What would God’s Instagram look like?

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 trinityRevolution 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,popeinsta 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.

12 comments

  1. This is an awesome post, and very refreshing after reading about tech companies and others’ campaigns. I wonder how the evolution of social will permeate the realms of organized religion throughout the world in the future. The Pope seems to represent how devout followers might take to their leaders’ presences online. I agree that churches have a greater chance of under-representation without utilizing social going forward. The implications of trends like #ashtag might seem very surface-level and against the purpose of Ash Wednesday in general, but it seems to excite young church-goers about their faiths. Cheers, and thanks for the post! :)

  2. ajsalcetti · ·

    Interesting post, especially considering I would put myself in that 25% not-so-religious group. I certainly respect religion and tradition and find this a cool topic given the intersection of old and new. I did see the Pope got instagram a few weeks back and found it quite entertaining. But more than that, I think the churches (and synagogues and mosques, etc) all see the changing tide of demographics and trying to get younger people interested in topics that may otherwise be less exciting. I know when I was young I hated being dragged to church on sundays by my parents; perhaps using social media and younger, hip phrases like high school and college students posting ashtag would get people on the fence involved. If their friends are going and posting funny instagram pics, then maybe the people on the fence will join. Rather than having the older people “preach” down upon the youth, having the youth do their work indirectly is very powerful and certainly more effective. It will be interesting to see over the next 2-3 generations how this continues to play out and if there is a gradual increase back to religion that may be attributed to social media, or whether the decline continues.

  3. I generally like the idea of religious social media accounts. I don’t follow any, but I think the church needs to do anything it can to gain followers (online and irl). It’s no secret that the number of religious people is dropping as your post evidenced, and it’s up to them to bring those back to faith. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with posting pics with #ashtag as it’s just today’s way of spreading the word of God for some. Great post!

  4. Really interesting post. I am of a similar mind to Jak in that I agree that it is generally positive, although I do not personally participate. I think this is interesting because going to Church and participating in religion is traditionally a very personal, intrinsic practice. Obviously, social media usage is an extrinsic activity, leading to a divergence for the two activities. I look forward to seeing how both the Catholic Church and other religions embrace its followers usage of social media relating to religious practice. I hope followers are able to avoid the temptation to “boast” about their worship, because as you say, this seems to go against many religious practices. Great post!

  5. Loved this post, and what a cool internship you had in NYC! I think it’s great that so many churches are embracing social media and using it as a way to engage with their people, especially the younger people, but I still see a fair share of churches who resist embracing new technology and communication. It’s their loss though, and I think eventually as younger generations start to take over positions within the church, there will be changes. I thought it was so cool and progressive that the Pope got into social media more with his Instagram account. I think one thing churches and religions have to remember though, is that they may embrace new technologies and social media as a way to communicate, but if they still embrace old and conservative religious policies and practices, it’s only going to get them so far…younger generations won’t be interested in that church, even if they are using social media.

  6. This is a great topic. My church in Brookline is in the nascent stages of using social media. We’re trying to decide which channels to use and how to use them. Not only do those decisions take some thought and planning, but the decision-making process in churches can be really arduous.

    I can’t say I love the idea of the #ashtag. It seems weirdly braggartly. I know ashes are supposed to be an outward sign of faith, but I don’t know about using social media to amplify that.

  7. I never thought about the intermingling of faith and social media. Thank you for provoking deeper thought. After reading your post, i am starting to think it is essential for leaders in faith to have an online presence. It helps ditch stigmatized views of religion and presents topics in a way that are easier for younger generations to grasp. Also, i think simply scrolling past an uplifting post centered around love will make everyones day a little brighter. bravo

  8. Really interesting topic. I never really considered social media use and religion before but with declining involvement among younger generations I think it’s an excellent way to raise interest. Social media could be leveraged as an excellent tool to create the sense of community that organized religion used to bring. I think things like #AshTag are an excellent way to bring about more interest in religion.

  9. I did not know that the church was taking to social media in such a big way. I agree that something needs to be done to modernize the church but I agree with some critics that say you should not post about all the good things you are doing. It come across as bragging and there is a line in the bible about not letting the left hand know what the right hand is doing or something of the sort. Social media seems to be, by definition, the opposite of this. Those numbers abou the youth participating in structured religion is disturbing though and something needs to be done, so maybe social media is the answer?

  10. Interesting read and definitely a breathe of fresh air compared to the usual blogs. I am actually a big fan of religion making the move to social media. Since Vatican II, the Church has been attempting to become more “user-friendly” to stay on par for this course, and enter the modern world. Using the vernacular language rather than Latin for the liturgy, changed how priests said mass, etc. The purpose of Vatican II was to create active participation in the church and I think social media takes this one step further. My priest at home has started to increase our church’s social media presence on Facebook and it has been fairly successful with his posts receiving a few hundred likes each time.

  11. Great post, Rashanna! I enjoyed this topic and particularly the perspective you shared. A killer headline, awesome examples, and practical experience made for a really insighful post. I think Pope Francis has done an outstanding job of being faithful to who he is while also being really accessible, relatable, and just… human. His presence on social media is like no other, and through it, I think he has been able to do a notable job of reaching and capturing younger generations. The critiques you mentioned about using social media to promote faith remind me of Christina’s post a while back about the fine line between spreading awareness and being disrespectful (https://isys6621.com/2016/02/09/spreading-awareness-the-fine-line-between-effective-disrespecful/). I definitely think it’s a nuance that’s learned, and the Pope sets an excellent example of how to successfully play the game.

  12. Interesting post, Rashanna. Thanks for sharing your experience in this space as well. This just goes to show that there is a place for social media in most every capacity. The fact that the Pope has a Twitter account speaks volumes. I do think it’s tough and gets a bit fuzzy when you see some churches using social media to promote religion as a business as opposed to spreading faith awareness. However, the fact that we now have prayer apps, YouTube, and other digital sermons available on mobile devices and tablets, it shows that even churches are keeping up with the times with regards to digital communications. Users aren’t as spiritually constrained to just the church because there are now so many digital channels that weren’t available before, which can really tap into a younger spiritually disconnected generation.

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