New media and religion: Year in review

Posted Dec 23, 2011 | New Media Project

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By Lerone A. Martin


Last week a church in New Zealand erected a billboard depicting a shocked Mary beholding a positive pregnancy test. St. Matthews-in-the-City Church chose to display the billboard without caption. Instead, from now until the end of Advent, witnesses will Tweet, text, and email their own captions to the church’s digital networks.

This display of two-way religious conversation is a fitting close to a year filled with countless stories of how the intersections of new media and religion are transforming religion and culture.

For example, 2011 was the year of the app. There are now over half a million apps available for Apple, Android, and Blackberry phones and tablets. Many of these apps are altering how the faithful engage God. Religion apps offer full versions of holy texts for easily searchable reference, themed devotional reminders, prayer apps that allow the faithful to send prayers to others as well as across the world to be placed at sacred sites, and, finally, the ability to make virtual offerings to deities. God is omnipresent, even in our pockets and briefcases.

This year also marked the ascendance of the Jesus Daily Facebook page as one of the most engaged pages on the social networking site. The page offers daily religious inspiration to its many readers, popularizes an icon of Christ, and consistently boasts more activity on Facebook than the top-rated pages of celebrities Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga. Anyone who is familiar with Bieber-mania knows this is no simple feat!

2011 will also be remembered as the year that gave us a “Yelp” page for clergy. The German website Hirtenbarometer (translated “The Shepherds’ Barometer”) provides a tool to evaluate the performance of clergy. Using a scale of one to six sheep, users rate the nation’s clergy with respect to worship leadership, outreach, rapport with congregants, credibility, relevance, and of course the degree to which respective clergy are using cutting edge technology. One of the site curators stated, “Think of this as a the trip adviser for churchgoers.”

The democratizing effects of new media upon religion have no end.

Social media, namely Twitter, and their relationship to community building was a pressing question of the year. The use of social media during the Arab Spring and, more recently, the Occupy Wall Street movement raised serious questions regarding what kind of relationships social media can create and support. Can “strong tie” relationships—a hallmark of spirited faith communities as well as effective social movements—be developed effectively by social media?

To be sure, 2012 will no doubt bring us ever more new communication technologies. How these technologies will intersect with religion, religious practices, and faith communities is uncertain. However, as 2011 has indicated, one thing is certain: the religious engagement of social media is no fad, nor can it be relegated to the realm of religious fringe groups. Rather, social media are indeed an established facet of religion in the twenty-first century.

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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