Social Media And The Next Big Religious Revival
I expect many people may be skeptical about the likelihood of this. But history has shown that the revivalist tradition is a strong, perennial force in American life. So far America has seen five epic religious revivals -- the "Great Awakenings." Each one pioneered an innovative communications strategy using the technology available at the time; however, the goal of these strategies was always to get people listening to revivalist preachers -- in media parlance, using marketing messages to drive experiential conversions (literally).
During the "First Great Awakening" from 1730-1755, it was almost entirely word-of-mouth: there weren't very many printing presses in the colonies just yet, the postal system was rudimentary, and anyway many people were illiterate. Meanwhile communities were small enough for a single word-of-mouth advocate to be quite effective in "building buzz" around the approach of famous fire-and-brimstone preachers like Jonathan Edwards.
By the time of the "Second Great Awakening" from 1810-1840, printing presses had become common and more Americans were literate, so the communications strategy evolved to include a big print media push, with the foundation of the American Bible Society in 1816. The print media strategy included not just mass-publication of Bibles but flyers and pamphlets promoting social causes associated with the revival like the abolitionist and temperance movements. The same basic technologies dominated the "Third Great Awakening," from 1870-1900, although there was much more use of print thanks to the growth of newspapers and the popularity of "campus revivals" at colleges and universities.
The most recent revival was the "Fourth Great Awakening" from 1960-1980, again characterized by the adoption of forward-thinking media strategies -- most notably the modern phenomenon of televangelists like Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Jerry Falwell, Pat Roberston, and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. The wave of televangelism was supported by new broadcast and cable networks dedicated to revival activity, including the Trinity Broadcast Network, as well as new genres of music like Christian rock.
Three decades have passed since the end of the last Great Awakening; in that time the rise of the Christian right as a political force has generated a lot of hostility, but that hardly means the end of evangelism in this country. Meanwhile several trends -- like the emergence of a "green" Christian movement focused on environmental issues, and a renewed focus on social issues like poverty -- seem to suggest yet another revival may be in the works (admittedly, possibly years away).
Whenever it does happen, however, one thing is guaranteed: the "Fifth Great Awakening" will take place via social media, continuing the tradition of evangelists adopting cutting-edge media strategies. It will be enabled by the massive growth of email, social networks, and digital media -- especially online video -- allowing individuals and organizations to coordinate evangelizing efforts by followers and reach out to potential new converts. There may well be a traditional media presence as well, including broadcast TV, radio, and print -- all of which were already pioneered in past revivals. But it will be distinguished above all by the new peer-to-peer technologies of the Web.