The New Thing: Faith in the Age of Social Media

Rahiel Tesfaramariam

As they exited, I sat there thinking about a country and its religions divided along identity lines and how fragile religious convictions are. My fear is that Christianity will be lost on an entire generation of youth, particularly youth of color, who feel no pride in the faith and view the church as disconnected from their lived experiences.

The other encounter took place as I sat next to a woman I thought to be a graphic design artist. Thoroughly impressed by the high-tech 3D visuals that kept driving my attention to her computer screen, I inquired about her profession. It turns out that she was a procrastinator exploring an alternative lifestyle as a rock star on Described as “a world with infinite possibilities” that allows you to “live a life without boundaries, guided only by your imagination,” Second Life is one of many virtual worlds offering entry into previously unimagined spaces. She reminded me of the power that online communities grant their users to escape, transform, and revolutionize their lives.

These experiences took place at a time in which my passion for social change had been clouded by flawed systems and institutions, and my faith in the church as the greatest movement of the twenty-first century had nearly evaporated. I was months removed from working with the District of Columbia’s juvenile justice agency on a massive reform effort, and for years I had wondered how churches could learn to better serve disenfranchised communities with an emphasis on social justice.

A God Move: Starting an Online Magazine

During months of intense self-reflection and prayerful solitude, I debated whether I should apply to a doctoral program or launch an institution of my own. But I recognized that I wanted a Ph.D. mostly for validation and security; those three little letters would never amount to the courage I needed to be who God calls me to be. Words a pastor had spoken to me years ago kept echoing in my ear: “Follow your heart; your treasure is where your heart is.” And I made a bold decision.

Traditionally, ministry (Christ) and media (culture) are understood as dichotomous worlds. There is tension between them, if not outright contradiction. While corporate media generally reflects the cultural landscape (and, in turn shapes our societal values), ministry should challenge these conventions and elevate collective consciousness. One works as a conduit; the other should transform. Both shape and compete for our time and our values.

But it was becoming increasingly clear to me that the church must find ways to stay competitive and bring the two worlds of media and faith together – and deliver an authentic message to young people who might otherwise give little thought to the gospel. Growing up in a culturally rich world with writing/journalism as an in-my-bones passion, I tend to play on both sides, wishing the two knew better than to underestimate one another’s power and could find a balance. Contemporary corporate media has such momentum of its own that it might not notice if the church became inconsequential once and for all. But the spiritual stakes are too high, and the crowds are still watching.

Through the years, I had always dreamed of having my own magazine, as I think of myself as a lover of language with a Romans 12:2 commitment to cultural criticism and knowledge exchange. But I never envisioned my work would be in the field of digital media. As I sat at my dining room table night after night this past summer building out, I knew I was creating the “new thing” that God had been promising me for years and immediately saw how it synthesized everything I had previously experienced.

This new space was to be the hybrid that brought together my passion for liberation theology, freedom struggle, and popular culture. It also serves to reconcile my multi-layered identity: African. American. Immigrant. Elite. Woman. Youth. Thinker. Activist. Global Citizen. Ghetto-bred. Urbane. Pan-African. Cultural Connoisseur. Christian. A Christian who struggles to believe that if Christ’s Spirit abides in me, then I too abide in Christ. Everyday now I am putting the dream into motion, producing Urban Cusp’s content for my generation and beyond.

A Global Storefront

I could no longer wait for others (mentors, pastors, teachers, friends) to bring forth the vision that God had planted within me. I faced numerous challenges along the way – fiscal, technical, logistical – but newfound relationships kept nudging me further, teaching me the value of “social currency.” The village had begun to partake in my dream. I was at the point of no return.

No longer did anyone ask me how I was applying my theological training; they could see that Urban Cusp was God’s answer to my prayer for a global ministry. I did not make that connection until site stats showed that it had reached twenty-five countries in its first week (with 100-plus countries reached within two months). As one minister affirmed, “Urban Cusp is your church. You’re building your church and you will reach many, many people.” Though we’re still a storefront, we’re casting our net far and wide.

As I immerse in new media, I begin to worry that the church is not paying close attention to the rampaging cultural changes underway. To underestimate the power of social media as a tool of Generation X or Y would be to ignore the role it has already played in transforming our landscape. As a global community, we will now never know who we would have been without the rise of online communities. We think differently because of our infinite access to information. We act differently because our time is being spent and prioritized in new and sometimes alarming ways. And we definitely connect to one another differently, as friendship has been reduced to the click of a button.

