Digital Killed the Biblical Star?

In 1992, Pope John Paul II  formally acknowledged the Catholic Church’s error in condemning Galileo Galilei and his work in support of Copernican heliocentrism. After 350 years, the rectification nullified one of history’s most powerful examples of the presupposed tensions between faith and science.

While the affirmation of Galileo arguably came much too late, its symbolic power reflects the broader trend towards a growing synergism between Christianity and technology. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries are rife with examples of this “odd couple” in action: Moody Radio, under the umbrella of the Moody Bible Institute, took advantage of the nascent radio broadcast industry and launched in Chicago in 1926. Buzz Aldrin, who was both the face of American space exploration and an elder at the Webster Presbyterian Church, took communion on-board Apollo 11’s lunar module before stepping onto the moon on July 20, 1969. In recent years, Pope Francis has demonstrated an understanding of, and affinity for, technology, using his iPad during public appearances, meeting with Mark Zuckerberg, Eric Schmidt, and Tim Cook, launching apps and social media channels (@Pontifex, if you are interested), and, in 2018, approving and blessing a collegiate hackathon at the Vatican.

2018’s VHack Event in Vatican City via EWTN

On the individual level, everyday Christians have largely embraced technology as a means for religious and devotional practice. While many Christians, especially millennials and digital natives, are enthusiastic about blending technology and faith, there is also concern about inauthenticity and the possible emergence of syncretic faith traditions that stray too far from organized belief structures.

Religion-centered mobile apps are a particularly interesting branch of this tech-faith phenomenon. Take, for example, the immensely popular YouVersion Bible App. YouVersion was one of the first 200 free apps available when Apple’s App Store first debuted in 2008 and, by the end of 2017, had been downloaded 300 million times. The freemium app, which provides digitized, searchable Bible texts in multiple versions and in 1,169 languages, is financed by creator and pastor Bobby Gruenewald’s Oklahoma-based megachurch network, Life.Church.

Although YouVersion is somewhat of an anomaly in terms of its success, hundreds of other Christian religion apps can be found on Apple and Android platforms. Some, like Confession, iDisciple, and Abide aim to assist with specific aspects of Christian and Catholic practice. Others, however, are somewhat questionable in intent – Texts from Jesus, as just one example, features in-app advertising, a tawdry design, and frequent push notifications. Catloaf Software, the creator of Texts from Jesus, has also produced such apps as Fretuoso, Keyboard Cat, Texts from Founding Fathers, Texts from Donald Trump, and Texts from Bernie Sanders. In light of its portfolio, one cannot help but to suspect that the company is simply capitalizing on the religious app trend. Instapray (no longer available on the App Store), one of the more high-profile apps in the space due to backing from Peter Thiel, sought to create a prayer-based social network. Aside from creating another space for religious and political argument, however, its ultimate effect was to reinforce a sort of “status update” mentality for praying. The movement of prayer life into the digital public square, at least in the format offered by Instapray, is not without the potential for a divorce of prayer from spiritual seriousness.

Of more immediate concern to Christian communities is the way in which the technology of religious practice may be contributing to a fundamental change in religious conceptions among younger adherents. According to Reverend Pete Phillips, director of the Codec Research Centre for Digital Theology at Durham University in the United Kingdom, a “new kind of Christianity for the digital age is appearing…one that follows many of the ethics of the secular world.” Known formally among sociologists as moralistic therapeutic deism, this form of religion focuses less on specific doctrine and deities than it does on the ethical tenets, stated inclusiveness, and charitability common to many organized religions. When doctrine is involved, it is in a “pick-and-mix” fashion, in which each adherent develops an individualized faith comprised of only those doctrines with which the adherent agrees.

This, of course, is not to say that the rise of technology-enabled religious practice is responsible for shifts away from organized religion and toward more secularized spirituality. Instead, such technologies have simply facilitated a larger and pre-existing desire among practicing Christians for what Texas A&M researcher Heidi Campbell refers to as a “more personalized religious experience.” If they choose, YouVersion users can, for example, immerse themselves only in self-selected sections of text and do so without acknowledgement of the context in preceding or succeeding chapters. Even beyond such siloing, critics argue, instant and nearly ubiquitous access to faith – live-streamed and live-tweeted services, for example, or virtual prayer experiences- call into question the need for in-person attendance at houses of worship. Indeed, according to the Pew Research Center, 1 in 4 self-identified Protestants and 1 in 5 self-identified Catholics in America report that they “seldom or never attend organized [religious] services.”

The internet and social media help people to [fashion an individualized faith] in more concrete ways. We have more access to more information, more viewpoints, and we can create a spiritual rhythm and path that’s more personalized.

Heidi Campbell, Texas A&M University

In spite of such criticism, proponents of the tech-faith connection point to the potential for better retention of young people already involved in faith communities and for increased engagement opportunities with those who would otherwise consider themselves to be unchurched. Seventy percent of practicing Christian millennials read scripture on cell phones or online, while 54% watch online videos about faith and spirituality – and roughly a third of all millennials do the same. Likewise, technology has enabled churchgoers to hold faith leaders to higher standards, with almost 40% of practicing Christian millennials reporting that they “search to verify something a faith leader or church leader has said” on their phones and other devices.

“Top 4 Ways Millennials are Integrating Technology and Faith” via Barna Research Group

When asked about the role of digital technologies in Christianity, Abide founder and former Google employee Neil Ahlsten stated, “Jesus met people where they were at and drew them really deep into understanding the truth of God. We’re creating liturgy that people can consume whenever and wherever and however works for them. It fits the modern life.” Caught in the crosshairs of both celebration and consternation, technologically-enabled religious practice is here to stay – its impact on organized religion, however, is much less certain.  

