20% of people share their faith online, but that’s only half the story

Public Religion Beyond the Numbers

By Keith Anderson and Elizabeth Drescher

Last week the Pew Religion & Public Life Project released a report that 20% of people share their faith online and fully 46% of people see someone else share their faith online in an average week. Dig a little deeper in the report and you’ll see that the percentage of people who share their faith online varies by denomination. White evangelicals (34%) and black Protestants (30%) lead the pack, with Mainline Protestants and Catholics lagging behind at 15% each.

This disparity comes as no surprise, particularly for Mainline Protestants — the so-called, “frozen chosen.” For many evangelicals and black Protestants, giving testimony, witnessing, and sharing one’s faith is a deeply ingrained part of religious piety. It is a spiritual imperative. Mainliners and Catholics, on the other hand, tend keep matters of faith a little closer to the vest.

The Pew report suggests that the frequency of sharing faith online mirrors face-to-face practices and is shaped by one’s Christian tradition. It’s an interesting finding, but not exactly earth shattering. (Though, as we’ll discuss in a bit, the fact that 46% of people see others share their faith is not nothing in terms of public religious expression.)

There is a danger, however, in the way many may interpret this study. Namely, church leaders will likely lament (church leaders lament so many things today you’d think it was their full time job) that so few people are sharing their faith online. Perhaps, as a result, they will redouble their efforts to encourage people to share their faith and information about their faith communities on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on. That is maybe all to the good. But it misses an important point. For, although twenty percent of people share their faith online, that is only half the story.

This likely inevitable alarm among church leaders that “only 20% share their faith online” and the knee-jerk response that “we must get them to share more” looks at this data through a very narrow lens, one which the report itself helps to suggest. The Pew report does this through a comparison of religious expression on social media sites to the consumption of religious radio or television programming. It is the lens of broadcast media — print, radio, and television. These traditional media are forms of one-to-many communication in which a piece of content — a television show, a radio program, a commercial, a sermon — developed by an authoritative source is broadcast out to a passive audience.

We’ve been living in a broadcast media world for the last five hundred years — since birth of the printing press. From a mass media perspective, the faith people share online can be viewed as a pieces of content or information broadcast out to followers and friends. While the Pew report doesn’t specify what counted as “faith sharing” in online settings, it does specify that, in offline “real-life” settings (because online can’t be “real,” right?), “Faith sharing does not necessarily mean evangelizing or proselytizing.” It could, however, “include a wide range of interactions, such as offering a prayer or blessing, quoting from scripture or describing a religious experience, to mention only a few possibilities.” We can assume that this is much what the researchers were looking for in online settings as well. And therein lies the problem.

Sharing one’s faith is much more than just about sharing religious content, like spiritual or Biblical quotes, check-ins at church, or personal testimony. It is interwoven into the relationships and networks of which we are a part in and across the lived reality of both online and offline settings. People share their faith in a variety of ways — as they create and nurture relationships, seek to be a gracious presence, affirm and assist friends, and engage with others in the things they find important and meaningful. The other day, for instance, a Facebook friend posted an offer to share an “inspirational quote and photo” for anyone who needed a “spiritual pick-me-up” during the day. Would Pew have counted that as “religious sharing?” Would the woman herself have thought of it in that way?

This reveals a limitation of trying to quantify religious practice, for demographic studies of religion require that certain behaviors be narrowly defined as “religious” while others are “not religious.” This is something we see often in studies of religious affiliation. The two key questions commonly used to establish religious affiliation, “Do you believe in God?” and “Do you go to church?” are insufficient to understand varied and complex ways people affiliate, practice and believe. The question, “Do you share your faith online?” can also be interpreted in very narrow ways. When I tweeted ((((( ))))) when you said on Twitter that you were having a crappy day, is that an expression of Christian compassion? How would a researcher possibly know? And, to what extent have I been formed to think of these gestures in terms of how I live out my faith?

Widening the ways in which we understand how people express their faith, rather than narrowing them, allows for a certain “thaw” in assessments of the public spirituality of the “frozen chosen” and other less conventionally or charismatically religious people.

In her book, Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes, Nancy Ammerman identifies two different modes of speech people use to express their faith, “theistic,” “extra-theistic.”

Theistic is overt language about God and how God is at work in the world or my life. This is a more traditional language of faith. It regularly employs specific terminology like “God,” “Lord,” and “Savior.” Not surprisingly, the religiously affiliated tend employ this language in describing their spiritual life and lived experience. Responses in the Pew report seem to fall under this category.

Extra-Theistic language is language about the something “more” in life, for identifying transcendent within the mundane, but not explicit God-language. Extra-theistic expressions of faith include words like “awe,” “grounded,” and “connected.”

