For more than a decade, new media, religion, and digital culture scholar Heidi Campbell of Texas A&M has been exploring the ways that the internet, social media, and other digital technologies engage with the religious and spiritual practices of ordinary people. Her more than seventy articles, books, and edited volumes have mapped how digital social networks shape spiritual community, how religious practices are influenced by digital practices, and the spiritual dimensions of online gaming. Her most recent collection, Networked Theology: Negotiating Faith in Digital Culture, takes up how Christians can engage new media landscapes from a theologically rich, critically grounded perspective. In a new interview feature on Bearings, Professor Campbell talked with editor Elizabeth Drescher about how ministry leaders can more fully participate in the digitally-integrated spiritual world.
ED: One of the things that I admire in your work is, first of all, that you were an early commentator on the relationship between religion and new media. You saw that this was “a thing” before a lot of people really were paying attention. But maybe more than that, you saw this phenomenon as more of a social thing than a technological one. Can you tell us a little bit about how you see the social relationship between religion and new media today?
HC: A lot of times, I think, people in the church look at media and faith, or media and religion, as two very distinct entities so that there’s the world of faith, and that has a particular set of values and culture, and then there’s the world of media with it’s own culture and values that may be in competition with, or in direct opposition to, religious values and practices. So, people maybe see it as a tug-of-war, or a back and forth. One thing I try to emphasize in my work in what would be referred to as “social technology” is that audiences—the people who use media—have a lot of agency. They have a lot of freedom to make choices. So, just because a certain technology encourages you to behave in a certain way, that doesn’t mean you have to. You still have the power to respond in different ways or to resist.
I’ve argued that, because people who are using media often have a sort of religious or spiritual DNA, they’re always negotiating the choices they can make with media and technology. So, it’s not the technology that’s shaping the community, it’s the choices people are making in how they use the technology. It’s the values that are informing those choices. The social aspect of “social technology” is recognizing that people are using media. They have certain kinds of agenda. The technology allows you to do certain kinds of things; but we are able, with digital media and digital culture to “hack the system,” as it were on the basis of our religious or spiritual values. We can change the meanings, we can change the value system in digital platforms or networks. And, that’s where I’ve really been trying to get the church to see that they are shaped by, but they can also be shapers of, digital culture in really powerful ways.
ED: What would you say the church’s role is in the current media environment? What kinds of roles are available for leaders in ministry who what to be part of that spiritual or moral shaping?
HC: I think, unfortunately, the church has often taken its most active role with media in saying, “Do we like this? Do we not like this? Should we embrace this or should we reject it?” But I really feel that there are a couple of different, maybe more important options. One is looking at the idea of partnering through digital media. How can I build bridges between the church, and my ministry, and digital culture with the technology that is available today? How can we partner with digital social media platforms to build community, to create commonality, to cultivate connections, generating creativity to engage concerns we care about, and really build bridges between the wider popular culture and the ministries of the church. So, for example, what are the creative ways that digital media might allow me to form a prayer group, or facilitate reflection about scripture, of act on behalf of people in need.
Another option is involves blending, which really means recognizing the shapes and practices of digital culture, and allowing that that’s the reality that people live in now a lot of the time. So, how can I cultivate sacred space on Instagram, on Twitter? How can I look at the values that are positive in these spaces and build on that from the perspective of my faith, my ministry? So, you’re putting yourself right in the culture as a digital media user who is a person of faith.
The bottom line in both cases is to move away from an adversarial role to really thinking about how to use technology as a bridge between, especially, the church and Generation I and Millennials. The key is engaging or blending in in ways that aren’t confrontational, or inauthentic, or mainly about criticizing.
ED: One of the things that we know are different about new media culture—and we might want to reflect a lot on this on the 500th anniversary of Reformation, which had its own important relationship to new media—is that it changes how ordinary people have access to religious and spiritual resources and how they can share them without necessarily involving religious leaders or authorities. What do you think ministry leaders today can learn from the ways that ordinary people today are spiritual and religious within and across digital media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter?
HC: I think there are two things. One is that there’s a lot of apprehension about engaging digital media because of a fear of a loss of control by religious leaders. You know, I can make this wonderful religious teaching, and maybe people will use that to critique me, or maybe they’ll change it up, cut and paste things, so that it’s not at all what I intended, it’s not my meaning.
