Social networks like Facebook are all the rage, with some claiming that online communities are deepening our interpersonal relationships while others worry that they are undermining them — and our spiritual lives. Pope Benedict XVI has weighed in on virtual friendships, while a new poll shows more churches are using Facebook.
Even a movie about the founding of Facebook, The Social Network, is a huge success, and received eight Academy Award nominations.
In a message for the Catholic Church’s World Communications Day, to be celebrated on June 5, 2011, the pope said new media and social networks offered “a great opportunity,” but he warned of the risks of having more virtual friends than real ones.
“It is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives,” Benedict said in the document released Jan. 24. Vatican officials said they are also working on a set of guidelines with recommendations for appropriate style and behavior for Catholics online.
In the United States, LifeWay Research, a congregational research organization affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, on Jan. 21 released the results of a study showing that nearly half of Protestant churches use Facebook while 40 percent do not use any social networking tools. The trend is toward greater adoption of social networking tools, however.
Many ministries, religious nonprofits, houses of worship, clergy and small-group ministries now routinely maintain pages on Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn or other secular social networking sites, and many more religious groups and individuals have established presences on religion-oriented sites, such as ChristianNetwork and Muslimsocial.com. Twitter, too, is having an impact, as some clergy and laypeople tweet prayers, meditations and even entire religious services or the whole of the Bible in the 140-characters format.
But some religious leaders express growing concerns about putting their faith in Facebook. They worry that religion and spirituality are being reduced to bytes and instant messages – mere blips on a screen – and that something crucial to faith, like a concrete sense of community and the experiential aspect of religious practice, is being lost. Others say not so. They hail social media as an effective way to attract new followers and keep them connected at all times.
This edition of ReligionLink explores the ongoing debate over faith and social networking.
Why it matters
As social networks expand and develop, they will continue to influence the way people communicate and practice religion.
- Read a Feb. 27, 2011 story, “Religious apps grow in availability, popularity,” from the San Jose Mercury News, which covers Silicon Valley.
- Read a Jan. 21, 2011, news release from LifeWay Research about Protestant congregations using Facebook and other social networking tools.
- Read the text of Pope Benedict’s message for the 45th annual World Communications Day, titled “Truth, Proclamation and Authenticity of Life in the Digital Age.” The Catholic Church will mark World Communications Day on June 5, 2011.
- The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued guidelines for the use of social networks among Catholics.
- In September 2009, two Gordon College professors published research on how students at evangelical colleges use social networking and its impact on them. The study is called “Pulling Off the Mask: The Impact of Social Networking Activities on Evangelical Christian College Students,” and the two researchers, Bryan Auday, professor of psychology, and Sybil Coleman, professor of social work, discussed the study here.
- OurJewishCommunity.org is a congregation that exists entirely online and streams video services and Skypes meetings between congregants and rabbis. The web congregation is the brainchild of Rabbi Laura Baum, whose work focuses on social media and other technology. Congregants discuss issues on a Facebook page, and last year’s Passover seder was held as a webinar.
- A May 2010 survey from the Pew Research Center shows that Americans over 50 are increasingly members of online social networks.
- Read “Facebook rules for pastors,” an Oct. 5, 2010, post at the blog of The Christian Century magazine by Adam J. Copeland, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Hallock, Minn.
- Read “Why I lead an online synagogue,” an Oct. 4, 2010, column at CNN.com’s Belief Blog by Rabbi Laura Baum, head of OurJewishCommunity.org.
- Read a July 1, 2010, article at FastCompany.com on research indicating that social networking releases chemicals in the brain that make us feel pleasure, almost like falling in love.
- An Aug. 27, 2010, Belief Blog post at CNN.com by religion scholar Stephen Prothero examines the practice of tweeting the Bible 140 characters at a time.
- Read a June 24, 2010, Religion News Service article (on HuffingtonPost.com) about debates over how Muslims use Facebook.
- Read a column by Henry G. Brinton, pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia, about social networking’s effect on religion. The column appeared June 20, 2010, in USA Today.
- Read a January 2010 column on tweeting at SpiritualityandPractice.com, titled “25 Reasons Why Twitter Is Spiritual.”
- Read an Oct 10, 2009, Houston Chronicle article about pastors encouraging their congregations to tweet during sermons.
- Read “Does God Tweet?,” an August 2009 roundtable at On Faith, the religion site of The Washington Post. The discussion includes columns by 16 contributors.
