19 Jan 2015

The Disruptive Influence of the Internet on Religion

The Dalai Lama clocks up an impressive 10 million followers on Twitter: twice as many as the Pope.

Religion has embraced internet technology in order to reach, engage and connect with its audience in new ways, bringing religion outside the confines or church or temple and into the pockets of followers via their mobile devices.

“Twitter is just made for the Bible,” says Twitter guru Claire Díaz-Ortiz. With the average bible verse clocking up around 100 characters there’s plenty of room for a hashtag to keep under the 140-character limit.

It’s certainly worked for bestselling evangelical Christian author Ann Voskamp, who initiated a long-running faith-inspired hashtag #1000gifts. Her view is that this channel excels at carrying messages of spiritual support because it is tailor-made for today’s snackable-content culture. “In a fast world, they get what they need from that one little tweet,” Voskamp commented.

Charismatic pastors are certainly acing this particular social media platform when it comes to engagement. Singer Katy Perry boasts a huge 63 million Twitter followers – in 2014 she overtook teeny bopping assclown Justin Bieber to become the most followed account on the platform.

But Perry’s tweet complaining of jetlag clocked up only 3,117 interactions from her unsympathetic followers. Dallas-based preacher TD Jakes, who has only a fraction of Perry’s followers at 1.7 million, had nearly the same number of interactions for the homily he tweeted:

When it comes to social media, religious-inspired content flies on silver wings across the internet. Accounts by Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan, and by evangelical Christian leaders such as Joyce Meyer, Max Lucado and Andy Stanley, punch well above their weight in terms of influence across Twitter. In general their messages intended to inspire their loyal followers will perform 30 times better than the more secular thoughts of Lady Gaga and her showbiz colleagues. In terms of reach and engagement, faith-based content is a powerful force in social media. Twitter isn’t the only modern tool religions are embracing to get their message across. Many of the most popular ministers are broadcasting their messages via mobile, tablet, PC and TV so their widespread congregations can watch services when and where it suits them. In the US, Pastor Joyce Meyer seems to be leading the way with her own mobile app to enhance her web presence. She reaches her wide audience via a number of social media channels, a blog, video cloud and syndicated TV program.

The internet has helped many organizations, secular and otherwise, reach a wider audience than would otherwise have been possible. The controversial Church of Scientology offers an online introductory course in 15 languages. Videos of US Charismatic pastor Joyce Meyer preaching have over a million views on YouTube and help introduce her to audiences in Germany, France, the UK and Netherlands – all of which she is due to tour in 2015.

The net has also introduced an element of anonymity that’s previously been unavailable outside the confessional booth. Rabbis are available every day (except the Sabbath) to answer questions at askmoses.com and you can put your faith-based questions to the Islamic forum at islamdebate.com.

Of course, the internet also offers opportunities for criticism of religion movements. There’s a fake Ann Voskamp account on Twitter, and Scientology faces regular challenges including various sites set up by former church members testifying against the movement.

But the internet offers more than a platform for a few dissenting voices. It has the potential to be a much more significant disruptive influence. Some religious leaders have expressed concerns that spiritual humility could be lost in the struggle to build a following for the message.

Figures like Voskamp and Meyer have built huge followings online with their keenness to share – childhood abuse in Meyer’s case, domestic struggles in Voskamp’s. Not everyone agrees that faith is best expressed on a hugely public social media network rather than through an inner spiritual reflection. Figures such as the Pope and Dalai Lama seem positively buttoned-up compared to the oversharing of some faith accounts in the social space.

Religion hasn’t always excelled at giving voices to female followers, and it’s noticeable that Voskamp and Meyer are both women testifying their faith to an audience consisting largely of women.

The internet now offers opportunities for women to become serious influencers in the religious space, bypassing any glass ceilings within the church hierarchy to gain huge followings outside of it.

This suggests that the future of religious leadership could be in the hands of those who perform best via the content format of social media, or who can best respond to the needs of their online audience. This could be an extremely disruptive influence on the organizational status quo of many religions. A faith leader no longer needs the backing of an established church in order to obtain a platform and audience.

The internet could also disrupt the geographic foundation of faith communities. Many local churches have found Facebook a useful tool for communicating with their immediate congregation but the internet could potential threaten the geographic congregation base of the average local small church. Followers now have the potential to turn away from their neighbourhood church in favour of their spiritual needs being fulfilled online.

This may mean more church buildings close as the power bases of media-savvy religious figures expand online. The religious individual potentially has more choice of who they follow if they aren’t restricted by geography, meaning faith communities will no longer be defined by geography but rather by belief. This undermines the strong historic pastoral role of the church in supporting the immediate local community.

Of course, this could also mean that the church’s benevolence can relocate to where it’s arguably most needed – Joyce Meyer Ministries is particularly active in disaster relief worldwide including areas such as Haiti. Potentially these large online communities could be far more influential than small local religious foundations such as churches because they could represent a bigger community of followers.

What’s clear is that faith is finding new tools to spread its messages: exactly how this will manifest itself as a disruptive influence remains to be seen.


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