KC's religious landscape continues to change
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The digital world is changing religion in various ways


Just 15 or so years ago, the church of which I'm a member did not have a Facebook page, a Twitter account or a way to broadcast worship services online.

Lordy, lordy, how the digital world has changed my congregation as well as religion generally in the U.S. (and around the world.)

The question some scholars have been wondering as they've observed all this is whether this digital religious life is attracting new members -- especially young adults -- or whether it's simply augmenting the kinds of religious experiences people are already having.

A sociology professor, Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme of the University of Waterloo in Canada, has just published a study suggesting that the new digital world in religion has not become a substitute for in-person participation in institutional religion but, rather, a complement to such participation.

The press release to which I just linked you quotes Wilkins-Laflamme this way:

“We know that more and more people are turning towards digital mediums for spirituality such as chat groups with pastors, online sermons, and religious content on social media. We’ve found that while digital religion isn’t necessarily attracting a lot of new millennials to participate, it is making the experience of those already involved richer.”

My own experience in my congregation tends to confirm this new study. But it's also worth noting that through its digital communications avenues my congregation -- and, no doubt, others -- is connecting to not just people who are becoming new members but also people who join us for individual events or programs either in person or online because a specific topic or event interests them. (Eventually, some of them have also become new members of our church.)

A good example would be a program that has grown from a strictly online 10-minute Facebook Live weekly event at the start of the Covid pandemic to an outdoor live event that now attracts people from various parts of our community.

When people were quarantined early in Covid, our pastors began doing an online mid-week meditation just to let us know we are still together as a congregation and to give us encouragement and support to survive the pandemic.

Once limited in-person gatherings became possible again, those weekly meditations moved to what we call our Front Porch, which can seat dozens, and added musicians to perform for us. We offer these events now from spring through fall and call them our 7:07 or 8:08 concerts, depending on when in the evening they start. (As the weather gets hotter, we start later.)

I'm writing this the day after our most recent 8:08 event, and can report that something like 50 people joined in, including quite a few who aren't members of our church. Why did they come? Mostly because they learned about these concerts via digital media. Here, for instance, is a link to information about tonight's gathering. Come on by. Events are free, save for whatever you put in a tip jar for the musicians.

There's still lots to learn about how the internet and digital media generally are having an effect on faith communities. But I'm glad someone like Wilkins-Laflamme (love the name for a professor in Canada) is spending some time doing this kind of research.

(The photo above here today shows one of my congregation's 8:08 gatherings last year.)

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Twenty or more years ago, I attended a combination bat- and bar-mitzvah, not for Jewish teenagers but for two adult friends who had never had a chance to go through that ritual of entry into adulthood. It was wonderful and moving. It turns out my friends were ahead of their time. This New York Times piece describes how "Here and there, older adults are inventing or reinventing other rites of passage at important junctures in their lives." It's a reminder of the importance of ritual (which, when I was younger and knew a lot more than I do now, I used to dismiss as meaningless) and custom. Clearly, not all rituals and customs are worth keeping. But some help us see our path in life more clearly and give us directions for how to navigate the road ahead. Let's keep those.


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