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How social and digital media are changing #religion

Published: Monday, Oct. 14 2013 8:00 a.m. MDT

More believers are using social media in their religious practice. In some cases, social media is an extension of existing religious activity, while for others it has become a substitute as online users find new ways to get in tune with religion.

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Brian Hemsworth’s book club wasn’t anything to write home about.

The club — one of about 80 created and founded by Mosaic, a non-denominational Christian church in Pasadena, Calif. — didn’t offer much for the members, save for some discussion on the previous week's service and the occasional get-together at a picnic or church function.

It was all standard and by-the-book.

That was until Hemsworth and other group members flocked to Twitter and began dropping their hashtags and tweets. They snapped photos and sent them instantly via the new-age telegram.

Soon enough, what was once a weekly gathering transformed into a daily discussion.

“People just began to connect,” Hemsworth said. “People are wanting to find ways of connecting and getting together. And social media is really helping that.”

More believers, like Hemsworth, are beginning to use social media in their religious practice, according to experts at the Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture Studies. In some cases, social media has become an extension of existing religious practice as churchgoers connect with their pastors and fellow worshippers outside of the pews and away from the organs. But for others, social media has become a substitute as online users have found new ways to get in tune with religion.

Social media is changing the face of religion, said Heidi Campbell, associate professor of communications at Texas A&M University. “Social media becomes an important way to connect and make your religious experience a 24/7 experience rather than something you do on the weekends.”

Influencing believers

Hemsworth's pastors are sometimes away from his church — but they're never really gone. They often snap photos for Instagram and share where they are and why they're there.

It's not uncommon for pastors and religious leaders to use Twitter and social media. In fact, it’s the latest trend, according to a 2013 Twiplomacy Study done by Burson-Marsteller. Pope Francis is now ranked as the most influential Twitter user based on the average number of retweets he receives from his six accounts in different languages, the study said. Pope Francis is listed as having the second-highest number of followers overall among world leaders, right behind President Barack Obama.

In recent years, faith community leaders have started building social media brands to help differentiate themselves from others, said Pauline Hope Cheong, associate professor at Arizona State University.

“Some pastors feel like they need to step out in this religious democracy," Cheong said.

Cheong has spent years researching Twitter trends among pastors and published them in 2012 in a book titled, “Digital Religion, Social Media and Culture: Perspectives, Practices and Futures,” she said.

One trend she found was that social media is restructuring religious authority. In the past, Cheong said, religious authority was given and everything ran on a “top-down” format. But because of social media and the way pastors are connecting with their followers — including posting gospel-related tweets, a modern take on standing at the pulpit — the authority is co-constructed and a shared experience, Cheong said.

By posting spiritual thoughts instead of just scripture, pastors make themselves a part of the conversation and not just a leader, Cheong said.

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