On the one hand, sure, the loss of control is a real thing. But, on the other hand, any time you put your words out, whether it’s through preaching, prayers, text, or some other form, those words are really no longer your own. You’ve given them away. So, one of the big things for people in ministry now is that they really have to move past that apprehension, that fear of loss of control of my texts, my thoughts, my images. Because you never really had as much control as you thought anyway. Instead, now you have this opportunity to say, “Hey, let me put this out there and see what happens!” This really gives you a chance to learn what’s going on with people. Do they turn your words into a meme and share it with their whole network? Is that meme praising what you said? Is it critiquing what I said?
This really makes the social technology space a space where we can see not only the people we’re directly ministering to, but the popular culture in general responding to what we say and how we present it. What do people identify with? What inspires them? What circulates across networks? What goes viral? We never really knew this as easily before, so that can feel a little threatening. But it’s such valuable information.
The second thing is that, even as people are less formally religious, they’re still looking for meaning and purpose in life. They’re still looking for something that gives them a sense of the transcendent or otherworldliness in the everyday. So, when we look at the spaces where people are trying to make that happen, and especially how people are creatively using art and other media to express that desire, I think there’s a real opportunity to learn more about how people are expressing universal spiritual values and concerns. This gives ministry leaders the chance to really study the culture and what counts as “the spiritual” or “the religious” now if they’re willing to look in non-traditional contexts.
ED: The shift in authority that seems to draw from digital culture points to another question that comes up about religion and social media having to do with the increase in the religiously unaffiliated. Where do you stand on whether digital media culture is undermining religion today? How do you think churches might “re-mediate” their religious and spiritual practices to address these tends?
HC: You know, I think this idea that this turn toward making your own religion, where I’m going to assemble my beliefs and practices from the internet or social media is something new is false. Grace Davie, a sociologist in the UK, was writing about “believing without belonging” in post-World II Europe era. And one of the things she noted was that with the advent and the popularization of automobiles, people no longer had to go to the church down the street. There was just a lot more religious freedom, as did, within urban areas, public transportation. So, these trends were happening well before the internet, but now we have a much more visible space to see how people are being religious and spiritual. So, no, I don’t think that it’s social media per se that has created changes in religious affiliation. I think that, basically, people have been dissatisfied with institutional religion for a long time, so they’ve looked at other avenues for exploring meaning and purpose, they’ve developed work-arounds based on what technology was available. Digital culture just allows them to do that more easily, more quickly, and more visibly.
But what it also allows is for people to shift church from a one-day-a-week experience to a 24/7 experience if they want. It puts it on their schedule. And, it allows people to have a global experience of the Body of Christ. So, I think the challenge for religious leaders is to use the technology in more theologically robust ways to make that Body more real to people. We need to connect not just with the people standing in front of us, but through a global perspective. I think that has the potential to amplify people’s sense of Christian community and their investment in belonging in that expansive, global experience of the Body of Christ.
ED: As a final question, what would you see as an especially significant trend in digital practice that people in ministry might want to be attentive to as they respond to the challenges of the Digital Age?
HC: I think what we see on Instagram, Pinterest, or memes is really important, because we’re seeing a different way of communicating, almost a new language. I see people saying, “How can I encapsulate this idea, this principle, this sacred text, in a way that is meaningful to me and can inspire others?” So, watching these visual media is really important so we can learn better how to use a very minimal amount of text and a compelling image to communicate a complex idea in a highly simplified form. And by looking at how people are using these forms, we can see how people in the culture in general are kind of doing religious PR work, how they want to be seen or how they seem themselves in spiritual terms. Even posts that are more critical of religion really give us a lot of insight into the outside-the-church view of religion. So we get a better chance to see how our rituals and values are connecting to meaning in the world.
Heidi Campbell is Associate Professor of Communications at Texas A&M University. She directs the Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture Studies, is co-editor of the Routledge’s Studies in Religion and Digital Culture book series and on the editorial board of the Journal of Computer-mediated Communication, New Media & Society, the Journal of Media, Religion & Digital Culture and Ecclesiology & Ethnography. You can periodically find her on Twitter at @heidiacampbell.