Faith Tweets: Ambient Religious Communication and Microblogging Rituals

Pauline Hope Cheong

Abstract


There’s no reason to think that Jesus wouldn’t have Facebooked or twittered if he came into the world now. Can you imagine his killer status updates?
Reverend Schenck, New York, All Saints Episcopal Church (Mapes)

The fundamental problem of religious communication is how best to represent and mediate the sacred. (O’Leary  787)

What would Jesus tweet? Historically, the quest for sacred connections has relied on the mediation of faith communication via technological implements, from the use of the drum to mediate the Divine, to the use of the mechanical clock by monks as reminders to observe the canonical hours of prayer (Mumford). Today, religious communication practices increasingly implicate Web 2.0, or interactive, user-generated content like blogs (Cheong, Halavis & Kwon), and microblogs like “tweets” of no more than 140 characters sent via Web-based applications like text messaging, instant messaging, e-mail, or on the Web. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project’s latest report in October 2009, 19% of online adults said that they used a microblogging service to send messages from a computer or mobile device to family and friends who have signed up to receive them (Fox, Zickuhr & Smith). The ascendency of microblogging leads to interesting questions of how new media use alters spatio-temporal dynamics in peoples’ everyday consciousness, including ways in which tweeting facilitates ambient religious interactions.

The notion of ambient strikes a particularly resonant chord for religious communication: many faith traditions advocate the practice of sacred mindfulness, and a consistent piety in light of holy devotion to an omnipresent and omniscient Divine being. This paper examines how faith believers appropriate the emergent microblogging practices to create an encompassing cultural surround to include microblogging rituals which promote regular, heightened prayer awareness. Faith tweets help constitute epiphany and a persistent sense of sacred connected presence, which in turn rouses an identification of a higher moral purpose and solidarity with other local and global believers. Amidst ongoing tensions about microblogging, religious organisations and their leadership have also begun to incorporate Twitter into their communication practices and outreach, to encourage the extension of presence beyond the church walls.

Faith Tweeting and Mobile Mediated Prayers

Twitter’s Website describes itself as a new media service that help users communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to the question, “What are you doing?” Some evangelical Christian groups harness these coincident messaging flows to create meaningful pathways for personal, intercessory and synchronised prayer. Using hashtags in a Twitter post creates a community convention or grouping around faith ideas and allows others to access them. Popular faith related hashtags include #twurch (Twitter + church), #prayer, #JIL (Jesus is Lord) and #pray4 (as in, #pray4 my mother). Just as mobile telephony assists distal family members to build “connected presence” (Christensen),  I suggest that faith tweets stimulating mobile mediated prayers help build a sense of closeness and “religious connected presence” amongst the distributed family of faith believers, to recreate and reaffirm Divine and corporeal bonds.

Consider the Calvin Institute of Worship’s set up of six different Twitter feeds to “pray the hours”. Praying the hours is an ancient practice of praying set prayers throughout certain times of the day, as marked in the Book of Common Prayer in the Christian tradition. Inspired by the Holy Scripture’s injunction to “pray without ceasing” ( 1 Thessalonians 5:17), users can sign up to receive hourly personal or intercessory prayers sent in brief verses or view a Tweetgrid with prayer feeds, to prompt continuous prayer or help those who are unsure of what words to pray. In this way, contemporary believers may reinvent the century-old practice of constant faith mediation as Twitter use helps to reintegrate scripture into people’s daily lives. Faith tweets that goad personal and intercessory prayer also makes ambient religious life salient, and preserves self-awareness of sanctified moments during normal, everyday activities.

Furthermore, while the above “praying the hours” performance promotes a specific integration of scripture or prayer into individuals’ daily rhythms, other faith tweets are more focused on evangelism: to reach others through recurrent prayers or random inspirational messages sent throughout the day. For instance, as BBC News reports, religious leaders such as Cardinal Brady, head of Ireland’s Catholic Church, encourage parishioners to use Twitter to spread “the gift of prayer”, as they microblog their daily prayers for their friends and family. Cardinal Brady commented that, “such a sea of prayer is sure to strengthen our sense of solidarity with one another and remind us those who receive them that others really do care" (emphasis mine).

