Social Media Provides New Opportunites and Challenges for Religious Leaders
If you are like 80% of Americans, you wake up and go to sleep checking your phone. What are we checking? The majority of people who check their phones constantly are usually looking at their social media profiles. And many people use social media to express their religion. 1 in 3 Facebook users declare their religion on their profiles and 4 in 10 publicly support a religious organization or page.
Social media is being increasingly used by religious leaders as a way to communicate to both their congregations and to other groups. Pope Francis gained over 1 million followers within 12 hours of creating an account. Religious leaders can get both higher engagement and retweets than pop stars. T.D. Jakes beats Katy Perry.
I am beginning a new journey, on Instagram, to walk with you along the path of mercy and the tenderness of God.
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) March 19, 2016
How has this changed the nature of religious communication? First, a study has shown that the use of social media has promoted more political stances from religious leaders. Second, individuals that are more likely to engage or discuss religion on social media have a different view of religion. Focusing less on the almighty and more on social services, these users feel that they can pick and choose different belief systems. Second, while users can retain more information from a screen, they read it flatter, like a Wikipedia page, and some religious scholars argue this is making the readings of religious texts lose much of their nuance and spiritual quality.
Church leaders that are savvy in tech make the case that individuals may forget how conversations or arguments on social media are public, and a theological argument could be seen as a sign of disunity or may not be appropriate for a public forum. The advantages of being able to communicate directly with both believers and non-believers allows more interpersonal connections that religious leaders sometimes are unable to get through speaking during religious meetings. It does come with a “buyer beware” function that requires leaders to be more understanding and the purpose of who they are trying to reach out for and who they are speaking to.