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.”
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.
This creates an easier environment for those who aren't usually involved with religion and ups the interest level, she said. For example, Cheong's research showed those who create or read religious memes have a better understanding of religion — and want to take part in it — because they are seeing religion through a more modern medium.
Pastor Ted Stefan's Los Angeles-based church, the Golden Heart Center, has used Vimeo, a video-based social media site, to connect with users. He said social media methods can reach believers who might feel uncomfortable attending an unfamiliar church. Ultimately, this has led to new believers, Stefan said. People following religion on social media eventually want to become committed and join a church or religious group because they are "on a spiritual journey and growing," he said.
Stefan said he met a woman who was in a "hellfire and brimstone" kind of church where "God was angry." Only after she heard one of Stefan's podcast sermons and saw his social media posts did she decide to make a change and switch churches.
“That opened her up, and she began her relationship with God again,” Stefan said.
Hemsworth is home.
His phone buzzes and his computer sounds.
It's his "life club," as the book club has come to be known, getting in touch days before the next service.
“Hardly a day goes by when I don’t get a social media interaction with our group," Hemsworth said.
He sees pictures of churches. He gets tagged in a tweet with religious text.
His fellow life club members are sharing how they're continuing their religious practice outside of the pews — something Campbell, the Texas A&M professor, said is happening more often.
It's a way for people to express their religious beliefs, Campbell said. A 2013 study showed believers are engaging with Twitter by posting their emotions and spiritual thoughts, finding that Christians in particular are more socially connected than most atheists.
Visually based social media — like Instagram and Pinterest — help believers showcase their faith in creative ways, such as posting religious-themed images or shots of their pastors or priests, Campbell said. Most of this is done, she said, as a way of displaying religious identity.
“Social media is becoming a place where people can talk about their religious individuality," Campbell said.
From a distance
It's nighttime and Hemsworth is on vacation. He's just finished a busy day out and about with his family.
He won't miss the Sunday service, though.
Mosaic, the non-denominational church Hemsworth frequents, streams five services every Sunday online throughout the day (10 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m., 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.). He can still attend his worship service without being there, allowing him to converse about the service with his fellow believers.
“When you’re out of town," he said, "you don’t have to worry about not going because you can connect."
That's not the only change happening for churchgoers. Stefan, the Los Angeles pastor, said Bibles are becoming less common in the pews. Instead, some urban churches, like one in New York City, are calling for worshippers to open their Bible apps for service, he said.
Stefan said the Golden Heart Center even broadcasts bible study sessions on Skype.
The “Study by Skype” sessions bring people from all over the country together to analyze the bible’s text. Stefan reads a verse aloud and lets everyone on the call “meditate on the verse."
“God speaks to them during that time of meditation,” Stefan said.
It's another way to reach believers who might not attend the scheduled services. Stefan said many might only use social and digital media tools to practice religion, but the true way to fully grasp all religious teachings is by going to services and working together with other worshippers.
“In order for them to grow more, they need to be around people who worship God,” Stefan said.
His outlook on social media is still a positive one. He said it has aided a lot of believers in staying in touch and learning more about their religion.
“Social media is a wonderful tool,” Stefan said. “It might have benefited the churches more than any other area.”
One day earlier this year, he and his fellow churchgoers were given assignments to help any one person in the community, but to do so anonymously. So he helped out a homeless man, providing him healthy portions of food to hinder the hunger.
If it weren't for social media and staying connected with his group, it wouldn't have happened. And the personal achievement and joy Hemsworth felt for his acts would never have surfaced.
“At the end of the day," Hemsworth said, "it’s important for groups to find what works for them, and this is very much working for us.”