Can social media lead to religious commitment?

Posted Jun 21, 2011 | New Media Project


By Lerone A. Martin

I really appreciated Kathryn Reklis’ recent blog post on Jonathan Edwards, distractions, and mindfulness. (She was responding to Jim Rice’s earlier post, “Can mindfulness be tweeted?”) As Kathryn noted, whether it be “frolicking in taverns, night walking,” dance halls, plays, phonographs, movie theatres, radio, television, or the Internet, religious leaders in America have always battled the popular leisure activities of the day for the spiritual attention of their parishioners.

From Jonathan Edward’s colonial days to Aimee Semple McPherson at the turn of the twentieth century and more recently T.D. Jakes, religious leaders have blamed popular leisure activities for distracting persons from religious commitment, prayer, and meditation, among other things. However, they didn’t stop there.

Insightful religious leaders have over time employed popular leisure activities as means to create social movements of religious participation. For example, to combat the distracting potential of the novelty of the novel, clergy flooded the market with religious books in the hopes of engendering religious participation. To vie for the public’s attention during the advent of radio, trendsetting clergy like Aimee Semple McPherson created an evangelical radio station patterned after the format of popular serial/variety radio shows. ;Pat Robertson’s attempt to rescue America from the religious diversion of television resulted in his show, “The 700 Club.” The program received much attention, in part, due to its purposeful resemblance to the popular television program, “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” Pastor T.D. Jakes has had similar success contending for the spiritual attention of moviegoers by producing gospel-centered major motion pictures. Simply put, for generations, popular media and forms of entertainment have been replicated and Christianized in efforts to increase religious dedication.

Today is no different. Cell phones, texting, Twitter, podcasts, and Facebook are being employed for religious purposes. To be sure, historically such efforts have had some measure of success at increasing the visibility of religion and religious participation. But, can the utilization of such social media also, and perhaps more importantly, increase religious commitment and dedication?

Best selling author Malcolm Gladwell (Blink, Tipping Point, Outliers) would probably answer with a resounding, “No!”  In his New Yorker article, “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be Tweeted,” Gladwell argues that social media can increase participation towards causes but not strong commitment to the same. For Gladwell, only the social interactions and bonds of real friends, not those of the Facebook genre, can produce and inspire strong commitment and dedication.

The commitments of those involved in the wide spread protests of the “Arab Spring” do give us pause regarding Gladwell’s conclusion. However, as Kathryn Reklis and Jim Rice acknowledge, employing social media for the purposes of mindfulness and religious commitment stand in danger of becoming lost in the frenzy of social media chatter. These religious efforts simply become another commodity for purchase, download, or consumption, but not perhaps for commitment.

While social media does not necessarily promote the deep roots of commitment, dedication, and sacrifice, it can, however, spread those same roots broadly across countless social circles. This offers religious leaders, bloggers, friends, ideas, convictions, and beliefs unprecedented reach. (See Monica Coleman’s blog post, “I met my pastor on Facebook.”) Popular leisure activities as well as their corresponding religious alternatives will continue to amplify and buzz and ding around us. However, to paraphrase the sentiments of Kathryn and Monica, religious social media is a means, not an end. It cannot be understood as an avatar or replacement for genuine spiritual discipline, commitment, mindfulness, and presence, whether that takes place in a church found on Facebook or during a Twitter-organized tavern frolic.

Lerone A. Martin, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Assistant Professor of American Religious History and Culture at Eden Theological Seminary in Saint Louis, MO.

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