02 Digital Faith Interactions

Digital Faith Interactions


One massive and obvious change since 1993 is widespread use of the internet, social media and mobile devices. Many people got their first email address and / or cell phone in the 1990s (remember AOL and flip phones?) and shared a dial-up desktop computer with their entire family. Today, most people carry around a phone-size computer in their pocket and use it to connect with everyone from their spouse and children to their best friend from second grade whom they haven’t seen in 40 years.

The way we communicate has evolved—and, inevitably, so has the way we communicate about faith.

A considerable majority of all U.S. adults say they use Facebook (84%). Practicing Christians appear to be especially fond of the platform, with nine out of 10 reporting they use it (90%)—six percentage points more than non-practicing Christians (84%) and 11 more than non-Christians (79%).
Christian in-depth survey participants reported using social media for a variety of reasons, most of which had to do with staying connected to friends and family, often through sharing photos. Others said they use social media to get news, to counsel and encourage others, to keep up with organizations they like and to share their faith.

Based on the quantitative study, many U.S. adults who have engaged in spiritual conversations in the past five years report using social media and various other digital means, but face-to-face conversations still outpace them all. Nine out of 10 Americans who have shared their views on faith or religion have done so in person (92%). Half as many say they have shared on Facebook (43%), and such sharing is more common among self-identified Christians (46%) than among non-Christians (32%). Practicing Christians are even more likely to post faith-related content on Facebook (53%). Relatedly, eager conversationalists are more apt than those who are reluctant to use any and all of the options.

As one might expect, there are some significant differences between generations. For example, half of Elders say they have shared faith views in an email (52%)—only about one in five younger adults have done so. But two out of five Millennials have engaged in a text conversation about faith (39%), compared to three in 10 Gen X (29%), one in five Boomers (20%) and one in six Elders (18%).

There are many ways to express your faith through social media: from posting a Christian symbol as your profile picture, to including a Bible verse in your personal information, to sharing faith-based articles or sending encouragements and prayers in response to friends’ posts. So what are some of the most common ways people do so? More than eight out of 10 adults say they share their faith on social media by writing their own posts, sharing others’ posts or commenting on others’ posts. Half report their profile contains information about religious beliefs and three in 10 say their profile image conveys their faith views. While differences between the faith groups are not hugely significant, it appears that practicing Christians are particularly apt to engage in these ways and non-Christians less so.

Risks & Rewards of the Digital Age

Does all this tech make sharing faith easier or harder? Or both, in different respects?

A majority of self-identified Christians believes technology impacts both how they share and how others engage with them. For example, more than half agree that “technology and digital interactions have made sharing my faith easier” (53%)—yet about the same percentage agrees that “people are more likely to avoid real spiritual conversations than they were in the past because they are so busy with technology” (55%).

Again, there are generational differences worth noting. As the chart shows, younger adults are more likely than Boomers to agree with any of the statements about digital faith interactions. (Elders are not included due to small sample size.) Millennials seem to most acutely feel the negative effects of technology, such as difficulty having authentic spiritual conversations.

In an interview for Barna’s 2018 study on Gen Z, the generation after Millennials who are beginning to emerge into adulthood, scholar and author Donna Freitas remarked on the disconnect many young adults feel between their real lives and their digital lives:

The goal for their social media presence seems to be about appearing happy at every turn—with all profiles that are attached to their real names. Appearing successful, appearing positive, never showing that you’re vulnerable, never showing that you’ve failed at anything, never showing that you’re sad. There’s a kind of constant performance that’s expected on social media.3

This kind of performative pressure does not pair well with efforts to authentically connect with others on spiritual matters. For church and ministry leaders, part of equipping young adults to share faith effectively in the digital age may need to include coaching them on how to have a healthy relationship with social media, even before they start talking about faith.

