Community formation and social media: Community beyond statistics

Posted Jun 24, 2014 | New Media Project


By Kathryn Reklis

This is the fifth in a twelve-part series on Community formation and social media.

Kathryn ReklisLast fall the National Catholic Reporter published an article on a recent study conducted by Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA): “Study: Most Catholics aren't searching for spirituality online.” The study focused on Catholics who attend mass at least once a week and found that of that group only “13 percent of them read Catholic blogs and 17 percent view religious material on YouTube,” whereas one in four read diocesan newspapers or magazines in print form.

The implication of this study, as it was framed by NCR reporter Carol Zimmerman, was that the hype about “going digital” may be overblown and that Catholic news sources and communication offices would be ill served to neglect the often maligned forms of old church media—the parish bulletins and magazines. While the study focused on Catholics in particular, similar worries haunt mainline Protestant online endeavors: Who is reading this stuff? Does it matter?

There are several interesting variables to the CARA study that are not fleshed out but are worth paying attention to. By focusing only on Catholics who regularly attend mass, the study leaves out the many Catholics for whom religious identity is more a matter of flux and discernment than steady practice. (I am thinking, in particular, of the body of case studies in the growing field of “deconversion” studies.) One also presumes that other demographic factors—age, gender, educational level, primary language, etc.—may factor into these statistics, though they were not discussed in the report.

More provocatively, however, is the title of the NCR piece itself. What does it mean to “search for spirituality” online? Is the point of online community to fulfill a spiritual quest? What does that mean concretely? Finding like-minded individuals to share stories? Affirmation of what one already believes? New teachings? Community news?

It seems worth paying attention to different levels at which religious community identity is formed, online and off. One level involves the identity of particular communities. St. Francis Xavier Church, for example, wants to grow its community connectedness through various fellowship and outreach endeavors. Here, I think, online and social media platforms can be very helpful. Most social media work to strengthen relationships that are already existent, so using a Facebook or Meetup group to organize activities, share news, learn details about each other’s personal lives, and be present in small moments throughout the day can extend a sense of lived connection. As we’ve discussed in our recommendations on this site, however, this assumes that a decent percentage of the church’s members are already online and that these forms fit the mission and identity of the community to begin with.

Then there is the “community identity” question in a much larger perspective—Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterian, or even just “Christian” identity. Statistics and studies are both slight, and somewhat unhelpful, when it comes to this question. We know, for instance, how many likes the Jesus Daily page gets on Facebook (over 26 million) and how many followers the Pope (@Pontifex) has on Twitter (over 4 million). But what do these statistics mean about the way people identify with faith traditions, much less faith communities?

One salient point the CARA study drives home is that measuring religious identity starting with church attendance is not a sufficient metric. How, for instance, do we measure the religious identity of a person who does not attend church regularly, but who does read religious blogs or articles if they come across her Facebook feed, reTweets the Pope’s moral injunctions against poverty, and responds to her friends prayer requests online?

It is easy to see these examples as a kind of consumer-minded Christianity or the online equivalent of “Easter and Christmas” Christians—people for whom the church offers social, cultural, or personal meaning when convenient but who are not enmeshed in “real community.” But the problem of defining real community is as old as the biblical insistence that humans cannot judge the heart. Picking and choosing what parts of the tradition to follow or which practices to cultivate is just as much a problem for the regular as the erstwhile church attender.

The only way to begin to take the measure of what these online practices mean for faith communities and religious identity is to be present to them. We can only make sense of what community we might be building together online by being present there. This seems as good a reason for religious leaders, community developers, and just plain Christians showing up online as measuring blog statistics.

Kathryn Reklis, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Assistant Professor of Modern Protestant Theology at Fordham University, and the Co-Director of the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary.

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