Indeed, Cardinal Brady’s observation is instructive to the “Twitness” of faithful microbloggers who desire to shape the blogosphere, and create new faith connections. “JesusTweeters” is a faith-based social networking site, and a service which allows users to send out messages from any random tweet from the Bible Tweet Library, or their own personal messages on a scheduled basis. The site reports that over 500 members of JesusTweeters, each with an average of 500 followers, have signed up to help “spread the Word” worldwide through Twitter. This is an interesting emergent form of Twitter action, as it translates to more than 2.5 million faith tweets being circulated online daily.  

Moreover, Twitter encourages ‘connected presence’ whereby the use of microblogging enables online faith believers to enjoy an intimate, ‘always on’ virtual presence with their other congregational members during times of physical absence. In the recently released e-book The Reason Your Church Must Twitter, subtitled Making Your Ministry Contagious, author and self-proclaimed ‘technology evangelist’ Anthony Coppedge advocates churches to adopt Twitter as part of their overall communication strategy to maintain relational connectedness beyond the boundaries of established institutional practices. In his book, Coppedge argues that Twitter can be used as a “megaphone” for updates and announcements or as a “conversation” to spur sharing of ideas and prayer exchanges.

In line with education scholars who promote Twitter as a pedagogical tool to enhance free-flowing interactions outside of the classroom (Dunlap & Lowenthal), Coppedge encourages pastors to tweet “life application points” from their sermons to their congregational members throughout the week, to reinforce the theme of their Sunday lesson. Ministry leaders are also encouraged to adopt Twitter to “become highly accessible” to members and communicate with their volunteers, in order to build stronger ecumenical relationships. Communication technology scholar Michele Jackson notes that Twitter is a form of visible “lifelogging” as interactants self-disclose their lived-in moments (731). In the case of faith tweets, co-presence is constructed when instantaneous Twitter updates announce new happenings on the church campus, shares prayer requests, confirms details of new events and gives public commendations to celebrate victories of staff members. In this way, microblogging helps to build a portable church where fellow believers can connect to each-other via the thread of frequent, running commentaries of their everyday lives.

To further develop ‘connected presence’, a significant number of Churches have also begun to incorporate real-time Twitter streams during their Sunday services. For example, to stimulate congregational members’ sharing of their spontaneous reactions to the movement of the Holy Spirit, Westwind Church in Michigan has created a dozen “Twitter Sundays” where members are free to tweet at any time and at any worship service (Rochman). At Woodlands Church in Houston, a new service was started in 2009 which encourages parishioners to tweet their thoughts, reflections and questions throughout the service. The tweets are reviewed by church staff and they are posted as scrolling visual messages on a screen behind the pastor while he preaches (Patel). 

It is interesting to note that recurring faith tweets spatially filling the sanctuary screens blurs the visual hierarchies between the pastor as foreground and congregations as background to the degree that tweet voices from the congregation are blended into the church worship service. The interactive use of Twitter also differs from the forms of personal silent meditation and private devotional prayer that, traditionally, most liturgical church services encourage. In this way, key to new organisational practices within religious organisations is what some social commentators are now calling “ambient intimacy”, an enveloping social awareness of one’s social network (Pontin). Indeed, several pastors have acknowledged that faith tweets have enabled them to know their congregational members’ reflections, struggles and interests better and thus they are able to improve their teaching and caring ministry to meet congregants’ evolving spiritual needs (Mapes).

Microblogging Rituals and Tweeting Tensions

In many ways, faith tweets can be comprehended as microblogging rituals which have an ambient quality in engendering individuals’ spiritual self and group consciousness. The importance of examining emergent cyber-rituals is underscored by Stephen O’Leary in his 1996 seminal article on Cyberspace as Sacred Space. Writing in an earlier era of digital connections, O’Leary discussed e-mail and discussion forum cyber-rituals and what ritual gains in the virtual environment aside from its conventional physiological interactions. Drawing from Walter Ong’s understanding of the “secondary orality” accompanying the shift to electronic media, he argued that cyber-ritual as performative utterances restructure and reintegrate the minds and emotions of their participants, such that they are more aware of their interior self and a sense of communal group membership.

