How media changes American culture and religion

By Lerone A. Martin
May 10, 2012


This essay is one of six in a collection of theological reflections on social media and new media conducted by the New Media Research Fellows at Union Theological Seminary. They are based upon the case studies conducted by the research fellows in 2011. Explore the Findings tab for more information about the rest of our work.

Study questions: Note that this essay includes questions at the end to help you go deeper into the topic, or to help others you may be leading to go deeper. Some of those questions will connect to other essays and case studies.

Introduction

The minister was cutting-edge in his communication skills, ministry, and creative use of media. His ingenuity gained him much awe. His media works, including chronicles, reflections, and sermon collections, garnered much attention and unprecedented traffic and market attention. His novel communication created large revival meetings with countless followers experiencing the divine in new and strange ways outside of the purview of the church and clerical authorities. His name, likeness, and ministerial activities and schedule appeared in countless popular media outlets. His utilization of new media enabled him to escape the established norms of Christian ministry and theology. Moreover, employing new media made his message and influence seemingly boundless. Supporters welcomed and christened the new methods, convinced they represented a new and exciting form and practice of church work with obvious results.

Nevertheless, despite his popularity and innovative use of media, or rather perhaps because of it, numerous detractors regarded his mass communication and media ministry inappropriate at best, and at worst, sacrilegious and perhaps downright heretical. The preacher’s new methods were criticized on several grounds. Some intellectuals ignored him, while others publically disavowed him and his ministry. A group of college faculty declared that he lacked the substantive skills to help persons truly understand “the religious life.” Moreover, they dubbed his ministry as a “detriment” to religion, “dangerous,” and “utterly inconsistent” with the gospel and the very essence of church work. Similarly, a group of clergy issued a dismissive statement describing his ministry as shallow, claiming that he relied on “craft and cunning to strike the passions and engage the affections of the people.”[1] The preacher, according to such opponents, was running afoul of religious tradition.

The year was 1744, and it seemed that George Whitefield and his creative use of communication and print media were poised to significantly alter the nascent religious landscape of America, namely the nature of religious experience, religious gatherings, and parishioners’ expectations and perceptions of clerical authority.[2]

The long view of media and religion reveals that the introduction of new media into America has consistently caused significant debate and changes in American culture and religion, particularly Protestant Christianity. This dynamic is apparent throughout the evolution of popular media technology, ranging from the creative religious uses of print, phonograph, radio, television, Internet, and now social media. Each stage of the development of mass communication has challenged established norms, traditions, and practices of American culture and religion. Such changes have continually had profound religious and theological ramifications. Said simply, new media provides not just new methods and means to communicate and thus convey the gospel, but also new norms for practicing and proclaiming Christianity, being religious/Christian, as well as new forms of church.[3]

This essay, then, will briefly examine three interrelated ways in which the utilization of new media has historically contributed to religious and theological shifts in American Christianity and culture: proclamation, practices, and power (authority). To be sure, this is neither an exhaustive list nor a lengthy synopsis of the historic intersections of religion and media. Moreover, it is not an apology for the use of new media in Christianity. However, it is an examination of three salient ways new media is altering the cultural and religious landscape of America. Therefore, pondering the following will prove fruitful for understanding the intersections of theology, religion, and new media.

Proclamation

At least since the words “What hath God wrought?” officially opened up America’s long range electronic telegraph wire in 1844, religious adherents have interpreted the advance of electronic communication technology as a Godsend. In excitement and religious anticipation, Gardner Spring praised the telegraph as bringing Christianity to the “border of a spiritual harvest because thought now travels by steam [railroad] and magnetic wires.”[4] The preacher believed that the emergence of new communication technologies would only enhance and further Christianity in American and beyond.

This popular perception of media as a tool of divine purpose coupled with the progression of communication technology has contributed to each generation of Americans growing increasingly accustomed to engaging in religious practice(s) via electronic mediums. This progression has had several ramifications. Perhaps the most distinctive is that religious proclamation and explanation increasingly occur through the parameters and confines of social media. Medium is a part of the gospel message.

For example, 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.

It behooves the observer of new media and religion, then, to ponder how the abbreviated parameters (time and space limitations) of such social mediums shape the content and thus theology of religious messages. What does the shortening of expression mean for religious leaders and communities that are bound together by narratives and the power of stories longer than 140 characters to form and transform persons and communities? That is to say, as people “of the Book,” are we instead cultivating a Tweeted and sound bite religion as opposed to one of narrative and story? Could Christians actually make sense and understand Moses’ Ten Commandments if they were Tweets without cultivating an engagement of the longer narrative of the Exodus Story? Could red highlighted Tweets of Jesus be properly understood apart from developing an understanding of the longer narrative of his life on the margins? To be sure, abbreviated forms of scripture and religious faiths can be useful—ranging from tracts to commercials, Tweets to New Testament Bibles. However, it should be understood that such tools are primarily aimed and geared towards evangelism as opposed to the development of robust spiritual formation.

