[RESEARCH] Simple Survey into Social Media and Spiritual Formation (#Surveillance)

[RESEARCH] Simple Survey into Social Media and Spiritual Formation (#Surveillance)

The other day I submitted a paper, resulting from the ‘Surveillance and Religion Conference‘ in Edinburgh earlier this year, on social media and spiritual formation. It’s useful to get some insights into what people think, to add a little colour, but also to trigger new avenues of thought that can be connected with pre-existing academic research in new ways, or suggest new avenues for research. Last month, therefore, a simple survey was created, and once it had cleared the Manchester Metropolitan University ethics procedure on 27th November, was circulated via my online social networks (very much a convenience sample) asking for a swift return. The software used was Man Met’s survey subscription to Qualtrics. I’m sharing (in some detail) a summary of findings, and some quotes.

Purpose of the Survey

The survey was considering ‘social media’ and ‘surveillance’, and asking those of Christian faith to answer some simple questions. I know that a lot of those who fall into the survey category are already in my ‘Community of Practice’ (and friendship group). The intention is to do a bigger survey at some point, so in some ways, this acts as a test of some questions, although it’s specific to the paper that I’m writing for now!

The opening statement for the survey was:

You have been invited to take part in this study on how social media impacts the faith/spiritual formation of Christian users. A Wikipedia definition of spiritual formation is ‘the process and practices by which a person may progress in one’s spiritual or religious life’. The aim of the study is to find out people’s personal experiences and definitions of spiritual formation in the online context.

This questionnaire is designed to collect largely qualitative data related to these research questions. The questionnaire is quick to complete, comprising only 9 free-form response questions. 

Question 1: I am 16 or over, and agree to participate in the research

87 respondents, including pre-testing, with one responding ‘no’.

Question 2: How do you define ‘social media’?

45 responses included people defining the e-forms of media, the apps, and naming the specific platforms, including ‘digital channels that enable content sharing and consumption and that promote dialogue’,with some debate as to whether blogs and forums are included. Others identified the type of content, with some specifying  images/links and groups, others highlighting the audio-visual nature. The importance of interaction and communication were highlighted, e.g. ‘interaction between people online’, or for ‘social engagement’, including those who defined it as ‘wouldn’t necessarily have the opportunity to meet in person’ (so, highlighting the lack of geographical limitation). It is defined as both mass and selective/filtered communication, and noted that due to the nature of the internet, ‘it may not be possible to limit access to information or material shared’. That interaction may be with an individual, or a group or organisation, but is assumed a multiple audience (so excludes e-mails), which may be ‘like-minded’, or may not be!

Question 3: What do you understand by ‘spiritual formation’?

45 responses including a number that said ‘no idea’ (not a problem!), but as I have a higher number than expected theological friendships, there’s a range of helpful answers relating to the Christian faith, emphasising the need for a daily ‘living’ faith, and how your relationship with God affects that e.g:

  • The factors that shape and mould our spiritual practice, experience and beliefs
  • Growing more like Christ, through prayer, study of the bible and other books, with support and guidance from an older (in terms of spiritual experience) Christian.
  • Growing or development of relationship with God
  • The discipline of growing in faith, being rooted in the scriptures, in prayer and in living for God.
  • Developing a deeper more meaningful relationship with God and the world
  • ‘Spiritual formation’ is the process of developing an understanding of & response to the call of God on the life of an individual. It includes a growing desire to learn & understand the scriptures, to seek through various practices such as prayer, meditation, bible study, fellowship with others & more which enable a person to follow the teachings of Jesus & to live in keeping with his teaching & the example of the early church.
  • A process of uncovering how one fits within God’s good creation, often discerning one’s role thereby, but more importantly developing an awareness of how God is speaking to and through one through experience, scripture, prayer and others who know one well.

There were also other answers about a more general ‘spiritual development’, all related to something that grows or develops (which requires being challenged), and doesn’t relate to material or physical things, whether that be practices or understanding, e.g.

  • Developing an understanding of spiritual identity, of ‘other’ eg deity, and relationships between self and deity and the world. Deepening this knowledge and understanding, and developing and growing said relationships.
  • Spiritual formation describes the process of the spiritual journey – the creation of a spiritual identity encompassing morals, ethics, beliefs, and principles for engagement with the spiritual and physical world.

