.
Social media is also helping to open up and humanise the church. The distance and anonymity created between people when they communicate online can help shed inhibitions in a way that is often blamed for abusive behaviour. But it can also encourage people to become comfortable enough to ask questions about faith, especially via private messaging. The humorous nature of many social media posts can also act as a starting point for more serious discussions about religion.
Church leaders’ involvement
Although much of this activity is happening outside the established hierarchy, some church leaders are noticing the opportunity social media creates to change their relationship with their members. We have watched the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, cathedrals, churches and both lay and ordained leaders join Twitter and other social media. These media offer opportunities for 24/7 engagement, whether experimental, or more profound, as in the recent revelations about Archbishop Justin Welby’s parentage.
There are many opportunities to experiment with simple, inexpensive ideas. Facebook groups can give clear social and connection value, especially for those in their 20s and 30s and parent/toddler groups. Churches have used photo and video sites such as Instagram and Vine to see what is going on inside their buildings. They’ve even also created geocaches – markers on online maps as part of an international orienteering movement – in their grounds to encourage people to visit.
As Smith says: “There is no limit other than our imaginations in how we might use these new communication opportunities to reach people.”