- Read an April 14, 2009, story at CNN.com about studies warning that rapid-fire news and constant updating via social networking tools such as Twitter “could numb our sense of morality and make us indifferent to human suffering.”
- In his message for the Catholic Church’s World Communications Day of 2009, Pope Benedict XVI also cautioned that if “virtual connectedness becomes obsessive, it may in fact function to isolate individuals from real social interaction while also disrupting the patterns of rest, silence, and reflection that are necessary for healthy human development.”
- Observing a “fast” from Facebook and Twitter and even email is becoming a popular spiritual practice — at Lent, for example — as shown by this Star-Ledger story from March 2009 and this National Public Radio story, also from March 2009.
- In a similar vein, an October 2009 Religion News Service story, posted at Crosswalk.com, discusses the issuing of a “digital fast,” and it includes links to columns by Christian leaders discussing the pros and cons of social networking.
- Read a March 4, 2009, Personal Tech column from The New York Times on dealing with the anxiety created by the deluge of emails.
- Read a June 30, 2007, New York Times story about the intersection of social networking sites and religion.
- The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication dedicated its April 2007 issue to religion and computer-mediated communication.
Religious social networking sites
- ChristianNetwork is a general Christian social networking site.
- Hisholyspace.com is a general Christian social networking site.
- Holypal.com is a general Christian social networking site.
- Imagine Yourself is a social networking site established by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as a place for young church members to explore their vocations.
- Mypraize is a general Christian social networking site.
- UltimateTube is a video-driven social networking site for Christians that offers itself as an alternative to YouTube.
- Xianz is a general Christian social networking site.
- Beliefnet’s Community is the social networking area of the largest interfaith website.
- PeaceNext is the social networking site of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions.
- Muslimsocial.com is a general Islamic social networking site.
- Muxlim is a general Islamic social networking site that includes religion, politics, popular culture and relationships.
- Naseeb is an Islamic social networking site that emphasizes relationships.
- Shmooze is a general Jewish social networking site with an emphasis on relationships.
- PaganSpace.net is a social networking site for followers of Earth-based religions, such as Wicca, Asatru, druidism and goddess-based faiths.
- Jon W. Anderson is a professor and chairman of the anthropology department at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His specialty includes studying how the Muslim world uses new media. He wrote the chapter “Wiring Up: The Internet Difference for Muslim Networks” in Muslim Networks From Hajj to Hip Hop. Contact 202-319-5080, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Bryan Auday is a professor of psychology at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., and co-author of a 2009 study, “Pulling Off the Mask: The Impact of Social Networking Activities on Evangelical Christian College Students.” Contact email@example.com.
- Helen Berger is a professor emerita of sociology at West Chester University in West Chester, Pa. She is an expert on the neo-pagan community and has written about how teen witches in the U.S. and Australia use the Internet. Contact 610-436-2349, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Sybil W. Coleman is a professor of social work at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., and co-author of a 2009 study, “Pulling Off the Mask: The Impact of Social Networking Activities on Evangelical Christian College Students.” Contact email@example.com.
- Douglas Cowan is an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. He is an expert on the neo-pagan community and has written about the community’s use of the Internet to communicate and share ideas about faith and rituals. Contact 519-884-4404 ext. 607, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Judith Donath is Berkman Center Faculty Fellow at Harvard Law School and founder and director of the Sociable Media Group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she studies social networking. Contact Judith@media.mit.edu.
- Chris Forbes is author of the e-book Facebook for Pastors and hosts a Facebook page of the same name. He is the founder of Ministry Marketing Coach and lives in Oklahoma City, Okla. Contact 405-570-4566, email@example.com.
- Wendy Griffin is a professor emerita at California State University, Long Beach. She wrote a chapter, “The Goddess Net,” for the book Religion Online: Finding Faith on the Internet. Contact 562-985-5798, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Glen Moriarty is an assistant professor of psychology and counseling at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va. He wrote an article about Christian social networking for the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. Contact Judy Baker or Mindy Hughes in the public relations office, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Stephen O’Leary is an associate professor of communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He wrote a chapter, “Cyberspace as Sacred Space: Communicating Religion on Computer Networks,” for the book Religion Online: Finding Faith on the Internet. Contact 213-740-3945, email@example.com.
- Helen Osman is secretary of communications for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and can discuss the conference’s guidelines on use of social networks among Catholics. Contact CommDept@usccb.org.