Question 4: Do you feel that social media has impacted your ‘spiritual formation’? Can you give examples (formal or informal)?

39 responses to this question, some very detailed, which aside from a couple of ‘no’ (interesting one who felt they were too old to have really absorbed social media),  included a variety of ‘to some extent’ (because social media is not the only means of connection), and ‘yes’, which included:

  • An ability to share prayer requests despite lack of physical proximity, whether in a group, or more experimental ways such as via hashtags, or encouraging non-Christian friends to send in prayer requests.
  • The sharing of good quality content (recommendations) – can be different kinds of content from different platforms.
  • Membership of Facebook group for apologetics discussions
  • Opportunities to serve others practically – with knowledge coming via online
  • Building community at church ‘equip them individually and corporately to be who God called them to be.’
  • Bible readings that feel relevant to specific situations coming via contacts, or online bible studies
  • Ability to share thoughts with a wider group
  • Space to be challenged on own opinions, including access to wider viewpoints from other denominations and faith traditions (sometimes unexpectedly)
  • The ability to talk to other Christians even if there are none in your geographical location, and learn from them.
  • A mix of apps and social media content from friends, informally via feeds, and more formally via online programmes.
  • Both encouragement and challenge from seeing what others share online, at any time of the day and night
  • Ability to attend church online (e.g. d-church, live-streaming) when housebound because ‘the kids are asleep’ or due to disabilities.
  • Resources for use in sermons, school assemblies, etc.
  • “Overhearing” conversations between people and reflecting on issues raised.
  • Being challenged, but also actively dis-engaging from those who feel are relentlessly negative.

Some specifics included:

  • Greater connection with others of the same faith. Feeling more supported and connected with others who far and near. Greater access to a variety of opinions – sometimes healthy and sometimes not.
  • Yes. I use various online resources to support me in bible study, prayer, reflection and to learn about situations locally, nationally and internationally and how my faith relates (or should relate) in these circumstances
  • I am challenged and encouraged in my thinking by reading and responding to the thoughts and reflections of a wide range of people. I am stimulated to prayer by prayer requests, prayer guidance and news. I find that being present online requires me to practice discernment in order to be a positive presence. For example I am fed by a wider ecumenical spread of Bible reflections, I intercede more, and I more thoroughly consider the impact of what I choose to share with others. It has also caused me to adopt new practices eg I use an examination app that I was introduced to online and I have been to conferences I heard about online.
  • It has opened me up to a wider range of ‘flavours’ of Christianity and challenged me in my beliefs. It has also shown me new angles to arguments around faith and different areas of life my beliefs apply to.
  • I was starting already to question the faith and church I was a member of when I discovered online discussion forums, and one in particular (ship of fools) where many of the members are more liberal Christians than I was used to in my charismatic evangelical church, but who were saying (well, writing) things that chimed much more with where I felt I was at in my relationship with God. Many years later I no longer attend a church (although that may well change again in the future), but have many meaningful spiritual interactions and continue to be challenged by many Christian (and non-Christian) friends around the world. This all helps me to remain grounded, although I guess it may also at times make me more cynical about formal Christian life ie regular church attendance etc.
  • I have been a member of i-church, an internet community in the Anglican tradition run from the Diocese of Oxford since 2008. I have engaged with the Public and Inner community, which strives to live according to Benedictine rule of life. I have also engaged through blogging, through the #Digidisciple website and through commenting on Christian Blogs with the wider world on issues that affect us widely and personally. Through social media I have met some Christians that I would never have known, some of whom I have met in real life, have been on retreat with and generally shared my life journey through some tumultuous events and life changing moments.
  • Yes, without a doubt social media has impacted my spiritual formation, starting most particularly from 2010 when as an LLM (CofE lay minister) conversations, insights and information gleaned through Facebook and Twitter helped me specifically during ministry in a parish vacancy with a RM funeral (Afghan conflict) and discernment towards ordination. The friends I made during that period of my life I have continued to interact with, sometimes face-to-face, and these relationships (on and offline) have become a direct part of my training and formation.
  • It has impacted my spiritual formation in many ways, especially by challenging my assumptions and exposing me to a broader range of views within the Christian faith, but also by finding like-minded people/organisations I wasn’t aware existed. This has happened by following organisations/prominent individuals, joining groups which exist to discuss matters of faith, making me aware of offline resources I didn’t know about, expressing and defending my views within my own circle of friends I wouldn’t otherwise easily be able to do this with, making new friends with different views.
  • As a member of St Pixels ( on line church) I was forced to explain and justify my stance in many discussions, and to objectively consider opposing stances for any validity. On Facebook, my non spiritual friends were aware of my faith so in many ways I was living it more openly than off line. All my friends, of all persuasions from rabidly anti God, to ministers of religion, get to see my responses to posts, and see what I post. So, I had to consider the impact of what I said, on everyone. So spent much more time than previously looking at the bible to guide responses.
  • Yes it does. I have met a diverse range of people of faith through social media some of whom have become close friends both on line and off, their perspective has shaped my understanding of what the church is and does, my theology and my approach to my ongoing journey of faith.
  • Positive: awareness of other issues around the world, identification of like-minded people who are not always concerned with material acquisition. Negative: rabble-rousing, negative politics, name calling, marketing and sales.

