“Digital Discipline”: Five Questions on #ReLent2016

A campaign launched by Baltimore-based Lutheran pastor and Slate Project co-founder Jason Chesnut, #ReLent2016 reinvents Lent as a “digital discipline.”

Each week of #ReLent2016 has a different theme—repent, relinquish, rediscover, reconnect. And so far, the #ReLent2016 tag has made more than 25,000 impressions.

#Relent2016 also has off-line components. To kick off Lent, Chesnut hit the streets of Baltimore with several other ministers as part of an #AshesToGo project for those who didn’t make it to church on Ash Wednesday.

I talked to Chesnut to get the backstory:

AL: What was the inspiration for #ReLent2016?

JC: Lent began as this season in the Christian church that prepared people for a radical reorientation of their lives. It’s often seen as this fun thing we do to prep for Easter when it’s supposed to represent walking with Jesus to the cross, which is crazy as shit. We’ve lost a lot of that so we use words like “relent,” “renew,” “reword,” “reimagine” and just a lot of “re” words to try to bring that back.

Even “re-ligion” comes from the Latin word for ligaments—basically meaning to bring together again. However, religion has had the opposite effect throughout history, right? Christianity has kind of assumed its role in power structures when it should go back to its genesis—at the edges, at the margins. To recover that original meaning is the goal of this project.

What makes Twitter the right platform for this project?

The hashtag can allow people to engage without really asking too much of them. It allows a lot of millennials and digital natives to participate online in a way that makes them feel a part of a larger community. Twitter helps to form real relationships and real communities, and there’s no reason faith groups shouldn’t be a part of that.

Do you feel that tech can provide a more effective way of practicing religion?

We Lutherans trace our history back to the Reformation in the 1600s, and the only way that it was able to take off was because of that new technology, the printing press. So without the printing press, there’s no way that Martin Luther’s ideas could have spread and triggered this fundamental revolution in the church. I feel the exact same thing is happening now with the internet.

What’s your response to those who say religion moving online is a dilution or regression?

Everywhere I go, I see young people on their smartphones scrolling through Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. Some people may decry that as social regression, but I think it’s awesome. You have to meet people where they are, and they’re all on these online communities. It’s a phenomenal opportunity to share this radical Good News that we have.

As much as my dad and other baby-boomers want to say that the internet is a fad, people must realize this is a major shift. Everyday there’s always a link or an article or a discussion of what’s happening in the church. We create content online that isn’t just pointing to a specific church building, that isn’t just telling people our church worship times—we’re actually engaging. I think very soon that will be the primary way we connect and spread God’s teachings. Social media is the conduit for that.

What advantages does virtual observance have over in-person participation?

Twitter offers a very real way to articulate one’s self for those who normally would have trouble communicating in person. For those who are painfully shy or live with autism and may not be able to talk or engage at our in-person events, social media gives them a chance to make their voice heard. Those people really benefit from social media interactions in addition to extroverts like me. It also attracts those who would never set foot in a church normally.