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:

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.

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:

Some specifics included:

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:

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:

Other responses covered this kind of content:

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:

Summed up quite nicely in these three:

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:

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:

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:

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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