- Jeremiah Owyang is an industry analyst at the Altimeter Group in Silicon Valley and a columnist for Forbes CMO Network. He has blogged about social network statistics and can discuss how to interpret them. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Charles Prebish is a professor of religious studies at Utah State University in Logan. He wrote a chapter, “The Cybersangha: Buddhism on the Internet,” for the book Religion Online: Finding Faith on the Internet. Contact 435-797-1529, email@example.com.
- Quentin Schultze is a professor of faith and communication at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. He is an expert on Christian communication and has written about Christians’ use of the Internet. Contact 616-526-6290, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Stephen Shields is the founder of FaithMaps. He freelances for Leadership Network, where he wrote a guide (enter “social networking” in the Keywords field) to online social networks for churches. Contact email@example.com.
- Berlin Masjid in Berlin, Conn., has a Facebook page that is administered by two college students and Sohaib Sultan, an Islamic college chaplain. Contact Sultan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- The Rev. Nathan D. March created a social network site for Prince of Peace Catholic High School Youth Ministry of Lewiston, Maine, using Ning.com. Contact 207-777-1200 ext. 207, email@example.com.
- Glenn Shuck is an assistant professor in the religion department at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. He has said that the trend of tweeting and using other social networks during religious services is likely to grow, especially among emerging churches. Contact 413-597-2338, Glenn.W.Shuck@williams.edu.
- Kathleen Carley is a professor of organizational sociology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Among her areas of study is the use of social networks. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, N.Y., has an active Facebook page. Rabbi Andy Bachman is its creator. Contact 718-768-3814 ext. 206, email@example.com.
- Masjid Abdul Muhsi Khalifah is a Brooklyn, N.Y., mosque with a Facebook page where members discuss everything from World Cup Soccer to current events and religious issues. Contact 718-783-1279.
- Celebration Metropolitan Community Church in Naples, Fla., uses a MySpace page to connect with members. Contact the Rev. Lillie Brock, 239-732-0092, RevLillieBrock@mccnaples.com.
- Cornerstone Chapel of Leesburg, Va., uses Facebook and Twitter to reach its members throughout the week. Contact senior pastor Gary Hamrick, 703-771-1500.
- Southwest Christian Church in East Point, Ga., uses its Facebook page for a variety of things, including evangelization. Contact 404-766-1673.
- Temple Beth Kodesh in Boynton Beach, Fla., has a Facebook page administered by Rabbi Michael Simon. Contact 561-586-9428, RabbiMSimon@aol.com.
- Terry Ledbetter is pastor of NorthStar Church in Saltillo, Miss., which held a series of 2008 sermons on the subject of Facebook. Contact 662-869-7778.
- Craig Strickland is senior pastor of Hope Presbyterian Church in Cordova, Tenn., which bills itself as a “church for the unchurched” and relies on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to provide a sense of community. Contact 901-755-7721 ext. 1007, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Shir Chadash is a Conservative synagogue in the New Orleans area with a Facebook page. Contact 504-889-1144.
- Holy Cross Evangelical Lutheran Church of Fairfield, Ohio, uses Facebook to connect with its members and lists that under the church’s ministries. The church also links to the ELCA’s Imagine Yourself social network. Contact the Rev. Timothy R. Swanson, 513-829-7621.
- Rabbi Andrea London leads Beth Emet The Free Synagogue of Evanston, Ill., which has a Facebook page. Contact 847-869-4230 ext. 306.
- John Voelz is pastor of Westwinds Community Church in Jackson, Mich. The church has its own social network, called Community W. Congregants are encouraged to tweet about sermons, and a Twitter feed is posted on the church’s website. Voelz also writes a blog popular with church members. Contact 517-750-1111.
- Rabbi Joshua Aaronson leads Temple Har Shalom in Park City, Utah, which has an active Facebook page. Contact 435-649-2276.
- Jason Ingram is pastor of Highland Hills Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, Okla., which has a MyChurch.org page. Ingram also has a personal Facebook page he invites everyone to visit. Contact 405-721-0261.
- Kerry Shook is pastor of Woodlands Church in Houston, where members are encouraged to tweet during sermons. Contact 281-367-1900.
- The Catholic Diocese of San Jose, Calif., uses Facebook and Twitter to stay in touch with local Catholics. Contact Clarisse Balistreri in the office of communications, 408-983-0229, email@example.com.
- Mars Hill Church in Seattle uses its own social network, The City, to keep members of its several campuses connected. Contact pastor Mark Driscoll, 206-816-3500.
- The Rev. Fumiaki Usuki is the temple minister of the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple, which has a Facebook page. Contact 310-477-7274.
This updates an edition first published on Sept. 29, 2010