Back to the future

Posted Sep 21, 2011 | New Media Project

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By Lerone A. Martin


Religious groups throughout American history have utilized new forms of media to stave off social and cultural change. Scholars, religious practitioners, and religious leaders today are considering how new media is transforming religion. The increasing number of social media and virtual “congregations,” such as the highly popular Facebook page, Jesus Daily, signal the harbinger and acceptance of the future of American religious experience and gathering as one that will primarily occur online.

However, the often under told story of new media consists of a rich tradition of religious groups employing emerging media forms as a way of combating technology’s ability to restructure and marginalize religion and religious institutions themselves.

That is to say, in an ironic twist, throughout history some of the most popular American religious media entrepreneurs have actually been those who use forms of new media as bullhorns for a passionate return to the days of old—a time that existed before the advent of the very technology they employ.

The establishment of the phonograph as a new form of mass media witnessed the rise of recorded religious material that bemoaned the cultural and social transformations of the early twentieth century. Jehovah Witnesses, Billy Sunday, and a host of African American preachers, to name a few, used phonograph recordings to lament the transformations of religious institutions that were brought on by such new forms of technology. Likewise, Charles Fuller became extremely popular when he used the new media of radio to broadcast his “Old Fashioned Revival Hour,” a champion of nostalgia for the passing days of traveling tent revivals. Today is no different. Joyce Meyer Ministries, for example, ranks in the top tier of Facebook pages. However, her ministry recently issued a call for America to return to the days of public and media decency, an age when all media content was regulated, unlike her top rated Facebook page.

Religious media entrepreneurs who look back for a vision of the future usually experience significant success. Despite their pessimistic outlook of the future and technology, their use of the same enables them to weather changes in society and oftentimes positions them on the forefront of religious revivals and increased worship attendance and participation.

The stage may be set for our generation to witness such an ironic twist. Perhaps the religious uses of social media will not completely remake American religion after all. Maybe online religious communities will not become the norm or the most vibrant complement to religious experience. It's possible that the virtual connections provided by popular religious social media may, in the end, actually compel parishioners back into the good ole’ days of viewing the physical gathering for worship a must for religious experience. Time and the number of clicks will certainly tell.

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.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

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