And a reminder that it’s a two way influence:

Well each influences the other. Spiritual formation influences how one would be willing to interact with social media. In addition, social media interactions influence spiritual formation either by opening new questions or reinforcing existing beliefs. (Echo chamber, confirmation bias)

Question 5: What else in your life impacts upon your ‘spiritual formation’, especially offline?

38 responses to this question (and let’s note that the blurring of lines between online/offline was noted) which included:

  • Church attendance/membership: sermons/worship/sacraments – including someone who specifically highlighted the benefits of a midweek experimental service
  • Spiritual reflections at work/with family/spouse
  • Informal coffee/chat sessions, where the discussion can be deeper, whether at church/in the pub.
  • Preparing sermons as a minister
  • Speaking to the minister/pastor
  • Friends/discussions
  • Prayer, including prayer-partnerships
  • Reading (fact and fiction), radio, art and music, news
  • Spiritual/house groups
  • Journalling
  • Being responsible for others (groups/parenting), challenges reflections upon spiritual lives
  • Having a mentor/spiritual director
  • Serving others, seeking to put faith into action
  • Life events – our own, and sharing with others
  • Online websites (non-social media)
  • Bible reading notes.
  • Taking time out ‘to focus purely on God’ – quiet days, personal devotions, or to ‘thin places’, ‘where I feel more alive and closer to God’
  • Talking to others about their faith/own faith
  • Partaking in ‘outreach’ activities, or meeting those on the fringes/outside of church
  • Sharing in the discernment process – either as a potential ordinand, or as the discerner.
  • Conference attendance/training courses (where the conversation may have continued digitally afterwards)
  • Seeing Muslim friends who take their faith much more seriously, and challenges own way of living.

and to be comprehensive: ‘Every day seeing the people I meet and the things I see. All has an impact’.

Question 6: Are you aware that others are ‘observing what you are doing’, and does this make any difference to your behaviour (personally, or related to your role)? This could include things such as what you share, how you engage in debate, etc.

38 responses to this question, including:

  • ‘I would say no…. but everyday is a performance. I act at work to customers and my co-workers i act for my family that everything’s fine. I act to myself that its all ok. But then generally i don’t care what other people observe. This is me like it or lump it.’
  • ‘Not aware as such but know that whatever you do in your life you should be open and honest.’
  • ‘Yes. In general I think my behaviour online is similar to offline.’
  • ‘Yes, I’m aware I’m being observed, but to be honest, God makes more difference to my behaviour than social media. There are very few things that I share in a restricted online sphere, rather than widely. However there are many things I don’t share, or at least not online. The world doesn’t need to hear every time I have a conversation with God or a crisis of confidence in my own abilities! I rarely take part in ‘heated discussions’ in online forum, but then I’m rather wary of them face-to-face too, so I’m not really behaving differently. However, I’m better informed as to what the debates are, and who is saying what, by keeping up-to-date online. Other online conversations are however helpful, like discussing a biblical passage or similar, e.g. Advent Book Club.’
  • ‘Yes. Like everywhere in life, when I ‘speak’ I do so as a Christian and that brings a responsibility.’
  • Be prepared for everything you say to be public, and be aware that kids/grandkids may see it.

