America @ Worship

How social media is – and isn't – changing American religion.

In the beginning, there were broadsides and ballads, sermons and stained glass, to spark the minds of America’s religious leaders and lay communities. Then came electric light. Between the 1880s and the 1930s, people across the country adapted to brighter spaces and longer hours for work, leisure, and prayer. Grey saints’ windows glowed anew, and light bulbs shone on synagogue memorial plaques. Bulletins and announcements clacked along more quickly as parish secretaries met typewriters. The dazzle and flash of the new technology altered the religious soundscape. In 1889, for example, electric motors powered the cathedral organs booming out old hymns to New Yorkers congregating for Thanksgiving. Part worship aid, part amusement, electricity seeped steadily into modern parishioners craving a soulful—and novel—experience. By 1924, at least one American architect felt comfortable advertising that an illuminated church raised one’s “consciousness of a sublime relationship between the Infinite.” The modern link between God and man, as many saw it, might just be a light switch away.

A century later, religious communities are once again experimenting with a new form of electronic technology. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat have revolutionized politics, culture, and family life, and so their adoption by faith communities is hardly surprising. Some practioners have bristled at the intrusion of social media into sacred spaces, but the current moment presents scholars with new opportunities. We have long used print culture to decode shifts in expressions of belief; social media provides us with an interesting new primary source.

Long before American religion’s electric rebirth, worship communities tinkered with technological ways to augment the reality of inherited spiritual practice. The New World’s traveling preachers, like George Whitefield, strapped hinged pulpits to their horses, emphasizing Protestantism’s power of portability. Nuns of the Gilded Age and Progressive eras, busy laying down the country’s infrastructure of education, healthcare, and social work, employed organizing tactics reminiscent of today’s activist sisters.

At the dawn of the “American Century,” many came to see religion as a malleable form of therapeutic culture, and, to a great degree, modern technology has burnished that view. On Twitter, a rising tide of “tiny carebots” nudge us daily to eat, sleep, and breathe. For all of their emoji-bejewelled charm, those automated reminders seem to repeat the 19th-century Transcendentalists’ call to nature (“Please take a quick second to look at the sky” or “Take a second to play a song that helps you feel peaceful please”). Meanwhile, on Facebook, many churches supplement their services with videotaped sermons, regular Bible verse posts, and rich comment threads. There’s an early American callback there, too, to the dynamic preachers who galvanized camp-meetings, hoping to kindle evangelical awakenings. American religious leaders, then as now, were eager to meet people where they already were. The ancient field of pastoral care has evolved and moved, from forest ministry to sermon by Snapchat.

The ways in which Americans express their beliefs online may point in the direction that faith practice is headed in a country facing “an empty-church problem.” With the golden age of televangelism receding,, the internet’s capacity to gather up far-flung souls in community offers a new path to a spiritual communion. Social media offers a fresh outlet to distribute live services, or share in the observance of a holy time like Ramadan.  For many, the call-and-response mode of social media supplies another pew in which to show and tell faith. Read or hear the steady beat of hashtag activism, with its sustained thematic focus, and then consider the complex layers of discourse embedded in Buddhist chants

Pollsters assessing the state of the nation’s faith may want to look online, where many Americans have grown comfortable shifting around rituals, tweaking intercessions as needed, and rethinking centuries-old sacraments. (Even mourning has “gone viral,” with strangers converging on a thread to recover from loss). The digital age has armed Americans with multiple ways to begin new conversations on faith, or, as in the case of #EmptythePews, to explain why they’ve chosen to shed it.

Finally, all of this raises questions not simply about religious practice, but historical method as well. It’s tempting to imagine the future of the nation’s religious past, in light of the new digital cathedral that we’re building daily, by tweet and ’gram. In a world made by “followers,” which beliefs will social media archive for scholars?