Online vs. Offline Interactions

Researchers in the early years of the World Wide Web identified a phenomenon they termed the “online disinhibition effect”: the tendency of people to do or say things online that they wouldn’t normally do or say in real life.4 One Christian wrote about the temptation to be more disrespectful online than he might be face to face, especially toward people he doesn’t know: “If it’s a good friend, I try to disagree respectfully and logically and with common sense. If it’s someone I don’t know I try to do the same, but I might use slightly harsher language, or even ridicule.”

The online disinhibition phenomenon is well-documented by researchers yet often under-reported when left up to self-assessment; that is, most people would say their behavior is consistent between physical and digital space—but for many, it is not. Because of the disinhibition tendency, people who otherwise would speak with care and kindness may communicate more aggressively online. One in five U.S. adults admits they are more likely to “say something unkind” digitally (19%) than in person (41%)—but it’s hard to know how strongly to rely on these self-reports.

All that being said, self-assessments can still yield useful insights. For example, U.S. adults were asked to choose whether they are more likely to engage in a certain type of interaction in person or digitally, or if they are equally likely to engage in either venue. Researchers expected that a majority or at least a plurality of people would say their behavior is consistent, that their behavior is “about the same” in both places. Thus we could think of “about the same” as the default answer—and indeed, that is what the research findings indicate.

But can we infer anything constructive about those who make a different choice? Analysts suggest that opting for “in person” or “digitally” may indicate a preference for that mode of communication. Those who choose one or the other may not be accurately reporting their behavior so much as signaling their preference for either digital or in-person interaction.

For example, as you can see in the chart broken out by gender, men are more likely than women to make a clear choice between in person or online for each of the interaction types. The point is not that men engage more than women in person or online, but that they are more likely than women to pick one or the other, and less likely to choose both.

Similarly, as the next chart shows, when it comes to asking questions about faith or sharing their beliefs, Millennials are more likely than older adults to make a choice other than the default—and, as one might expect from this tech-immersed generation, they are more likely to prefer digital interactions.

Where does all this data leave us?

First, it leaves us confident that, at least for now, face-to-face encounters remain the primary means by which people talk with others about faith. That could change as Gen Z and Millennials become a larger proportion of the overall adult population but, for the foreseeable future, the ability to have meaningful real-life conversations about spiritual matters is still a skill each Christian needs to develop.

Second, it hints at a near future when digital faith interactions become a standard component of most spiritual conversations. As more and more of our communications become digitally mediated, it is all but inevitable. So in addition to enriching in-person faith conversations, Christians also need wisdom for making meaningful virtual connections that bear spiritual fruit.

Third, it’s important to recognize that, while many adults say they have about the same number of digital interactions as personal interactions, the nature of those interactions are likely quite different. An in-person conversation is immediate, reciprocal and informed by physical presence and body language. An online interaction is often much more terse, may or may not be twosided and likely occurs while each person is engaged in other tasks or conversations. Additionally, it’s much harder to translate tone, intent and context from an online interaction than an in-person conversation. Most adults have been schooled throughout life in how to interpret and engage in in-person conversations, but the data reveals a growing need to help Christians make the most of digital interactions: a “school of manners” for digital life, if you will.

Finally, the data leaves us with a sense that young people, in particular, are struggling to navigate the digital world—“digital Babylon,” as David Kinnaman calls it. This world is rife with distractions, temptations, conflicting opinions (and “alternative facts”), tragedy and vehement disagreements. Not to mention cat videos! The digital world is, in many ways, unknown territory with few reliable maps available for guidance. It is a world in which young believers desperately need the Christian community to help them find their way.

Whether online or off, the experience of faith-sharing can run the gamut from exhilarating to disillusioning. Let’s look at how spiritual conversations are perceived and experienced by the people who share and those with whom they share.

Q&A with Rachel Legoute

Community Manager for THRED

Rachel Legouté is the community manager for THRED, a project of Lutheran Hour Ministries. In that role, she publishes content on a variety of social media platforms and learns about their audience from the responses and conversations that follow. Rachel holds a degree in Christian outreach from Concordia University, and has a background in professional church work, not-for-profit management and corporate material analysis.

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