Social Media And The Next Big Religious Revival

Speaking from a personal perspective as a secular coastal media type, it's easy to forget the huge role of religion in American life. But at some point in my lifetime I expect we'll all be reminded by another broad-based religious revival -- the latest in a series of revivals that have occurred periodically throughout American history. And it will take place through social media.

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.

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8 comments about "Social Media And The Next Big Religious Revival".
  1. John Jainschigg from World2Worlds, Inc. , April 16, 2010 at 2:21 a.m.

    Absolutely correct. The political right's use of internet in netroots mob-galvanizing is not being ignored by others with similar agendas.

    I wonder (and I'm by no means certain) whether there's something fundamental about internet culture that can prevent this from getting out of control and going really bad. That idea seems to run contrary to the 'normal model,' which focuses on use of the internet as a surveillance tool by repressive regimes and the contrary use of the internet as a tool for evasion, samizdat, and ultimately revolution. That's the model now playing out in China, and (to me) that model seems harmonious with the 'free, reason-driven' ethos of the internet as I know it today.

    I'm not sure it's readily possible for a new religious revival to reverse conditions, run against the (ostensible) flow of culture and affordance, and use the internet to 'become the establishment,' which would be (in my opinion) a worst-case scenario. The 'tea party' and other annoyance movements on the right can only really work so long as they maintain a notion of _themselves_ as revolutionaries, confronting the establishment, which means they can't hope to grow beyond a certain size or level of influence. I hope.

    I did an interview, the other day, with David Strom, who'd written a very interesting blog on March 29, characterizing Google's recent fracas with China as tantamount to being 'America's first cyber-war.' While I deplore what happened to Google, it does show that even the smartest organizations in the world can be penetrated and fouled-up by people with wild skillz and a sense of mission. I'm wondering if there's anything here to make us hopeful, i.e., that internet media is powerful, but it's also dynamic, rife with single points of failure and vulnerable nodes. So - by comparison with other media pressed into service by dark forces of theocracy or ideology: film, pamphlets, books, etc., the internet may actually turn out to be a rather-weak tool for taking revolution beyond a certain critical point.

  2. Mike Bennett from United Church of God , April 16, 2010 at 8:51 a.m.

    As the Internet content guy for a small church, I obviously hope there will be a religious revival supported by social media. But religion has some huge hurdles to cross in the Internet world. I mean, how many sermons go viral? We share the funny, the cute, the prurient, the crude and the simple. Something more complex and challenging like a philosophy of life has a harder time getting traction in the split-second attention arena of today.

    So what chance does religion have today? I submit that the key to religious revival would be relevance. Religion must show how it can give practical help and hope in people's real-life challenges and the real problems in this world. In the long run, though communities can be built through social media, the truly satisfying communities of fellowship can only be achieved face to face.

  3. Rick Yuzzi from ZCorum , April 16, 2010 at 9:50 a.m.

    Some well known pastors and evangelists are already active in social media. It's nothing for the secular world to be afraid of. My concern is that the media will focus on the extreme examples out on the fringe who don't represent the teachings of Christ, and who are an embarrassment to most Christians.

  4. Robert Reid from University of Dubuque , April 16, 2010 at 12:37 p.m.

    An important resource to explore this subject is Rex Miller's The Millenium Matrix (Jossey Bass 2004). Miller has provided a thoughtful exploration of how communication on an vast array of different theological issues (e.g., God, trinity, communication, etc.) plays out for oral, print, mass communication, and digital cultural consciousnesses. It would be useful to see him update the digital implications. But seeing how he consistently differentiates mass media based religious discourse from digital era discourse is very useful. A very accessible book.

  5. David Diekmann from Bloomstruck , April 16, 2010 at 1:24 p.m.

    John, your post is painful to read. The tin-foil hat wearing left-wing extremist idiots have glommed onto digital tools to spread their dis-information and anarchist, anti-establishment rhetoric WAY more quickly than 'the church' has attempted to use the tools to A) reach those in their pews and B) bring more believers through their doors. You've completely skewed the point of this article to fit your narrow-minded, paranoid political stance.

    The point of the article: how social media will be a part of the next spiritual awakening. NOT the point of the article: bashing 'annoyance movements' (what? law-abiding citizens gathering peacefully to protest government actions is annoying? WOW! Were you then annoyed with the rock throwing, glass breaking, rioting crowds who were protesting the Bush Administration's decision to go to war, or were you throwing rocks?), 'fearing' some trumped up, oppressive religious movement from the Right that's going to suddenly crush your rights.

    In your world, internet media as a tool to organize and bring together like-minded religious individuals is completely unacceptable. (dark forces of theocracy or ideology? Seriously? Dude. One URL: Moveon.org) That's sad. Newsflash: you can't have your foot on the break and hit the accelerator at the same time. I fear censorship through intimidation from liberal extremists (who cry for diversity and fairness but are always quick to put a clamp down on freedom of expression and speech) far more than those who would use social media to communicate with and grow their religious flock. In fact, I would bet that flock would be first in line to support your right to use social media as a tool to continue spreading paranoid, big brother theories.

    For the record, I don't pray nor attend church. It's a shame you took this article into the world of black helicopters and didn't stay on topic.

  6. Daniel Giordan from Sears Holdings Corp , April 16, 2010 at 2:33 p.m.

    You guys talk about revivals as being the schemes of men to advance their agendas. Schemes are a daily occurrence in this world, both in secular and religious circles, online, offline, and in the hearts of men.

    The revivals you mention in your article were from God, not from men... and God isn't reliant on trendy tools to succeed. Christianity grew from a handful of first century men in a scruffy backwater to be the most influential movement in world history. It grew IN SPITE of the lack of communication tools, and the hatred of local (Jewish) and world (Roman) powers.

    Revival happens when God changes a heart, not when Facebook revs a new piece of software.

  7. Ibrahim Riad from Image Plus , April 17, 2010 at 3:45 a.m.

    Welcome to evangelizing: peace, kindness, love, understanding, sacrificing for others, honesty, faithfulness, and an endless list that would make the world a better place to live. That's the Christianity I know

  8. Ngoc T from Iowa , May 13, 2010 at 10:45 a.m.

    I have learned from every post here. Thank you.