Play, Publish, and Parish: Reconstituting Religious Community and Authority in Cross-platform Times

By: Pauline Hope Cheong

May 26, 2017

Responding to: Faith Communities and Technology

Play, Publish, and Parish: Reconstituting Religious Community and Authority in Cross-platform Times

“There is an app for that!” is a common saying. It might surprise some, but this expression also applies to many aspects in the religious and spiritual realm. With the swift rise in the use of smartphones and tablet computers, mobile app technologies are ripe for the spread and support of a diversity of religious practices worldwide.

As mobile apps are a conduit for personal play and connections, they now facilitate the everyday exchange of religious content. To many, this represents an egalitarian ethos, a shift toward individual-centered consumption and networks away from the influence and ties to traditional leadership and religious institutions. For some, it is expected that religious app practices may serve to challenge or replace offline, real-world counterparts and connections. 

Yet as proposed in the introduction of the book Digital Religion, Social Media and Culture: Perspectives, Practices, Futures (2012), which I co-edited, apps do not necessarily diminish the traditions and relevant authoritative hierarchies of the church. Many religious apps are developed in collaboration with clergy, receive their imprimatur, and connect users to local communities and religious organizations. 

Moreover, these days churches and temples are creating their own apps and adopting various mediated platforms to build local and global religious communities and reconstruct their authority. There are customizable content management systems available on the market to help religious leaders and members plug-in sermon, news, music, and art content, and arrange their app features to strengthen their church identity or brand. 

In particular, “MyChurch” (insert church name) apps have been marketed to help churches “fuel” their “mission,” “increase giving,” and “engage community.” But they are not the face of revolutionary change to church norms and structures. By and large, these MyChurch apps represent an assemblage of real and virtual platform practices. It can even be said that these applications complement, amplify, and ultimately thereby reinforce—not replace—religious institutional practices. 

Similar to the online interactions with commercial outfits, many church-goers now “log in” to their own accounts via their church website or app. Church apps provide users with the latest church announcements, daily devotions, sermon downloads, and calendar of events on the go. As MyChurch apps connect directly to digital and social media platforms, spiritual seekers and members can also share sermon excerpts or Bible verses via email and Facebook, like or comment on Instagram posts, and view YouTube videos from the church. Some apps even allow congregational members to reserve their seats in the sanctuary in advance and obtain car parking availability on Sundays.

Furthermore, besides augmenting connections to local church rituals and members, it is crucial to point out how church apps can contribute to “big data” and shape religious behaviors through algorithmic authority. The interlocking of church apps and social media platforms entails the collection and archiving of vast amounts of data, including members’ personal information and their consumption and donation patterns. 

By downloading and using church apps, users are consciously or unconsciously giving affirmative consent for religious organizations to collect and use personally identifiable information. Depending on how the data is handled and analyzed, apps can be configured to support practices and infrastructures that reinforce the legitimacy and influence of the church. Consequently, the contemporary datafication of church life via apps illustrates an enduring theme in my work which concerns the reconstruction of religious authority, knowledge, and community in times of technological and social change. 

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