Christians Take Social Media Leap of Faith


Pastors with hundreds of thousands of virtual followers, sermons live-tweeted, a Bible mobile app downloaded by millions and now the Pope on Twitter -- Christianity is taking a social media leap of faith.

Catholics and Protestants are quietly embracing the digital age in a bid to shake off an out-of-touch, stuffy image and gain more followers, culminating with Benedict XVI's arrival on Twitter -- and his much-anticipated first tweet Wednesday.

"The real power of Twitter is that it's intimate and personal," said Phil Cooke, author of a book that aims to help religious leaders understand the impact of social media.

"If the Pope uses it to share his personal thoughts about issues of the day, open up about his struggles and show followers his personal side, I believe it could literally change the public's perception of who he is and what he's about."

Many religious groups have already embraced social media -- the first being Evangelists, Baptists and Mormons -- and a recent study shows they wield a lot of influence on Twitter.

"A year ago, we did some data analysis and realized that our religious leaders worldwide really punch above their weight in terms of their engagement levels on Twitter," said Claire Diaz-Ortiz, Twitter social innovation manager.

The study found that an average religious leader had a rate of around one retweet for every 500 followers, while a musician on Twitter would get one retweet for every 30,000 followers.

@JoyceMeyer, for instance, a Protestant author and speaker, has nearly 1.6 million followers and her posts are regularly retweeted thousands of times.

"Worry increases pressure; prayer releases peace," she wrote on December 9 -- a statement that was retweeted 4,500 times. By contrast, Lady Gaga -- who has 20 times more followers -- saw her post on the same day retweeted 5,800 times.

The research also showed that 99 percent of the largest 77 religious organisations in the United States were already on Twitter.

Further afield, @DalaiLama has nearly 5.7 million followers on Twitter, the Pope of the Coptic Christians has also joined the social network and Muslim clerics in Saudi Arabia draw large followings.

In Britain, the Archbishop of Canterbury will live-tweet his last Christmas sermon before he is replaced as spiritual leader of the Anglican church.

The Catholics were late to the game, but Heidi Campbell, associate professor of communications at Texas A&M University, said they had nevertheless been innovative in their use of digital technology.

"They were one of the first groups to have an institutional website, a YouTube channel," she said. The Vatican is also launching a mobile app that will allow users to follow papal masses and events in real time.

But a presence on social media can come at a price -- as the Vatican has realized.

Last week, it launched the #askpontifex hashtag to encourage people to ask the Pope questions -- some of which he will answer in his first 140-character Twitter foray Wednesday.

The queries are flowing in -- and while there are serious ones, many are sarcastic, acerbic and critical.

"Is it the child abuse or the Aids thing that keeps you up most at nights in your giant golden palace?", one user asks. "Now that @Pontifex has an account, can he excommunicate someone by blocking them on Twitter?," another queries.

For many religious organisations, though, the benefits outweigh the potential pitfalls.

Diaz-Ortiz pointed to megachurches in the United States that draw thousands of people for Sunday services -- some of whom follow the sermon from satellite centers.

"There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that by being on social media they’re creating even more satellite centers where people can watch the service and participate in it, because they’re being encouraged to show up by other friends who tweet during the service," she said.

But in a Huffington Post column, Cooke argued churches were not using social media to their full capacity, living in a bubble with the emergence of exclusively Christian networks such as Christian Chirp, a Twitter alternative.

"In a world where bestselling books are titled 'God is Not Great' and hostility to the faith is championed by much of the culture, we must react differently if we're to engage the hearts and minds of those around us," he said.

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