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This article was published 23/7/2016 (1149 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
‘Facebook is Eating the World."
That was the headline for an article in the Columbia Journalism Review that went viral earlier this year.
In it, author Emily Bell said Facebook hasn’t just "swallowed journalism, it has swallowed everything. It has swallowed political campaigns, banking systems, personal histories, the leisure industry, retail, even government and security. The phone in our pocket is our portal to the world."
To that list I would add religion. Facebook, and other forms of social media, has impacted how people express and experience faith. But what kind of impact? I decided to do a bit of research.
One study, from Baylor University in Texas, found youth who use social media are more likely to develop a "pick and choose" approach to customize their faith than those who don’t use it.
"On Facebook, there is no expectation that one’s ‘likes’ be logically consistent and hidebound by tradition," said researcher Paul McClure. "The Facebook effect is that all spiritual options become commodities and resources that individuals can tailor to meet their needs."
At the same time, social media might also be causing millennials to drop out of faith altogether. According to a study by Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego University, millennials are less likely to identify as religious than previous generations at the same age.
One reason for this might be social media, she notes. Where youth might have once found community in a church youth group, now they can do that through social media — no need to gather at church on Friday nights anymore.
What about clergy? A study by the Barna Group in the U.S. found 80 per cent of American pastors see the Internet more generally as a key way to stay in touch with their parishioners.
The study also found 50 per cent of clergy surveyed agreed that, within a decade, many people will use the Internet for all of their faith needs.
This might sound absurd, but consider this: the Church of Scotland is launching a two-year investigation into the idea of online baptisms. The investigation is part of a study into the church’s wide-ranging review of how technology is affecting church life.
In a world where "the fastest-growing communities are being fostered online," the church says, "now is the time to open up a wide-range discussion on these contemporary developments."
In Germany, a group of evangelical Protestant churches is already taking action in this area; by next year about 3,000 churches will offer free Wi-Fi through "Godspot," a service that will be available to all who wander in or come near the Wi-Fi-equipped churches.
Heidi Campbell, author of When Religion Meets New Media, is studying the impact of social media on religion.
Her research shows social media is not only a great tool for religious groups — things such as websites, blogs and Facebook — but it is also redefines the way people view religion.
Where worshipping communities once were the centre for belief systems for many people, now they are just "one part of their social network," she says.
Today, individuals use social media as a replacement for traditional faith offerings such as services, Scripture studies or sermons. Instead, they find new "spiritual tribes" of like-minded people online, along with new sources of inspiration and authority.
Through social media, "They can make sense of their religious self and their religious belief... Facebook and Twitter, blogs, social media allow people to express their religious identity, to experiment and to create a cohesive identity that’s free from institutional constraints."
While this shift away from organized religion and traditional sources of authority is unsettling, it is not new, as Aleks Krotoski noted in a column in the Guardian.
"Just as the Reformation was ushered in by the printing press in the 16th century, allowing people to access the texts for themselves and distribute their interpretations widely, the web has helped proliferate different interpretations and articulations of religion," she wrote. "Individuals now have a much more autonomous role in deciding whom to approach as a source."
Social media are impacting religion in many ways. Faith groups can see it either as a threat, or as an opportunity. But one thing they can’t do is ignore it.
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.
The Free Press acknowledges the financial support it receives from members of the city’s faith community, which makes our coverage of religion possible.