I interned at a church last summer. Odd, I know. Why would a church need an intern? Turns out, for my particular place of work, there are a lot of reasons. I interned at Trinity Wall Street – the corporate entity of Trinity Church in lower Manhattan. Trinity is one of the oldest churches in America, founded in 1697, and was the background of the Revolution and the creation of the United States. It was George Washington’s church when he was in New York and Alexander Hamilton (the guy on the $10 bill/the subject of the popular Lin-Manuel Miranda musical) is buried in the Trinity graveyard, several feet from the church building. Being a powerful institution both pre- and post-Revolution, Trinity amassed a lot of property in Manhattan, which Trinity Wall Street manages , as well as running the day-to-day activities of the church itself. While I didn’t get to work directly with the church entity of Trinity, I was able to get an inside look at the inner workings, especially about how they present their brand, and that (and the fact that today is Easter – Happy Easter!) inspired this post.
Participation in organized religion is on the decline in the United States. According to the Pew study on the state of religion in the country, published in 2015, almost 25% of surveyed Americans are atheist, agnostic, or simply don’t believe in anything, up from about 17% in 2007. Younger generations of Americans are more likely not practice an organized religion such as Christianity (the majority in the US), Islam, or Judaism, with older generations dominating church attendance lists. Also, the study found that as younger generations mature, they do not tend to adopt a religion, leaving churches empty as the older generations go on without young people to replace them. This article suggests that religion’s stance on several hot-button issues like same-sex marriage, and the tendency for religion to be intertwined with conservatism, leads many to be “turned off” from religion. One way I see churches combatting this decline is by adopting a more robust social media presence, using it as a way to stop doing the “same old stuff” and (literally) breathe new life into the church.
The Catholic Church in particular has been leveraging several social media channels. The Pope has a Twitter (@Pontifex), started in 2012 during Benedict XVI’s tenure as Pope, with his current successor, Francis, taking over when he was elected Pope in 2013. On his Twitter, the Pope frequently tweets out general advice on understanding parts of the Catholic faith, calls for prayer, and details of any trip, speech, encyclical, etc. As of today, the Pope’s English account has 8.96 million followers, and over 20 million throughout the rest of his accounts. Most recently, the Pope has created an Instagram, @franciscus. Run by the Pope’s Secretariat of Communications, the account has gained two million followers in the past week, with the first photo, captioned “Pray for me,” (and its equivalent in many different languages), having gotten over 300,000 likes. These accounts go with the Catholic Church’s positive stance regarding social media and its ability to spread the word of God. The Pope in his World Communications Day address in 2014 sees it as a boon. “[The internet] is something truly good, a gift from God,” he says.
With a somewhat smaller impact than the Pope, parts of religious life have become trending topics. #ashtag became a trend on Ash Wednesday in 2014. Typically, #ashtag post were posts where Christians who received ashes would put up a picture of them displaying their ash cross (or ash cross-like blob) on their forehead. The hashtag was very popular with teens, with many Catholic high schoolers showing off their ashes, and spread to older people, and members of the clergy.
Some critics say that the posts trivialize the meaning of the ashes and it’s not very Christian-like to boast about worship. But, the effects of #ashtag seem to be very good. Not only is it a (usually very visible on its own) sign of faith spreading, it’s a sign that the very demographic that is leaving the church is active in the church.
Trinity uses social media and the Internet to their advantage: they have a bevy of social media outlets, and they broadcast their masses live everyday. But what happens next? It seems that churches everywhere are starting to embrace social media and all it has to offer. It’s up to them to leverage the resources they have to try to repair an almost empty church.