While most churchgoers are probably used to rules demanding cessation of all electronic activity during services, a church in Arizona is taking the opposite stance: the congregation at Fellowship Church in Anthem, AZ is encouraged to tweet, update their Facebook profiles, and post to Instagram from the pews, according to CBS5, a local station which first reported the news.
The report quotes lead pastor Ted Baird, who explains: “It’s the great story of Jesus Christ and the life that he brings to all of us… that’s our message… so how do we get the message out to as many people as possible?” Of course, this policy has the added advantage of making the church seem young and hip, while sanctioning something that was probably going to happen anyway (perhaps increasing the chances that the social media activity will be church-related).
The story reminded me of a post I wrote a couple years ago about the likely synthesis of social media and evangelism. Basically, America has experienced four major Christian religious revivals, called the “Great Awakenings,” each of which was defined in part by its use of the latest communications technology to recruit new followers, and it seems probable that the next “Great Awakening,” whenever it arrives, will be enabled by social media (including online video). To illustrate the point, following is the quick review of previous revivals and their relationship with communications technology from the original post.
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.
So are parishioners tweeting from the pews the first wave of a Fifth Great Awakening? Time will tell.