The era of the iPad preacher

February 19, 2012 8:27:20 PM PST
Social media has become the everyday norm for everything from staying in touch, to sharing information, to finding the best deals. But how do you feel about social networking coming from the place where you pray?

Lakewood Church Pastor Joel Osteen not only preaches to millions around the world each week on television, he's also considered one of the most influential people on Twitter.

Even Joel's mom, 78-year-old family matriarch Dodie, sends out her very own tweets.

"We use it as way to reach out to people," Andrea Davis with Lakewood said.

And the people of Lakewood are asked to reach back. At Sunday service, a video board encourages members to tweet their spiritual thoughts.

If you can't attend services, don't worry. They can be streamed to you.

There's also the team of volunteers handling the prayer requests pouring in from around the world via social media.

"I think the potential for ministry on social media is enormous. When you look at the numbers and you see that 800 million people are on Facebook, that's where people are today," said Steve Austin, director of Christian education at Lakewood.

Even the Vatican, steeped in old tradition, is getting in on the new media.

Last year, Pope Benedict tweeted for the first time using an iPad and gave his blessing for an app that helps followers keep track of their sins.

And then there's this connection between ancient and modern: Houstonian Hardeep Singh is able to log on and receive daily spiritual messages from her Shikh religion all the way from the Golden Temple in India.

"It really touches you because you are sitting so many miles away from the place, but you look like you are in the congregation there," Singh said.

"The purpose of the church is to be a social entity, to be a community. So this gives them an even faster way to develop that kind of community," said Dr. Lynn Mitchell, director religious studies at the University of Houston.

Mitchell said social media allows places of worship -- big and small -- to extend far beyond their religious walls.

New Faith Church in southwest Houston has a congregation of 5,000, and they have been embracing technology for years. Pastor T.R. Williams, 65, even keeps an iPad at the pulpit to guide him through his sermons. He says it sends a message, especially to the younger members.

"That is the way that they learn today. That is where they are connected," Williams said.

But is it all too much?

Rabbi Scott Hausman-Weiss of Congregation Emanuel often tweets and updates posts on the temple's Facebook page, but he cautions that the technology should never overshadow the message.

"Social media for me isn't about relevance. It's about delivering relevance. We could have completely irrelevant content but we are using up-to-date technology and still it's going to fall on deaf ears," Hausman-Weiss said.

Pope Benedict has also expressed concern. Last month, he urged a period of silence to help balance what he called the relentless chatter of social media. But, in the end, there's no stopping what social media has done: infiltrated every aspect of our lives, including the spiritual.

"Christ said that we are going to be able to do more than he ever did. And then, believe it or not, social media allows us to do more, to minister to more," Lakewood member Dr. Ward Bond said.

Muslims are also using technology to practice their faith. There are phone apps that send out reminders for when it's time for the five daily prayers and even a compass which points to Mecca.