Faith Formation in a Digital Age

March 1st, 2013

The beginning of the twenty-first century marked a technological move to web 2.0 in 2004 and a corresponding social turn toward improved applications of relationship-cultivating interactive media. Americans quickly and creatively responded to the rapid introductions of social media applications including blogs (1999), smartphones (Palm Kyocera 6035, first in U.S.) (2001), Wikipedia (2001), MySpace (2003), Second Life (2003), Skype (2003), Facebook (2004), World of Warcraft (2004), YouTube (2005), RSS (Real Simple Syndication) (2005), Macromedia Breeze live web conferencing (2005), and Twitter (2006).

Faith communities are slowly responding by blending new resources to reach the unaffiliated as well as engage and support faith community members. The 2004 Pew Internet and American Life Project Report, Faith Online, identified nearly 82 million Americans—64 percent of Internet users—perform spiritual and religious activities online to supplement their ties to traditional institutions. More recently, the 2010 Hartford Institute for Religion Research national survey of 11,077 of the nation’s 335,000 congregations found that 69 percent have websites (up from 33 percent ten years previous), 4 percent have Facebook pages, and 1 percent stream worship services.

Pastoral leaders are increasingly using blogs, Twitter, and other interactive forums to share information, present ideas, and initiate genuine dialogue. Even Pope Benedict XVI has been an unexpectedly strong supporter of social media, having launched a YouTube channel with six languages in 2008 as well as a Facebook and iPad app, “Pope2you,” in 2009, and encouraging priests to proclaim the gospel by blogging and using new web communications tools.

With rosters dwindling, many faith communities have designed evangelism-oriented sites to reach the growing population of “nones.” and illustrate sites designed to encourage a synchronous interaction between denominational representatives and the unaffiliated. Launched in 2001, OnceCatholic was likely the first interactive site designed to enable those who left the Roman Catholic Church to interact with companions in hope of healing hurts and encouraging former members to ”come home.” Similarly, the United Methodist Church’s campaign to ReThink Church, launched in 2009, uses threaded discussions to help individuals and communities focus on church as a way of life. The site hosts “conversations,” encouraging viewers to “share what is on your mind” and identifies ways to meet others and get involved in activities that will change the world.

Faithful people and church professionals continue to develop new faith formation resources designed to support new initiates and active members. Luther Seminary associate professor Mary Hess spearheaded the creation of as a place for pastoral leaders to share religious resources using Creative Commons licenses. Additionally, mobile technologies now enable most of these resources to be available anywhere and anytime.

As faith communities gain comfort with digital technologies that expand their ability to connect with one another, the creation of virtual churches is raising the most questions and concerns. Unable to presume that a physically gathered community will remain the norm for faith communities, some early adopters are exploring the potential of online communities. Some virtual churches are designed to complement brick-and-mortar faith communities like Fort Lauderdale’s Sunshine Cathedral, which gathers regularly at 1480 SW 9th Avenue and at Sunshine Cathedral of Second Life, while others are online-only like the Anglican Cathedral of Second Life and Faith Village.

Taking advantage of a multi-directional, multi-sensory environment, the sponsors of these virtual spaces are creating immersive worlds so that individuals will always have a space to gather to share stories of God’s presence, hear God’s call, and engage God’s mission. They also offer support to those who, for whatever reason, are not entering a physical church or want to supplement their real world commitments with virtual ones. They are convinced that virtual churches are a natural evolution of ways to respond to Jesus’ command to proclaim the gospel to all the nations. Their efforts are challenging faith communities in real life and cyberspace to reconsider the boundaries of Christian life in each.

Faith formation 4.0 is still in its infancy even though the technological innovations that initiated it were introduced as early as 1876 when Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Three primary characteristics frame this era:

  1. a convergence of voice, video, and data on one digital platform;
  2. ubiquitous access—anywhere, anytime, by anyone with network connectivity; and
  3. the potential for multipoint interactivity—with seemingly endless combinations of sending and receiving messages from one-to-one to many-to-many.

Secondary characteristics include a democratization of authorship, easy replication, personalization, and customization. Paralleling paradigm shifts in contemporary culture, these characteristics are initiating evolutionary and revolutionary changes in faith communities. Religious institutions and faithful people are still trying to learn the language of these technologies and use them appropriately to invite seekers and support longtime members.

Digital media and social networking are easier to create and update, less expensive to produce, and more broadly accessible than previous media. This means faith communities can tailor websites and networked resources to meet the needs of particular groups along the cycle of discipleship. Although networked computers were initially viewed with skepticism as disembodying and isolating technologies, the growing awareness of social media’s ability to convey social presence—particularly when the alternative is no pastoral presence—is changing attitudes and increasing use for everything from pastoral care to lifelong learning.

Typically fostering a distributive network, the resulting collaborative leadership and flattened authority are being both celebrated and lamented as grassroots movements gain voice (and power) and institutional authorities lose control. Notions of time and space are also shifting as interactive media leave impressions that we are always available and the borders between public and private are blurring. Overwhelmed by the breadth of information and resources, seekers as well as longtime members would benefit from mentors who can guide them through the maze to recognize appropriate resources.

The concept of virtual churches and dispersed participants is challenging central assumptions about what it means to be church and whether or not physical structures need to be maintained. Openness to the possibilities of experiencing God’s presence remains central to the efficacy of digital media and social networking for personal conversion and social transformation.

excerpted from: Faith Formation 4.0: Introducing an Ecology of Faith in a Digital Age by Julie Anne Lytle ©Morehouse Publishing, an imprint of Church Publishing Incorporated. Used with permission.

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