Other responses covered this kind of content:

  • Seeking to keep conversations positive and uplifting (limited content shared), contribute to peacemaking as ‘the light of Christ’, be ethical/inclusive: not shying away from confrontation, but engaging ‘with dignity’; care to ‘not offend’ unnecessarily
  • Being on social media is like ‘standing on top of a plinth in Trafalgar Square and screaming your opinion’, people may hear, and may/may not comment: ‘It makes me very wary of what I post and repost, what debates I get involved in, and I advise my colleagues to do the same–even if they are posting/tweeting in a personal capacity.’
  • Hyperaware that how interact will be seen/noted by others, whilst another thinks although aware, ‘not as much as I should be’.
  • ‘This feeling of being observed makes me think deeper about actions and responses. It also affects how I do my job (in a positive way)’, affects the language used, and content shared, or who it’s shared with (whether publicly or using the private tools on social media), esp care with ‘unfounded allegations’.
  • Aware of own/spouse secular work roles: more ‘careful’ about what express about faith, but as an ordinand also had to adjust/lower political voice.
  • In the past have sought to share evangelical material, but now much more passive watcher; mindful as to what to share as much online spirituality appears ‘righteous’, ‘judgemental’ or ‘self-righteous’
  • ‘Yes, I am aware that others may be observing what I write or share. Whilst I may agree with many statements I see on Twitter, I tend only to share (retweet) or ‘like’ something from a source I believe I can trust. I rarely enter into debate online or share personal things. I have reduced the frequency & detail of lists on Facebook in recent times as I have observed a change in culture which prompts me to exercise a degree of caution.’
  • ‘Yes. I often check to see what a post’s settings are (ie public, friends only) and decide on a case by case basis whether to engage, based on whether I want Christian or non-Christian friends to see it. I also don’t want to offend unnecessarily, so might (say) sign a petition about something I feel strongly about, but not then post it to my facebook. Other times though I might jump in and say something (especially if I think someone’s being out of order – rude, insensitive, offensive, etc). Also I’m a member of a profession (not faith-based) which has a specific social media section in its code of conduct, so I already self-police because of that even without thinking about specifically spiritual issues. Generally tend to the less is more approach.’
  • ‘Yes, especially because I’m a priest – I have to be more careful what I do and share as I’m representing the church as well as myself.’
  • Deliberately withdrawing from social media metrics as felt was trying to ‘game’, which doesn’t sit well with faith.
  • ‘Yes – I’ve been caught out being seen getting too heated in a disagreement. It was wrong whether I was observed or not, but I was called out by a friend over it which made me aware of the problem in the first place, but also made me very aware that others see what I’m doing, including many for whom I am the main face of Christianity.’
  • ‘Definitely, as a minister. I try and not share what I think, rather encourage others to think. I do choose to share more information especially on social justice, eg impact of universal credit, because of my role’, seek to challenge fake news, on Twitter less ‘in role’ as a minister
  • Self-editing to ensure that those speaking about can’t be identified.
  • Deliberately not connecting with church members when in a position of leadership so can be self without being ‘on duty’.

Question 7: Would you consider ‘being observed in your behaviour’ as something new to social media, or what would you cite as pre-digital or offline examples, whether personal, or related to an official church role?

