Smartphone Spirituality - Terrible? or The New Normal? ~ Praxis Habitus - On Race Religion & Culture

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Smartphone Spirituality - Terrible? or The New Normal?

A Twin Cities newspaper reports on the use of social networking and new technology by congregations -- not just Christian ones -- who appear to advocate a "shallow consumerism" for religion.

An article by Jeff Strickler from the Star Tribune features a now-familiar article about the incorporation of technology and the targeting of younger attenders among congregations. It seems that some of the fastest-growing congregations in Minnesota -- suburban, mostly evangelical Christian megachurches -- embraced marketing from the start. Their success has caused more-traditional congregations with dwindling memberships to take notice.

The article begins with one congregation --

This church, called Substance (they tend to have radical names,) is one of the most-successful in the Twin Cities, drawing several hundred worshippers each Sunday. They reach out to young people by cutting back on the ritual of traditional churches. There's also a rock band and multi-media.

Nice commentary on the church's name -- I guess "Substance" could be considered a radical name if you take the substance being referred to in a more ambiguous way...

Anyhow, the key to the article is how it's not just Christian churches getting into the act. The article quotes Rabbi Hayim Herring who stressed in a seminar to "fellow clergy that they should spend an hour a day on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter" and that "blogging should be considered mandatory." Rabbi Herring also recommends using video clips from YouTube in the service.

Central Presbyterian Church, AustinImage by David A G Wilson via Flickr

"They used to look at me as if I'd just said a four-letter word," said Herring, the former senior rabbi at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park and now the executive director of STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal). But in its seven years, the organization has seen more converts to what many call one of the dirtiest words in religion: marketing.

According to the article, it's younger people's "reliance" on electronic social networks that leaves religious leaders "no choice." As Rabbi Herring states, "If you're not out there, there's no chance of your message being heard."

Even Hindus are becoming technologically astute. Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, urged his religious organizations to use "smart-phones with BlackBerry, iPhone and Symbian." While they were at it, he suggested, they should check out Flickr, Habbo, hi5, Skyrock, Tagged, Bebo, Netlog, MyHeritage, Odnoklassniki, Sonico and VKontakte.

Overall, the article stirs up controversy by echoing reactions from alarmists concerend about "salesmanship tools" and "commercialism." It's the marketplace of religion (so they say), and quotes Greg Smith, a research fellow for the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, who says, "Whether they like it or not, religions are being forced to compete for members."

Sacred Heart Church - Notre DameImage by timjeby via Flickr

The article then goes for the jugular - it's a religions "market" because congregations need to sustain streams of financial contributions to their ministry.

Bottom line: follow the money --

More than just bragging rights are at stake. Maintaining membership is critical for church finances, especially at a time of economic distress when contributions are dropping and endowment funds have taken a beating in the stock market. If belt-tightening members drop less money in the collection plate, the congregation needs to pack more people into the pews to make up the difference.

In my view, pointing to money as a core dynamic is just too crass. Religious leaders are sincerely wrestling with attempts to meet and minister to people about the things they really care about - bringing them into a closer relationship to the divine. And yet there is a struggle to define the role for new technology.

Rev. John Mayer who is executive director of City Vision, a Minneapolis organization that tracks religious demographics, said it well, saying,

"People see it as too worldly or gimmicky for the church to be marketing itself," he said. "But most of the same people who say it is sacrilegious also expect their church to have a website, a listing in the phone book or an ad in the phone book. To me, this is marketing."

In fact, he said, one of religion's classic icons could be considered a marketing tool: the church steeple.

"Yes, it's there for artistic reasons and to symbolize pointing to God," he said. "But it's also like a big sign to people saying: 'We are here. Come and check us out.'"

Steeples as marketing tool. Nice point.

The Rev. Scott Anderson at Eagle Brook Church, also tempers the discussion by saying that tailoring the delivery of the message to its intended audience is nothing new.

"We have to reach people through the culture we find ourselves in," he said. "If we want people to hear our message, we have to get them through the doors first."

What's even more interesting are the range of comments on the story. One comment from SMBowner3 writes,

"A church is a business and a religion is a brand, so they are smart to use technology to market themselves and their brand. You can learn about God in a bible - churches and religions are 'value add' services."

Old church’s sanctuary/Chorraum der alten KircheImage via Wikipedia

Another from kevinstirtz writes,

"The leaders who are moving (dragging?) their churches (and synagogues) into the 21st century by using social media tools and other technology are just plain smart. It's called meeting your customers where they are and it works. I applaud these pastors, ministers and rabbis who are simply trying harder to meet the needs of their people."

The whole article is interesting to me.

Looks like it will be awhile before the image of "traditional church" gets shifted far enough for these developments to not be considered so outlandish.

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