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Social Media and the Pentecostal Church

Despite their differences, the Osteen’s, Bethel, and T.D. Jakes, are all similar in their embrace of social media as a means of enlarging their ministerial influence. While this utilization of social media has had many positive impacts such as the Osteen’s being able to partner with people in prayer, Bethel’s theological dialogue, or T.D. Jake’s efforts to minimize phishing schemes, social media has also had negative effects on ministries and the development of Pentecostal culture.

One of the negative effects is the ease that critics of major organizations can gain an audience. Disgruntled members can also quickly find each other through social media and quickly form a sizeable block of people. For example, the Osteen’s are largely critiqued for being outside of orthodox Christianity, especially with their perceived emphasis on material wealth.[54] Bethel has been harshly critiqued for being cult-like. Bloggers have also mocking similarities between Bethel’s School of Supernatural Ministry and Hogwarts School of Wizards.[55] Meanwhile, Wikipedia’s page for the Potter’s House prominently displays concerns that the Potter’s House is a cult.[56] While Wikipedia is not academic, it is a prominent source of information on the internet. Furthermore, it represents an information outlet over which the Potter’s House has limited influence.

Image: Gilles Lambert

Academics have also critiqued the use of social media among Pentecostal churches. Anthea Butler has brought the concern that the proliferation of media has allowed the Pentecostal church to state one truth doctrinally, but communicate another truth through its media outlets.[57] Anthea Butler also raises concerns about the power of social media. She specifically notes that the Prosperity Gospel is given “skin”[58] with the use of video. The potential follower of the prosperity Gospel no longer merely hears that if they trust God they will be blessed with wealth. Rather now, they also see the visible effects of trusting God through interacting with the prosperity preachers via social media and noting the wealth on display during messages. The ability to experience the wealth of the prosperity preacher lends itself to bolstering the message of God’s desire to financially bless the hearer.

Darnell Moore is concerned with the effect social media can have on perceptions of race and gender. Moore, referencing other notable scholars, notes, “Individuals may also encounter virtual spaces that are overdetermined by dominant theologies that further the maintenance of normative ideologies such as those associated with race, class, or gender.”[59] Moore also notes that, on social media platforms, users are frequently exposed to short snippets of longer sermons. Because of this, preachers can be easily misrepresented and their main message skewed. To substantiate this claim Moore brings up an example of a short sermon clip by T.D. Jake’s. In it, T.D. Jakes seems to propose a traditional understanding of gender. The problem, however, is that the clip is so short that T.D. Jake’s comments could easily be a misrepresentation of his position on gender roles.

Another concern associated with social media is the way in which belonging to a community has been redefined. Facebook offers users the ability to connect with communities across the world. Because of this, it is now possible for individuals to participate in communities that would not normally be available to them. For example, an individual can attend a local denominational church such as Foursquare or Assembly of God church. If the given individual is actively involved in the church, their friends list on Facebook will most likely reflect this involvement. However, that individual can also form an online community with people who associate with Bethel. Thus, the individual can be associate with two church communities, one local, the other thousands of miles away.

The irony of the online Christian: In an age of information, they are more able than ever to lock out contrary opinions and voices they do not already agree with.

This can have the effect of decentralizing power away from the local pastor. The local pastor’s message can now easily be compared to an internationally recognized pastor such as Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes, or Bill Johnson. This can also become an existential issue as the individual who is now in two different faith communities has to grapple with how to define themselves. Are they an adherent of the non-denomination Bethel church, or are they a member of the local Foursquare church?

The ability to actively choose one’s community also contains the risk of users creating an echo chamber where the only theological thought they are exposed to is doctrine they already agree with. All three of the major churches examined are active on multiple mediums with multiple accounts. This allows adherents to inundate themselves with a single theological framework, locking contrary opinions and voices out of their social media feeds.

The advent of social media has greatly shifted the balance of influence within Christian culture at large.

The advent of social media has greatly shifted the balance of influence within Christian culture at large. Pentecostalism possesses a relatively smaller influence in both literature and academia in comparison to other streams of Christian thought. Additionally, whereas it has often been a struggle to communicate charismatic experience through print, social media lends itself to communicating these experiences. Instead of merely reading about a Charismatic event, one can experience it first hand through social media. As Butler notes, this gives the Pentecostal experience “skin.”

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Category: Fall 2017, In Depth, Pneuma Review

About the Author: Kyle Smith has an M.A. in Christian History & Theology from George Fox University and is a currently working on a Ph.D. in the Religious department of Rice University. His master’s thesis focused on the relationship between Pentecostal epistemology and institutional stability. He has presented on social media, ecclesiology, epistemology, and religious economics.

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