Given the ubiquity of the internet in ordinary life, it makes sense that religious leaders and institutions would craft online identities. With the surge of social media and growing outlets for digital religious experiences comes the question, “Is social media being used in a way we would expect by religious leaders?” We sought to discover whether the use of an online presence can be regarded as christ-like given that we assumed pastors should attempt to model their behavior in accordance with that of Christ. Juxtaposing online personas of religious leaders this exhibit explores the ethical “feeling” these personas invoke. We do not personally attend any of the churches these pastors represent, nor do we know them on any personal basis. Our observations are based upon studying their online presence. Our conclusions are that pastors who use social media as a promotional platform feel less authentic than those who use it to affirm relationships, spread their Christian message, or reveal more about their personal lives to their parishioners.
Reverend Keith Anderson’s Twitter page is a perfect example of one of the advantages of utilizing social media to connect with members of a congregation as well as to reach new audiences. He regularly tweets about his sermons, which help his followers gain some insight into his religious beliefs, and he also shares insightful tweets about his personal life that allow us a glimpse of how he lives day to day. All of these uses of social media are helpful in painting a full picture of a person, something that is not only of a minor interest to people, but arguably necessary in the digital age. His congregation sees plenty of him when they interact with him face to face as he presents them with a sermon, but one can assume that it is important for them to feel connected to him outside of the church. In the context of an earlier time, this connection may have been cultivated through sheer physical proximity by living in a small town. In contemporary life, online presence is one of the most prevalent ways we connect to communities. His twitter feed does an excellent job of this as it combines commentary on scripture with personal anecdotes that help connect him on a personal level with his followers.
In a similar fashion, Pastor Emily Scott’s Twitter feed allows members of her congregation into her personal world. Her feed makes no attempt to sell any products, and simply presents a clear picture of her religious views. By doing this she reaffirms her views and beliefs to those that follow her, but also provides more insight into her personal life and personality.
Unlike the more modest followings of Emily and Keith, Hillsong Church’s Senior Pastor, Brian Houston, has 461K followers on his Twitter account. While some of his tweets are used in a positive way to establish his authority and to spread the gospel, a larger proportion of his tweets are devoted to the marketing and sales of his church’s products. A perfect example of this would be on November 9th 2015 when Houston tweeted, “I'm getting so much feedback everyday on social media - Twitter, Instagram etc about #livelovelead book. Have you read it yet?” His tweet was “retweeted” 21 times, received 15 personal responses and “liked” by 148 people. Pastor Craig Groeschel, founder of Life Church and the Bible App has 244K followers on his twitter page and uses similar marketing tactics like Brian Houston to promote his book. On October 5 2015, Groeschel tweeted “The e-book version of my book Alter Ego is on sale for $1.99 for a limited time” along with a link to shop the sale. While not necessarily wrong, their direct marketing approach makes this tactic feel inauthentically Christian.
It appears as though the majority of pastors or leaders who serve a smaller, more local community tend to focus their online efforts on educating or interacting with their followers instead of marketing products or events. For example, Father Mathews Presents, the YouTube channel, serves a relatively small online audience, consisting of 3,128 subscribers. The channel itself does not allude to any other social media platforms, events or products. The videos themselves only seem to pertain to St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York City or what appear to be fun and educational videos about Episcopalian teachings. While he might be promoting his own church or his church’s teachings, he is not selling anything directly, and that makes a difference in how he is perceived by an outside user.
The videos themselves maintain a sort of “wackiness” to their substance given the fact that they sometimes feature puppets for entertainment value. Aside from the titles ascribed to the videos posted by the channel, there is not much mention of Father Mathew. There also seems to be no real commercial motive behind the videos. Father Mathew does not attempt to promote books or anything of the sort, instead the viewer is only really reminded of St. Bartholomew's Church in New York City when they are not viewing the web series featuring puppets. Considering the lack of real commercial involvement in the web series, it is safe to say that the YouTube channel serves as either promotional material for newcomers to St. Bartholomew’s Church or educational material for current parishioners. In this case, Father Mathew’s social media profile serves the core of his faith. The message is not lost in a sea of mediated images and sounds; instead it reinforces his Episcopalian faith.
Arguably, pastors need a social media presence in order to stay relevant in a world where such presence is demanded. It is important for pastors to align their religious values with their social media usage. Every person defines the word “religion” differently. Most would agree that religion is meant to bring people together through community, provide a general order of existence and contribute to experiencing something that is bigger than ourselves. The pastors who most work to embody these aims in their online presence feel most authentic in their ministry.