Simply put, to engage in social media, religious persons must be attentive to how such mediums simultaneously promote and limit their messages, content, theological orientations, and projected aims.

Practice

On January 2, 1921, Edwin J. Van Etten, Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh, gained the distinction of leading the first live worship radio broadcast. The preacher had low expectations of the historical moment. He confessed, “I thought there would be some fluke in the connection and that the whole thing would be a fizzle!” To his surprise, Van Etten received a letter from a listener from over four hundred miles away in Massachusetts, a significant distance in the nascent days of automobile travel. The distant parishioner made certain that “everything in the househad been prepared to await the start of the service.” She praised the religious use of the new medium because, “For the first time in twenty years, I heard a full church service.” She enthusiastically told the religious media pioneer that “the voice of the pastor thrilled me as few things have….” At the conclusion of the media service, the long distance religious practitioner summed up her religious experience by stating that she “felt at peace with the world, ‘the peace that passeth all understanding.’”[5] Together, Rev Van Etten and his remote parishioner helped to re-shape the practice of “church.”

Throughout the twentieth century, the faithful increasingly utilized electronic mediums to engage in religious experiences outside the formal and physical gathering of churches and congregations. Subsequently, electronic religious media shift our conceptions and theological categories of what constitutes the religious practice of gathering and congregation/community. Like Van Etten almost a century ago, mass media communication is connecting otherwise disparate communities and therefore are creating new forms and practices of “church.”

A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that 67 percent of social media users say that maintaining community and contact with others is their primary reason for using social media like MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, and/or Twitter.[6] Likewise, for many churchgoers, church is a way of maintaining community. This connection is readily seen by the popularity of religion on Facebook. In October, the popular Facebook page, “Jesus Daily,” became the first ever religious-oriented Facebook page to gain over 10 million fans. Started in 2009, Jesus Daily supplies its millions of followers with a daily diet of religious experiences and community. This community of seemingly otherwise unconnected followers shares in aspects of congregational life, including the exchange of prayer requests, joys, and sorrows.

Public commentary on such religious media often reflects a deep concern for the loss of community. Many observers fear that virtual communities such as online “congregations” and religious groups might become proxies for physical interactions and gathering. However, social media can be utilized not as the primary mechanism of community, but rather as a supplement to the formation of religious community.

This supplemental role is particularly important in large religious institutions, such as megachurches (congregations with 2,000 or more attendees) and Christian schools. As America’s religious landscape increasingly becomes concentrated in megachurches, according to Scott Thumma of Hartford Seminary,[7] social media can promote and facilitate the convening of smaller groups and Bible studies. Such assemblies provide for a sense of community that is not always apparent in such large faith communities.

For example, Darkwood Brew (DWB) of Countryside Community Church in Omaha, Nebraska, provides a sense of community through its online television program. The weekly program, according to the DWB website, “blends ancient contemplative practices with cutting-edge interactive web technology, world-class music, arts, biblical scholarship, and special guests from around the globe via Skype.” This online religious community averages about 50 to 60 virtual participants per broadcast. During the show, participants engage in a live chat, a virtual whispering to one’s neighbor in the pews. In addition, DWB further cultivates community through its interactive blogs and Facebook group coordinated by the church’s Pastor of Social Media.[8]

Similarly, The Young Clergy Women Project creates an online community of support for young female clergy across the country. These women, who physically gather once a year, share strong bonds of connection through the online community they cultivate during the rest of the year.[9]

New forms of community are being carved out in religious educational institutions as well. This became very apparent when I visited Abilene Christian University to conduct a case study on the school’s Mobile Learning Initiative on behalf the New Media Project. I observed that the school’s increasing educational and social reliance on social media did not seem to hinder the practice of community, but rather it positively influenced the formation of communal interaction within the university. Students who matriculated during the advent of the Mobile Learning Initiative reported an increase in group study sessions and gatherings. Moreover, from 2010 to 2011, 86 percent of students reported improved student-to-student and student-to-teacher collaborations and interactions after employing their mobile devices in the educational process. Mobile technology and the multitude of social networks allow students to connect with those whom they might not ever physically engage in conversation. These virtual connections often blossom into face-to-face connections. The seemingly ubiquitous nature of social media is not a complete proxy for physical gathering and contact.[10]

The use of new media is indeed contributing to a re-conceptualization of the practices of community, gathering, and relationship. However, for religious communities, new media is not rendering obsolete the physical gathering of churchgoers. Pioneers of religious media should be mindful of how such re-conceptualizations might shape their own understandings and practices of church community and gathering.