*Note: Other faith communities have likely experienced similar trends – for the purposes of this post, I chose to focus on the faith tradition with which I am most familiar and can most accurately describe so as to avoid unintentionally misrepresenting the beliefs of others.

9 comments

  1. Really interesting topic that I have never really taken the time to think about, even at a Jesuit university. I remember going to church with my parents in high school and the pastor would say “take out your bibles or iPhone” and would direct us to a passage. I think that it is so much more convenient to use our phones to search for specific passages, but the mix between tech and religion can get tricky. I had no idea the apps you listed are so popular and I know Christian Mingle has also been a successful dating site/app. The church my parents now attend has guests speakers come in and sometimes when they cannot physically be there, the church has a projector set up to livestream their talks. Even though religion is grounded in tradition, I do see that it has truly evolved and I think that tech will continue to mix in with it. Really great insights!!

  2. This is a very interesting topic I would have never thought about, awesome! I have noticed over the pass few years the increase in spiritual apps, and that is become they are sometimes the top downloaded on my app store list homepage. I think that faiths are finally beginning to realize the potential that technology can play in organized religion. I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school for 14 years of my life, I would much rather carry around a virtual Bible on an iPad, which is what happened the year after I graduated from my high school. I also think that social media has also helped to better connect practices, and even teach others about different faiths. I have had countless times where I have searched the beliefs of other religious for my own knowledge and understanding. It was interesting to see what they are doing at the Vatican each year, I had no idea. Great post!

  3. Loved this post, very interesting and thought provoking! I think this trend is a really great thing. Despite arguments that it disrupts tradition of the Church, I do believe that if the Church doesn’t continue to make an effort to adapt to the changing times, they will lose a lot of support from millennials specifically. I know the current Pope has made an effort to be a lot more progressive and modern and incorporate technology, and it is great to hear about all the things going on at the Vatican! I know religion shouldn’t be about convenience, but the fact of life is that is has to be in the very bust lives most of us lead. I am not particularly religious myself despite still considering myself a Catholic, and I think if the choice is between people not participating in their faith at all or using whatever technology means they have to keep up with what they have, I think any technology that makes religion/faith more accessible is a good thing.

  4. With the recent decline in people identifying as religious, I’m glad to see that very “traditional” institutions are looking for ways to modernize and adapt. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this mentality of opening up will start to permeate areas outside of technology as well, but in the meantime, this is a great way of developing and updating practices which have been left behind in many ways (compared to other areas/industries).

  5. Great post! To add to the conversation on the blending of religion and technology, I think Hillsong Church is a really interesting example of how the Christian community is evolving. Hillsong is a contemporary Christian church, “a global movement positioned at the intersection of Christianity and culture.” It is known for its unique worship music (which can be streamed on Spotify) and elaborate, concert-like services. The church has over 800K followers on Twitter, and almost 250K YouTube subscribers. On top of that, services, conferences, performances, and documentaries created by Hillsong can be streamed on hillsongchannel.com 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The channel also has its own mobile app. In my opinion, Hillsong has really mastered the art of making religious practices and teachings attractive to younger generations, arguably making it “trendy” to go to church again. It will be really interesting to see how the church grows and further adapts to popular culture/technology in the next few years.

  6. Really great post. As a former minister, I have spent lots of time thinking about how technology will change religious practice. My conclusion is that we haven’t seen anything yet. I suspect technology will lead to some major shifts in the organizational aspects of religion.

  7. Great post! As someone who was raised Catholic (and spent 13 years in fairly conservative Catholic schools), I’m a great example of the trend of believers who focus on the ethical tenets, inclusiveness and charity. I love the idea of religious leaders becoming more accessible by using social media, and think that it does a lot to humanize organizations like the Catholic Church, which has been even more important in recent years.

    My biggest concern about the rise of apps in the religious space, especially apps like YouVersion Bible, is that users miss out on a huge part of the message that is central to most religions. I’m also fairly skeptical of organizations like Hillsong and megachurches that try to make religion “trendy”, but that may just be the cynic in me. I would love to see this technology incorporated in services in some way, but I don’t know what that would look like. It will be interesting to watch this all evolve!

  8. I really found myself relating to a lot of the content you spoke about in this post. I do agree that younger generations of catholics/christians are looking for a more personalized religious experience. It’s difficult to ascribe completely to the views of any one party/organizational religion, and I don’t think our generation sees the need to limit ourselves to every aspect of our ascribed faith. Technology is making access to these teachings easier and more readily available. I do see the concern for a siloing ideas, and I think that is something that needs to be considered. It’s disheartening to see types of formal prayer and rituals starting to fall by the way side, but it’s understandable when technology is providing access to faith that we’ve really never seen before. It seems like a good thing for the catholic church to reach as many people, whether fully invested in the formal church, with their teachings and these types of technology give a greater opportunity to make their ideals “go viral” and reach a wider audience.

  9. The “texts” from Jesus app sounds similar to a new show that’s out called “God Friended Me” where a man gets a friend request from God on Facebook who then suggests people to him as a way to tell him they need his help. I found this an interesting concept for a show but knowing apps like this exist makes it seem a little bit more feasible. I use an app called the porch which posts sermons targeted towards 20-30 year old Christians that I enjoy listening to sometimes. That being said, I also get two bible verses a day but usually neglect to look at them. I agree with Kate, religious figures becoming more accepting towards social media acknowledges that times are changing and hopefully means that the church may consider changing its opinions on other topics. Allowing for a greater channel of communication could help start new conversations and be a healthier conversation space for conversations that need to happen.

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