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Social media has inspired an expansive notion of ‘sacred space’

STM graduate Keith Anderson offered insights on today’s ministry practice

Today’s social media — Facebook, Tweets and other forms — are filled with information about how all kinds of everyday people are finding God and living out their vocations in daily life. In a recent LTSP convocation, the Rev. Keith Anderson called upon his audience of faculty, students, and staff to take a fresh look at what constitutes the idea of “sacred spaces” in modern life. “Churches need to think of sacred space in a far more expansive way,” he said at one point.

The Digital Cathedral coverAnderson, a 2002 Master of Sacred Theology recipient from the seminary and a pastor at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church in Ambler, Pennsylvania, spoke about his forthcoming book The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World.   It is due out in May.

Anderson began by setting the context for today’s church. “It goes without saying that we are in a rapidly changing context involving the end of civic religion, changing perceptions of Christians and Christianity, changing family configurations. We have six generations of families in our churches, all with distinctive needs. Our churches are more diverse and transitory.” He described the impact of the Internet, social media, and mobility technology in the context as profound. All of these changes “have dramatically changed the field of ministry practice,” he said.

Along with the explosion of digital technologies, Anderson documented the rapid rise of the “Nones,” people who list themselves as having no religious affiliation.

In sum, he said, “we find ourselves living in a digitally integrated and spiritually distributed world.” The Internet, social media, and mobile technology, he said, “have become embedded in our daily lives.”

The Rev. Keith AndersonAnderson cited Pew Research Center work that revealed how “digitally integrated” Americans are: 87 percent of American adults are online and 56 percent of the entire adult population uses Facebook with 52 percent of adults functioning on two or more networks. The 2014 figure, he said, is up 10 percent from the previous year. Eighty-nine percent of Americans carry a cell phone and 81 percent of cell phone users send or receive text messages. Digital access, he said “is now in our pockets and our watches.”

As “spiritually distributed” within the culture, Anderson noted that spiritual and religious practices increasingly occur outside of parishes, including in local and digital gathering places. Pew reports that 20 percent of people have shared their faith online, and 46 percent of people have seen someone else share their faith that way. Anderson said he thinks the figures may be conservative.

Anderson spoke about the rise of the “Nones” in the culture. Pew has reported they comprise about 20 percent of Americans and 30 percent of Americans under the age of 30, noting this category is growing by about 20 percent a year.

“‘Nones’ has become a code word among church insiders for church decline,” he said. “It is the source for all kinds of hand-wringing and lament. The moniker of ‘None’ is problematic because it infers an absence, a lack of, when, in fact, ‘Nones’ practice, believe, and make meaning in profound ways” including a yearning for the Divine.

Anderson said the rise of the “Nones” represents “changing patterns of religious and spiritual practice, the changing contours of American Christianity…We need to move beyond fear and lament, to recognize the shift in the observance or practice of religion itself.” He noted that 70 percent of “Nones” were once part of a faith community. “The question,” Anderson said, “is not why don’t they like us, but instead how is religious belief and practice changing?” Anderson said when he conducts two-minute YouTube bible studies, conducts a theology pub or distributes ashes on Ash Wednesday at the Fort Washington train station “I am meeting a need for people inside (and out) of my congregation. The practice of religion today is increasingly about all of us.” He described his experiences beyond the walls of Upper Dublin as like being part of two congregations.

He cautioned churches to be more expansive in their notion of ministry. “We have become too narrow. In the face of decline we have closed in on ourselves in an understandable but misguided attempt at self-preservation. Now more than ever we need to imagine church, belonging, spiritual faith, and faith formation much more broadly.” He said for some church has become too parochial. “Evangelism is reduced to membership, faith formation is narrowed to Sunday morning education classes, and sharing the Gospel has been reduced to marketing rather than sharing the free and abundant grace and love of God.” He said a new approach “has to take seriously our digitally integrated lives where the ‘triple revolution’ of the Internet, mobile devices, and digital social media is revolutionizing the way we lead our lives and live out our faith.” This approach likewise, he said, may revolutionize how churches consider who belongs and who doesn’t. The notion of who belongs will be broader.

The more expansive idea of sacred spaces will also take into account a fresh understanding of a Lutheran understanding of vocation. “It is much deeper and broader than I think we give credit for,” Anderson said. “It is about ministry in daily life, finding God, the holy, the divine, that something more and deeper in our daily lives. You’ll all be familiar with what Martin Luther said about changing the diapers. So it goes for finding God in so many other daily tasks that we do. It can be the highest calling to do parenting or to find God not only in our churchly tasks but at work.” (Anderson is the father of four, including a set of twins.)

Anderson said he finds Facebook to frequently be a celebration of daily vocation, with its messages about nature, food, family, friends, and pictures, and also messages frequently acknowledging the importance of prayer.

He said Twitter became a “sacred space” when it carried messages in the aftermath of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and cited other social media examples. “When we designate certain spaces as sacred, we imply others are not,” he said. “When we designate some as being ‘virtual, cyber’ space we make them less ‘real’ than other places.”

Watch Pr. Anderson’s presentation:

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