38 responses to this question. Responses to this question generally seemed to agree that this has always been the case, but with some differences especially scale/amplification, including:

  • Have always been observed/judged in the workplace (especially as teacher/medical professional), of our children, behaviour giving insights to values.
  • Speed/reach of social media means the implications are more profound – comments rarely forgotten as digital content is not deleted/much harder to hide.
  • Social media can help – using direct messages etc. to ‘rebuke’, confrontation can be avoided: more accountability
  • Getting to know people well online by observing their content and interactions on social media/comments sections
  • Loss of non-verbal communication and ability to respond without a ‘suitable thinking period’ means greater scrutiny.
  • ‘What we say, how we say it and what stories we make known has always influenced others’, (curtain twitchers?) but now larger numbers
  • Extra scrutiny has always been given to ‘people of faith’, especially judging of ‘right’ behaviour – or ‘distinctive’ ways of living. As a Christian ‘public presence’ can be used to judge the church as a whole (feel letting others down) – but this has happened way before social media (also happens with e.g. women in a typically male profession): ‘Of course it is not new. People have been judged by the books they have written, the articles they have produced, things they have said in private, in public, in the pulpit, on radio, in written interviews, by the company they keep, the people on the same platforms as them’
  • People’s expectations of ministers/those in leadership roles, e.g. that they shouldn’t swear – but the mistakes made online are captured for posterity. Fascinated by what’s in their shopping trollies.
  • ‘As a minister, I’m aware that the coffee morning I choose to attend, the number of services I plan at a church is closely scrutinised, and whether I work alongside Anglican colleagues, visibly, is noticed.’
  • Re: spiritual behaviour, depends how local to the town/village you are – easier if not local.
  • Local/face-to-face gives the opportunity to explain, or be questioned if needed – online easier to misconstrue
  • People posting more about themselves – easier to observe and be observed.

Summed up quite nicely in these three:

  • ‘It’s not new to social media. Not in the slightest. People used to sit and watch the world go by on their doorsteps. Families are always observing other families to see if they are doing it right. It’s human nature to observe behaviour. Social media has only made it easier to both observe and force other people to observe our behaviours.’
  • ‘Being observed has always been part of how humans interact. I think social media provides a lot more information a lot more quickly. In the past communication may have been by letter and took longer between responses and reached a lot smaller audience.’
  • ‘Social media is analogous to a conversation in the pub or other public space – there are some things you will discuss openly and loudly and others that you would say more discretely and with an eye to who might be listening or which you would save until a more suitable time/place’

Question 8: Andy Byers (2013) writes “As restored image bearers, our online presence and activity should image the Triune God”. Would you consider Christians ‘the face of God’ online, and what impact does/should this have on behaviour?

35 responses to this question. The general gist from respondents is that online/offline it shouldn’t matter as we are ‘made in his image’, ambassadors seeking to demonstrate Christian values, encouraging hope, compassion, etc. whilst not gaining an over-inflated sense of importance. Projecting ‘being human’ and getting things wrong, however, should be part of this – as Christians are not perfect (or restored) – but should be open being vulnerable, imperfect – and to apologising. It ‘provides both opportunities & responsibilities to encourage, correct, nurture or challenge statements & attitudes’, in which ‘integrity and genuineness are key’, not forgetting that we are also the ‘hands and feet’ of God (e.g. a hug can be sent via an emoji).

Trolling and bullying are ‘wrong whoever does it’, nature also does a ‘pretty good job’ of pointing to God (as can non-Christians), ‘it’s hard when there are so many opposing views, even within Christianity, about what God is like and what He does and doesn’t approve of (cf left/right wing politics, for example)’ – and hate-filled fundamentalist Christianity seems to get the most exposure. Does this make it an ‘unattainable standard’, is it too easy to stick to ‘our little tribe’? Is it impossible to be ‘the face of God’ whilst also recognising that this may be one of the few times Christians are observed by Christians? How far is it ‘we realise our concerns about language and behaviour have more to do with being polite middle-class Brits, rather than being Christians.’

A couple of more detailed quotes:

  • ‘I think people will draw their own conclusions, based not just on individuals but on how Christians relate to each other and to non-Christians. I’ve been aware of trying to bring peace into situations of conflict. This isn’t always easy as it often involves allowing others to have the last word. Imaging the Triune God would be a good idea, but philosophically I’m not clear what this would mean. I think as Christians we need to approach others with humility. I cringe when I see people being genuinely open to the Christian viewpoint, and someone ‘slam-dunks’ an ‘appropriate’ biblical quotation or instructive poem into the conversation. I think we need to be open about our own spirituality, not just giving people instructive materials.’
  • ‘The way we interact with others is a witness to our faith and our God. I am frequently dismayed by the ‘comments’ section of online faith articles; the Christian propensity to engage in bitter, spiteful arguments with strangers is amongst the worst witness I can imagine online. If we consider the triune relationship of love, mutuality, respect and grace as a model for our behaviour online (and off) I think we could have some impact on the opinion that non-Christians have about Christians, church and therefore Christ.’