It is going to become increasingly difficult for churches to maintain the attention of believers and to engage non-Christians in a world where emerging online communities seek to clone human intimacy and foster a sense of fulfillment through the allure of a digital Tower of Babel. By logging in to any of the countless online social networking platforms, we feel we are tapping into our innermost desires, creating a profile for the person we wish we were and uploading images of the life we wish we had. By giving millions access to the lives of others, social media constantly compel us to examine ourselves and restructure our public personas either to fit in or stand out (not always consciously). This represents a serious challenge to pastoral care and theology in relation to identity formation, conceptions of attachment, discernment, and development of value systems.

The Call of Hip-Hop

The new media revolution is particularly important to disenfranchised urban communities, as the Hip- Hop generation’s relationship to social media is a unique phenomenon itself. Though contemporary Hip-Hop is driven by corporations that offer the masses unlimited access to manufactured forms of black culture, it continues to imprint the identities of young people who only understand it as a musical, ideological, and lifestyle form. Many believe that Hip-Hop, unlike the church, understands who they are and directly ministers to their pain and anger. I think both are missing the mark. Grappling with the horrors of violence, poverty, addiction, mental illness, abandonment, and a host of other social ills, countless youth and young adults turn to the gods of money, sex, drugs, and power. How will the church compete with (and perhaps even overpower) corporate-driven cultural production in order to reclaim this generation for Christ?

It’s a large question. But the church must teach us again how to thank God for our own blessings and cease comparing ourselves to others. When online communities assume we no longer need to be in one another’s presence in order to enjoy good company, Sunday worship should continue to encourage us to reach out and touch our neighbor. Perhaps this is the greatest challenge and opportunity for the church – to preserve what’s most radical and sacred of all, love for self, God, and neighbor. This is particularly important as it relates to helping youth encounter intimacy with Christ regardless of whether or not it is popular among their peers.

God’s Word is more accessible today than any period in history. Many will read the Bible (hard copy) less, but they may come across Scripture throughout the day via Facebook statuses and tweets. This challenges our traditional conceptions of worship, but we must broaden our notions of holiness to make room for an emerging generation that may not find itself adequately represented in the images and ideas we have held for centuries. Ministers have a responsibility to learn the com- munication tools of young people while teaching them to be critical of cultural trends and maintain a reverence for sacred traditions.

Exponential Ministry

All faith-based institutions, including seminaries, must reconcile their theological commitments with the pace of technology and culture. As a first-year student at YDS, I took a memorable course en- titled “Intercultural Pastoral Care.” That was only five years ago, yet that arena of theology seems obsolete to me now that our cultural boundaries have been exponentially stretched via online communities. This is not to suggest that we are living in a “post-racial” era devoid of racism and cultural biases, but living in this information age imposes on us a greater responsibility to overcome our own ignorance, which is no longer as excusable as it was in times past.

As many writers, artists, and entrepreneurs have humbly learned in the last decade, the web is The Great Equalizer. This year, unlike any other in human history, has taught us that social media might help democracy succeed where it previously failed. Many now credit social media for being the catalyst and medium for their countries’ recent revolutions. Ironically, 2011 not only marked the death of poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron, who gave the world a timeless freedom-fighter anthem in The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, but it also marked the year that countless journalists asked if the revolution would be tweeted.

All this leads to the question: what kind of rebirth can Christianity undergo in the age of social media? How can a “theology of media” propel the church into the twenty-first century? Who will be the authors of that theology and what are the stories they are waiting to tell?

I am personally committed to exploring how Christianity can be translated for a generation in need of a faith that speaks to the full complexity of who they are. Though Urban Cusp does not claim to be a solution in itself, it is one piece of a larger puzzle, as well as the genesis of many things to come.

If movements and new media like ours can be a source of knowledge exchange that challenges assumptions and stereotypes, then we will have done a good work. If we can be a catalyst for dialogue to improve communities and offer portals of inspiration that revolutionize contemporary popular culture, then we will have served a useful purpose. And if an emerging online community like ours somehow manages to spill a new form of Christianity out into the streets and makes Christ a concrete reality for a generation that may not otherwise know him, then we will have undoubtedly succeeded in birthing a cultural revolution. In any case, that is our dream. Urban Cusp, meanwhile, remains live. 

Rahiel Tesfamariam ’09 M.Div. is a writer, social activist, cultural critic, and public theologian. At YDS, she was the first William Sloane Coffin Jr. Scholar. This year, she started, which is described as a “cutting-edge life. style magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change, and global awareness.” The site profiles inspirational visionaries and artists, offers opinion pieces from diverse perspectives, and serves as an online community for like-minded people.