Here, the above illustrative examples show how Twitter functions as the context for contemporary, mediated ritual practices to help believers construct a connected presence and affirm their religious identities within an environment where wired communication is a significant part of everyday life. To draw from Walter Ong’s words, microblogging rituals create a new textual and visual “sensorium” that has insightful implications for communication and media scholars. Faith tweeting by restructuring believers’ consciousness and generating a heightened awareness of relationship between the I, You and the Thou opens up possibilities for community building and revitalised religiosity to counteract claims of secularisation in technologically advanced and developed countries.

“Praying the hours” guided by scripturally inspired faith tweets, for example, help seekers and believers experience epiphany and practice their faith in a more holistic way as they de-familarize mundane conditions and redeem a sense of the sacred from their everyday surrounds. Through the intermittent sharing of intercessory prayer tweets, faithful followers enact prayer chains and perceive themselves to be immersed in invariable spiritual battle to ward off evil ideology or atheistic beliefs. Moreover, the erosion of the authority of the church is offset by changed leadership practices within religious organisations which have experimented and actively incorporated Twitter into their daily institutional practices. To the extent that laity are willing to engage, creative practices to encourage congregational members to tweet during and after the service help revivify communal sentiments and a higher moral purpose through identification and solidarity with clergy leaders and other believers.

Yet this ambience has its possible drawbacks as some experience tensions in their perception and use of Twitter as new technology within the church. Microblogging rituals may have negative implications for individual believers and religious organisations as they can weaken or pervert the existing relational links. As Pauline Cheong and Jessie Poon have pointed out, use of the Internet within religious organisations may bring about an alternative form of “perverse religious social capital building” as some clergy view that online communication detracts from real time relations and physical rituals. Indeed, some religious leaders have already articulated their concerns about Twitter and new tensions they experience in balancing the need to engage with new media audiences and the need for quiet reflection that spiritual rites such as confession of sins and the Holy Communion entail.

According to the critics of faith tweeting, microblogging is time consuming and contributes to cognitive overload by taking away one’s attention to what is noteworthy at the moment. For Pastor Hayes of California for example, Twitter distracts his congregation’s focus on the sermon and thus he only recommends his members to tweet after the service. In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, he said: “If two people are talking at the same time, somebody’s not listening”, and “You cannot do two things at once and expect you’re not going to miss something” (Patel). Furthermore, similar to prior concerns voiced with new technologies, there are concerns over inappropriate tweet content that can comprise of crudity, gossip, malevolent and hate messages, which may be especially corrosive to faith communities that strive to model virtues like love, temperance and truth-telling (Vitello).  

In turn, some congregational members are also experiencing frustrations as they negotiate church boundaries and other members’ disapproval of their tweeting practices during service and church events. Censure of microblogging has taken the form of official requests for tweeting members to leave the sanctuary, to less formal social critique and the application of peer pressure to halt tweeting during religious proceedings and activities (Mapes).

As a result of these connectivity tensions, varying recommendations have been recently published as fresh efforts to manage religious communication taking place in ambience. For instance, Coppedge recommends every tweeting church to include Twitter usage in their “church communications policy” to promote accountability within the organisation. The policy should include guidelines against excessive use of Twitter as spam, and for at least one leader to subscribe and monitor every Twitter account used. Furthermore, the Interpreter magazine of the United Methodist Church worldwide featured recommendations by Rev. Safiyah Fosua who listed eight important attributes for pastors wishing to incorporate Twitter during their worship services (Rice). These attributes are: highly adaptive; not easily distracted; secure in their presentation style; not easily taken aback when people appear to be focused on something other than listenin; into quality rather than volume; not easily rattled by things that are new; secure enough as a preacher to let God work through whatever is tweeted even if it is not the main points of the sermon; and carried on the same current the congregation is travelling on. For the most part, these attributes underscore how successful (read wired) contemporary religious leaders should be tolerant of ambient religious communication and of blurring hierarchies of information control when faced with microblogging and the “inexorable advance of multimodal connectedness” (Schroeder 1).

To conclude, the rise of faith tweeting opens up a new portal to investigate accretive changes to culture as microblogging rituals nurture piety expressed in continuous prayer, praise and ecclesial updates. The emergent Twitter sensorium demonstrates the variety of ways in which religious adherents appropriate new media within the ken and tensions of their daily lives. 

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Keywords


Religion; Tweeting; Microblogging; Web 2.0



Copyright (c) 2010 Pauline Hope Cheong

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