Question 9: Can you identify occasions in which you’d consider ‘being anonymous’ a valid approach for Christian users to take online?

34 responses to this question. Quite a few n/a, no, not sure yet, with a sense that one should be ‘prepared to stand behind’ statements and ‘be honest’, or consider ‘whether one needs to say anything at all’, with one very strong ‘whenever people wish’, but other answers included:

  • When wanting to ‘bless someone’ without drawing attention to your actions.
  • Don’t like the idea of deceiving people, but have a fake Facebook name because of work
  • If you put own or someone else’s life in danger (e.g. persecuted Christian).
  • If other participants are anonymous – maybe a pseudonym
  • Posting as the ‘corporate’ face of Church, rather than as an individual.
  • For specific circumstances such as ‘prayer, advice or education’, or disclosing abuse, coming out as gay, or a minister wanting to question their faith whilst in role: ‘If you really are discussing and developing your ideas and you have an official position to uphold’.
  • To protect personal or family circumstances
  • To allow someone to bypass ‘prejudices and preconceptions’, to allow one’s voice to be heard (e.g. with a gender neutral name), to bring to light spiritual abuse, etc.
  • For ‘taking part in surveys’!

Summarised quite nicely:

A member of a persecuted Christian church. Someone in an abusive relationship. All the usual reasons for anonymity in aid of safety, in other words. If anonymity is a mask to hide bad behaviour behind, it’s wrong; but anonymity can be helpful in terms of time and energy management. For instance, if a blogger is only blogging now and again and it isn’t their main thing, I can imagine that not wanting to spend “day job” energy and time on dealing with comments, blowback and trolls – and being therefore able to self-select when and how much time to spend on suchlike would maintain sanity and balance in life.

Finally: Are there any further points you’d like to contribute to this debate?

19 responses to this question. The majority of responses reiterated that they felt online/offline lives should demonstrate integrity, and that they had been encouraged to think. Suggestions included:

  • ‘In my experience peaceable more liberal Christians are wary of saying the wrong thing or fuelling an argument when a discussion starts to turn nasty. Also Christians often participate in justice and environmental campaigns without making it clear that they’re Christian because they are participating in a movement which includes non Christians. These two things lead to the Christian presence in online and offline debates appearing much more narrow minded than it actually is. I think that this harms the gospel.’
  • ‘I believe that this is important research and we should actively engage online with those of other faiths or none, being prepared to discuss and to debate, with out being over critical, while also being aware of the limitations of the communications media that we are occupying. It is so easy to offend, to write in anger and regret it later. Self discipline and observing good manners can go a long way to encourage others to engage with us in a meaningful way’
  • ‘It would be interesting to explore what impact social media has on our theology – but that’s a big topic!’
  • ‘After Brexit, it seems that people are voicing what they always thought, but have felt unacceptable to say. How do we allow people to voice concerns in real debate, rather than what seems to always present as hate speech on line? So that we can change hearts and minds, rather than just bury what people think? I’ve a couple of friends who have posted judgemental and prejudicial things, which on further conversation was not what they meant..’
  • ‘I have been advised to open a second facebook account so people in my church don’t judge me or know all the details i post. I’m in a dilemma about whether this would help me, my children or those I’m sharing with…’
  • ‘It could be broadened to consider non-Christian approaches to spiritual engagement.’
  • ‘I think churches probably need to update their game as to how they interact with the online world both via digital media and social media’

Lots to ponder on there. I have no idea who participated/posted what, so I hope that you feel that I encapsulated your perspective. *Post finished in April 2018!

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Digiexplorer (not guru), Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing @ Manchester Metropolitan University. Interested in digital literacy and digital culture  in the third sector (especially faith). Author of ‘Raising Children in a Digital Age’, regularly checks hashtag #DigitalParenting.

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