Power (Authority)

In the early days of religious radio, there were several attempts to limit new media access to a select few. In 1927, the Advisory Council of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) appointed a Committee on Religious Activities to draft a course of action that would “satisfy the deep-seated interest of its listeners in religion.”[11] The Protestant and Catholic clergy and lay committee consisted of Julius Rosenwald, President and later Chairman of the Board at Sears, Roebuck and Co.; New York State Supreme Court Judge Morgan J. O’Brien; and Reverend Charles S. Macfarland, the General Secretary of the Federal Council of Churches who also served as the committee chairman.[12]

The committee drafted a five-fold statement regarding the contours of NBC’s religious broadcasting. The policy, which was incorporated by NBC, restricted religious broadcasting to Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. Moreover, the policy stipulated that “[t]he religious broadcast message should be of the widest appeal—presenting the broad claims of religion, which not only aid in building up the personal and social life of the individual but also aid in popularizing religion and the church.” Furthermore, the broadcasts were to be “non-sectarian and non-denominational in appeal,” and they should “interpret religion at its highest and best so that as an educational factor it will bring the individual listener to realize his responsibility to the organized church.” Moreover, the policy stated that national religious broadcast should be limited to the “recognized outstanding leaders of the several faiths. The Federal Council of Churches declared that through the adoption of the policy, NBC had assured that religious broadcast would be “unencumbered by sectarian considerations and free of all divisiveness. The unifying and not the divisive aspects of religion are to be sent out ‘over the air.’”[13] Clerical authorities attempted to limit access to 1920s new media as well as enforce the conformity of religious media by restricting the media to established traditional authorities.

However, new media has had a democratizing effect upon authority and intellectual gate-keeping. As with the development of radio in the 1920s and 1930s, the contemporary progression of social media has altered national/mass public discourse in that recognized experts, leaders, and common persons alike all have access to large platforms of proclamation and information. Twitter, Facebook, and mobile texts offer countless individuals power, forms of authority, and seeming autonomy over the reception and production of messages and information.

Similarly, clerical and theological authorities do not hold complete influence and authority over religious social media. The democratic platforms of new media allow religious parishioners and seekers to create, contribute, and consume a variety of religious experiences and proclamations. To be sure, since the colonial days of Anne Hutchinson,[14] Christians in America have authored and shared their own religious proclamations and theologies outside the jurisdiction of clerical authorities (oftentimes at the risk and/or actuality of marginalization, oppression, or even death). However, social media has made the production and spread of such autonomous religious expressions more abundant, easily accessible, popular, and commonplace. Such prevalence has altered the expectations of the role played by clerical and theological authorities, namely the power, authority, and role such figures play in religious life and spiritual formation.

Such democratizing concerns regarding authority are very apparent. DWB’s reliance on the web and subsequent claim that “[a]uthority is decentralized on the web—we don’t need an expert to tell us facts about something, we have Wikipedia,” encapsulate the ways in which new media might be shifting understandings of religious authorities and clergy.

This is explicitly seen in religious institutions of higher education. The authority and role of the teacher in the classroom are experiencing significant shifts. This became apparent when I visited Abilene Christian University. The Mobile Learning Initiative is considerably re-shaping how faculty and students engage in the educational process. Several students relayed that the idea that the heightened level of universal access to knowledge via the free mobile devices the school supplies them with endows them with an increased feeling of autonomy in their learning experience; one that changes the way they feel about faculty. To this end, the professor is no longer viewed as encompassing the totality of knowledge and expertise, but rather is expected to help students to discover, interpret, and synthesize multiple streams of knowledge and information. The teacher still possesses a form of authoritative power for direction, vision, and assessment. However, in this new media saturated environment, authorities are increasingly seen as a guide and/or mentor and not the sole authority. One school official summed it up best; the abundant access to social media has shifted what the public expects from educational, clerical, and institutional authorities alike. The expectancy of such figures has been modified from “prognosticators to interpreters.”[15]

Conclusion

Such questions and concerns then cause us to ponder what Jim Rice has drawn attention to in his essay in this collection, namely, what is the model of the church and its leaders in this new media world? Furthermore, how do the subsequent models shift the structure and mission of clergy and faith communities alike?

