God’s Chosen Tweeters?

Social media fans were all atwitter last week about a new report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, “Social Networking Sites and Our Lives.” The most pronounced finding across all social networking sites (SNS) was that active social networking participation does not, as is commonly opined, result in social isolation or a lack of relational intimacy. Further, SNS participation tends to enrich rather than diminish participation in face-to-face relationships.

Key findings of the report focused on the dominant site, Facebook, where some 92% of social network users have a profile. Among a long list of virtues, Pew researchers found that:

* Facebook users are more trusting than non-SNS users.

* Facebook users have more close relationships than non-SNS users.
* Facebook users get more social support than non-SNS users.
* Facebook revives “dormant” relationships that are lost to non-SNS users.

After a couple years of being derided for their brain-rotted shallowness, it should come as no surprise that in no time at all, my network of witty Facebook and Twitter friends added to the list of laudable social networking aficionado qualities:

* We floss after every meal!
* We freed Egypt!
* We’re grounded, and well integrated, intuitive, not too full of ourselves, yet fully realized in the fabulous glow of our authenticity. Gosh we’re swell!
* We’re God’s chosen Tweeters!

Finding God on Facebook

Ah, God. Was there any good news for religions in the Pew report? Certainly, the report makes clear that the vast majority of believers and seekers of every age group, gender, and educational level are likely to be found on Facebook (92%), MySpace (28%), LinkedIn (18%), and Twitter (13%) on a regular basis, though participation varies in any platform based on demographic characteristics. Want to engage thirty- and forty-something white, college-educated men? They’re on LinkedIn. African American women? Try MySpace. Hispanics? Visit Twitter on your way to MySpace. Of course, pretty much everyone’s also on Facebook, so you’ll need to wend your way there as well. What about that Ning site you created for your church? Not so much.

But the Pew data point beyond where people are to what they do in ways that should interest God-geeky types. (Bear with me; this is going to get a little wonky…)

The researchers also studied the relationship between internet and SNS participation and membership in voluntary groups: community groups, sports leagues, youth groups, social clubs, and the Big Kahuna of local social hubs, religious groups. Participation in voluntary groups overall increased nearly 10%, from 65% in 2008 to 74% in 2010. Participation in religious groups tracks just north of the general increase, at 12%, moving from 42% in 2008 to 54% in 2010.

There are lots of reasons for this—not least the floundering economy and its demand for ceaseless praying and the occasional soup supper. Pew researchers found little causal relationship between SNS participation and voluntary group membership. Still, the data are telling. We can’t predict that someone who uses Facebook is more likely to go to church, synagogue, mosque, or temple than is someone who does not. But the data show that, among those who do participate in religious groups, participation in social networking communities has grown tremendously—from 36% in 2008 to 52% in 2010. This is highest rate of SNS usage and the single largest increase (16%) in SNS usage among all voluntary group participants.

At the Intersection of God & Neighbor

The take-away: While participation in digital social networks does not cause participation in religious groups, digital social engagement parallels local religious engagement. Where these two paths intersect would seem to be a particularly fruitful locale for socio-spiritual encounter. Social networking platforms, as was evidenced in another Pew report released earlier this year, are particularly meaningful sites for encouraging and supporting active participation in local groups. This of course includes churches, religious, and other spiritual groups, where internet and smartphone users are 15% more likely to be active than non-users. From photos of your last Habitat for Humanity project, to tweets that you’re powering off for the Sabbath, to prayers for sick friends and uninspired sermon-writers, social networking sites have become the connective membranes of contemporary social and spiritual experience alike.

Data from Pew and other research centers are only beginning to allow us to tease out the day-to-day effects of what I’ve called the Digital Reformation—a revitalization of religion driven by the often ad hoc spiritualities of ordinary believers as they integrate practices of access, connection, participation, creativity, and collaboration encouraged by the widespread use of new digital social media into all aspects of daily life, including the life of faith.

Without question, we need more study on social networking and mobile computing practice within and across religious and denominational categories. But as this more focused data is developed, religious leaders interested in nurturing and sustaining robust religious practice are well advised to attend closely to how what we are coming to understand as the rich relational, civic, and social potential of new media can be applied in local religious communities. All on their own, billions of believers and seekers are exploring and expanding their faith and enriching connections with neighbors, friends, and other companions in local and global communities. One can hardly imagine what more is possible in terms of worship, witness, and service as religious groups and their leaders become more actively attentive to the social stirrings of the Digital Reformation.

Or, as E.M. Forster put it so well, “Only connect!… Live in fragments no longer.”

Elizabeth Drescher [@edrescherphd] is the author, with Keith Anderson, of Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012). She teaches religion and pastoral ministries at Santa Clara University. She is currently at work on Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of Religious Nones, a project funded in part through a grant from the Social Science Research Council’s “New Directions in the Study of Prayer” project through the Templeton Foundation. Her website is www.elizabethdrescher.com