Importantly, the two categories are not mutually exclusive. At any given time, the religiously affiliated and the religiously unaffiliated alike use these modes of speech to describe their experience. However, when we are only attuned to the theistic ways people share their faith, we miss the ordinary ways the sacred is woven into their daily lives. We miss the other registers in which people express their faith using non-traditional language and practices. We also reduce witnessing or evangelism to telling people about our faith or our church. We look for broadcasts of propositional beliefs — “Jesus is Lord” — or a kind of Yelp! recommendation for a church — “Awesome sermon from Rev. Sally today at St. Whatsits!” — rather than an expression of living out the free and unconditional love of God in relationship with others, whatever we name it, or not.

Widening the ways in which we understand how people express their faith, rather than narrowing them, allows for a certain “thaw” in assessments of the public spirituality of the “frozen chosen” and other less conventionally or charismatically religious people.

Byung Chul Kim, “Social Network,” 2010. CC. 2.0 license.
Engagement is the coin of the social media realm, given which what the affiliated, unaffiliated, young adults, older adults, Evangelicals, Black Protestants, Catholics, and Mainliners do with the content they see beyond simply consuming it is a critical question if we are to understand how new media platforms, technologies, and practices are shaping and being shaped by religion today.

It also allows us to see more religious and spiritual engagement in demographic data like that provided by Pew. Let’s take that 46% of the population that the Pew report identified as having “seen religion shared online.” Note, too, that here it’s a dead heat between White Mainline Protestants and Black Protestants, at 43% with Catholics coming in at a not unsubstantial 39%. Evangelicals jump above the norm at 47%. But, the breakout leader in terms of having seen something religious online is the unaffiliated, who, at 50%, skew the whole religiously affiliated curve their way.

What are Nones seeing as “religious” online? How do they feel about this content when it rolls across their screens? Given that we know from the 2012 Pew “Nones on the Rise” survey that some 70% of the unaffiliated believe in God or a higher power of some sort, we can’t simply conclude that they’re dismissive of or offended by the religious sharing they see. Given practices of “liking” and sharing on Facebook and retweeting on Twitter as forms of affirmation, it’s not farfetched to suggest that many Nones are doing more than just seeing religious sharing float by on their mobile devices and computers. They’re likely engaging what they see and perhaps sharing it with their own networks.

The numbers by age group are perhaps even more compelling. Some 58% of the under-age-50 cohort — 61% among 18–29-year-olds — reported having seen religious content online. What’s more, while those over age 50 seem to see religious expression online much less (31%), they share religious content at exactly the same rate (21%) as do younger people.

Clearly, this has much to do with the extent to which younger and older adults engage digital social media platforms in the context of everyday life. But it also seems to us that it says something about the degree to which younger adults and the religiously unaffiliated are attentive to religious content in online settings. Further, we don’t know how the data might have changed overall had Pew included the word “spiritual” along with or in addition to “religion” when it was assessing online or offline expression.

Another thing that strikes us in this report, and this goes back to the broadcast/digital divide we discussed earlier, is that a broadcast age mentality that seems clearly to inform the Pew research assumes that the expression of religious (or spiritual) content is the end of the story. But those of us who are active in social media communities and attentive to how they function know that that this is hardly the case. Engagement is the coin of the social media realm, given which, what the affiliated, unaffiliated, young adults, older adults, Evangelicals, Black Protestants, Catholics, and Mainliners do with the content they see beyond simply consuming it is a critical question if we are to understand how new media platforms, technologies, and practices are shaping and being shaped by religion today.

The significance of this social fact is revealed in the ability of the Pew researchers to ask only one question (in three parts) about broadcast mass media platforms and religion—did you watch religious TV, listen to religious radio, or listen to Christian rock (go figure on that last one). Did you consume religious broadcast content, the researchers asked.

But new media merited two questions: Did you see? and Did you share? And there is more beyond this, for in digital social media spaces, producing and consuming are not the only or even necessarily the primary social behaviors. Engaging, connecting, shaping, and reshaping are all critical practices in very real, digitally-integrated lives.

All has profound implications that go far beyond the numbers in terms of more nuanced evangelism and other forms of ministry engagement by religious professionals and ordinary religious and non-religious people alike. There’s hope, that is, for the “frozen chosen” in a world where what counts as “real” faith sharing doesn’t involve trumpeting your religious perspectives and experiences across a broadcast landscape (to which you don’t likely have access anyway).

As we’ve said apparently less than we ought to have, in the digitally-integrated world, social counts a lot more than media.

The Rev. Keith Anderson is co-editor of The Narthex and a pastor at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church in Ambler, PA, co-author with Elizabeth Drescher of Click2Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012) and author of the forthcoming book The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World (Morehouse, 2015). He hangs out on his blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

Elizabeth Drescher, PhD is the co-editor of The Narthex and a scholar, author, educator, and speaker on the spiritual lives of ordinary people today and in the past. She is the author of three books, most recently, Changing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones (Oxford, forthcoming). Her work has appeared in such outlets as The Washington Post, Salon, Sojourners, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Religion Dispatches. Learn more at elizabethdrescher.com and find Elizabeth on Twitter and Facebook.

Cover photo: Charis Tsevis, “Behold the Twitter Angel,” 2009. CC 2.0 license. Resaturated.

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