What Would Jesus Tweet? As Congregations Decline, Religion Booms Online

As the number of people identifying themselves as Christian goes into steep decline, there is one place where religious debate is booming: online.

Despite forecasts predicting declining congregations casting a shadow over the church, God is clogging comments on message boards and sparking debate on social networks.

When white smoke belched out of the Vatican chimney on Wednesday, pope-alicious topics trended on Twitter all evening. Twitter is obsessed with the Pope, even though much of the commentary is light-hearted joshing.

Ok, so not everyone on Twitter was being holy

The Church of England is reaching out to fill this digital hunger for the spiritual, pioneering “social media for the scared” lessons to its clergy. Catholicism is not far behind, with the multi-lingual launch of the pope2you site, Bible iPhone apps, and the @pontifex Twitter feed.

A nun checks her mobile as she waits for the Pope's Sunday message

The divine and the digital is such a match made in heaven that one New Zealand evangelist has started recruiting Christians just to help him fight the good fight on Facebook.

Religion is increasing going online, as these comparisons of Vatican crowds welcoming in the new pope show

The Bishop of Bradford, Nick Baines, has been nicknamed the "blogging bishop" for his popular blog and healthy Twitter following. He told the Huffington Post UK it was important members of the clergy reached out online, saying that if Jesus himself would have been on Twitter.

"Jesus would certainly be online. I think Jesus would be on Twitter, rather than Facebook, because it allows more communication," he said.

He stressed the importance of taking part in debate and listening online rather than preaching, saying: "What defines the new generation is interconnectivity and interactivity, so if the church is going to attempt online engagement, posts should not simply preach but be part of a conversation.

"That actually goes back to the gospel. If you look at Jesus and the gospel, people came up with a question, he addressed it, and then they were free to either stay and listen or leave. He didn’t feel he had to hit them with the whole package in one go. Some people never came back, and that was OK. That’s very online-ish."

'OMG Jesus just retweeted me #humblebrag'

Baines said it was important for the church to engage with people in the right way, saying: "There's a model in parts of the church where they think its about getting the message out, but its about inviting people into the conversation. It’s two way, not one way, and elements of the church have struggled with that."

Indeed the former Pope’s Twitter account was criticised for its stuffy approach to the social network, and when it was first set up was derided for simply following six versions of itself. Similarly the new pope's Twitter account has sent one tweet, seemingly announcing its own existence. 'We Have A New Pope' (that is, all hail me) the post says in Latin.

Heidi Campbell, Associate Professor of Communication at Texas A&M University, has studied how churches are engaging with new media.

She told the Huffington Post UK: " Churches are becoming aware that they need to understand the digital mobile culture people are living in, that their media use is part of their social life, work life and spiritual life."

Campbell said using digital media could attract younger believers, through creating a culture people identify with: "Whether its a school, club or church, you go to a place where you feel comfortable, you understand the culture and you feel your values are understood, so the more churches do this the more they are going to draw people in, especially teenagers and those between 20 to 40, a group that maybe have belief but don’t belong."

God does not have a verified tick on his Twitter account. Oh but if he did...

However she said the Church was facing challenges adapting their theology to technology, adding: "One of the big conversations happening in religious organisations and institutions at the moment is what does a digital theology look like? How does technology complement our values and what happens when they encounter one another?”

"There was a study that came out two years ago now on Twitter and they found that 80% of the content was not information about “meformation”, that is, what I ate for breakfast, what I think, my opinions.

"What we see in many cases is people usually use the Internet to focus on themselves and own ideas. That in many ways puts the individual above the community and so if you’re creating a space which is self-affirming."

People are attracted to non-hierarchical systems online: could Buddhism be more attractive to netizens?

Dr Christopher Helland, Associate Professor of Sociology of Religion at Dalhousie University, said the Internet might also influence which type of religion proves most popular and could actually change the shape of religious belief. His research shows that the Internet supports non-hierarchical forms of communication, “in many ways a different form of religion than what is practiced in most traditional churches,” Helland said.

"These are very much top down hierarchical institutions that are not necessarily allowing for multiple voices and the sharing of different perspectives."

He added: "In many places, those hierarchical, top-down forms of religion are seeing a decline in their membership and this appears to be a long term trend. However, that does not mean that people are no longer religious or spiritual."

Helland argues that religion will adapt to the online culture we live in. He said: "The wired generation will undoubtedly approach their religious beliefs and practices in a different way from people not part of that culture.”

"As people's culture changes, their religion needs to change also. The religion has to stay connected with the people that practice it. It has to be relevant and have meaning for them.

"This means that religions have to change the way they function online."