Social Media and Communities of Faith

After recentreports that the Catholic Church is offering indulgences to anyone who follows Pope Francis on Twitter, we thought it would be a good time to discuss the role of social media in communities of faith.

Andrew Brown at The Guardian writes,

Is there anything intrinsically more ridiculous in following a devotion on Twitter than in the flesh, or on television?

The answer has to be no. The whole point of electronic communication is that it has effects in the physical world. That makes it real so far as I am concerned. If a love affair can be nourished in letters, it can be nourished, too, in email, or even, for very time-pressed lovers, in tweets.

There is truth in this. “The whole point of electronic communication is that it has effects in the physical world.” Yes. (Though many seem to forget this.) But there is a difference between a Twitter follower and an in-person member of a congregation. There is something decidedly more real about the latter (if only in the “keep it real” sense of the word). No one would deny that online sermons are a useful tool for churches, but are they a replacement for them?

If a church abandons its physical presence entirely and moves online, then surely it loses what makes it special as a community in a world that is increasingly online-only. "Wherever two or three gather in my name, there am I with them," might apply to Twitter as well as the physical world, sure, but…

As communities of faith use social media to engage their communities, they should ensure that the tools they use are actually “social.” That is, any given social medium should promote the agápēthe caritas, the love that Paul wrote about in his First Epistle to the Corinthians. It should connect people to one another in a meaningful way.

Twitter and online sermons can only be a part of this, just as sermons are only a part of a congregation’s activity. What about the church choir? Community service? Congregation picnics, barbecues, and bean suppers?

Group action is at least as important to community as group discussion is. Dominant social media don’t necessarily preclude group action, but they certainly don’t emphasize it—especially on an individual-to-individual level. A religious leader can organize an event over Facebook, but she can’t use social media to nurture personal connections between members of her community as easily as she can in person—and we want to change that.