Examining how new media is shifting America’s cultural landscape is key to understanding the theological changes in America. Religious practitioners increasingly hear, experience, and cultivate their religious lives through social media. Understanding said changes requires more than just social media acumen. Rather, it necessitates a long view concerning how mediums have historically influenced the theological meanings and formulations of religious proclamations, practices, and authority.

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.


[1] Edward Holyoke, The Testimony of the President, Professors, Tutors and Hebrew Instructor of Harvard College in Cambridge, Against the Reverend Mr. George Whitefield and His Conduct (Boston: T. Fleet, 1744), 3-4, http://www.archive.org/details/testimonyofpresi00harv; Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy, 2nd ed. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2005), 62.

[2] On Whitefield’s media ministry, see Harry S. Stout, “Religion, Communications, and the Career of George Whitefield,” in Communication and Change in American Religious History , ed. Leonard I. Sweet (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993); Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and Selections from His Other Writings, Modern Library of the World's Best Books (New York: Modern Library, 1932).

[3] Sweet, Communication and Change in American Religious History, 2.

[4] James W. Carey, Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society, Media and Popular Culture (New York: Routledge, 1989), 16.

[5] Spencer Miller Jr., “Radio and Religion,” Annals of the Political and Social Science 177 (January 1935): 135-136.

[6] Aaron Smith, “Why Americans use social media,” Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/Why-Americans-Use-Social-Media.aspx.

[7] Warren Bird and Scott Thumma, “A New Decade of Megachurches: 2011 Profile of Large Attendance Churches in the United States,” Hartford Institute for Religion Research, http://www.hartfordinstitute.org/megachurch/megachurch-2011-summary-report.htm.

[8] Kathryn Reklis, “Case study report on Darkwood Brew,” New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary, http://www.cpx.cts.edu/newmedia/findings/case-studies/countryside-community-church-ucc/full-report.

[9] Verity A. Jones, “Webs of Interconnectivity: Inhabiting the world of The Young Clergy Women Project,” New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary, http://www.cpx.cts.edu/newmedia/findings/case-studies/the-young-clergy-women-project/article.

[10] Lerone A. Martin, “Case study report on Abilene Christian University,” New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary, http://www.cpx.cts.edu/newmedia/findings/case-studies/abilene-christian-university/full-report.

[11] Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America, “Religion and the Radio,” The Federal Council Bulletin 11, no. 3 (March 1928): 19.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.; Spencer Miller Jr., “Radio and Religion,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 177 (January 1935): 136-137.

[14] Ann Hutchinson was exiled and banished from the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637 for openly challenging clerical authority.  She claimed that God spoke directly to her. In addition to her claims that this divine revelation was equal to the authority of the clergy, Hutchinson also taught/preached her message in well attended religious gatherings at her house.  Such measures were considered an affront to clerical authority as well the social order of the community.

[15] Martin, “Case study report.”

Study questions (going deep)

 

  1. What’s so different about today’s changing communication patterns and tools? Haven’t Christian communities coped with such changes before? What can we learn from historical experiences that might help us in today’s context?
  2. How might the church's history of utilizing new forms of media inform us, our communities, and our practices today?
  3. If new media indeed shifts, challenges, and/or augments traditional forms of authority, can it also be used as a tool to maintain/ reassert traditional channels of authority and leadership as well?

Further study questions (going really deep)

 

Research fellows for the New Media Project have written six different but interrelated theological essays, each focusing on and drawing from a distinct theological tradition and discipline. The following questions draw from the essay above and its relationship to the other New Media Project reflections.

  1. According to Kathyrn Reklis' notion of “X-reality,” how might recognized authority/mastery/popularity in new media contribute to shifts in authority "online" as well as authoritative standing "offline?"
  2. How might the practices and proclamations of religious media augment the models of church as explicated by Jim Rice in his essay?
  3. If new media alters our understandings of religious authority and knowledge, does it, therefore, change our perspectives on media itself? Monica A. Coleman wonders if this changes our notion of salvation as well. What do you think?
  4. As Verity A. Jones has pinpointed, social media is aimed to be social. Given this fact and aim, how do we guard, or should we guard, against online religious authorities becoming religious celebrities in the vein of previous religious media entrepreneurs?
  5. Given Jason Byassee's concerns in his essay, how can we measure if the practices of new media actually contribute to more faithful practices and not simply just shifts in religious knowledge, authority, practice and proclamation? How can we measure if these shifts are indeed "good?"

Nav