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For local mosques, synagogues and churches, adapting to the digital age is about building deeper understanding and tighter communities.

By Colin Daileda

For local mosques, synagogues and churches, adapting to the digital age is about building deeper understanding and tighter communities.

Miguel De Angel walked into a small auditorium at Good Shepard Catholic Church in Mount Vernon, where he is a youth group leader, carrying a lesson plan for what he hoped would be a congregation of at least a dozen teens who had come out for the first youth ministry session of the year. But only three other people walked in that night, and so De Angel stood in front of the high schoolers and sighed.

Well, the lesson plan I had doesn’t really work for a group this size,” De Angel said. “So, what do you guys wanna do?”

They looked at each other, then back at De Angel, and asked what he had planned on.

A whole YouTube display of how missionary work can impact people, he says, and more video clips to demonstrate what daily life is like for their counterparts in places like Africa.

Well let’s do that, then, the high schoolers said. So De Angel gathered them around a computer at the front of the room to watch a video on missionary work in Africa, and clicked play.

“I can pretty much guarantee that those students are going to be senior leaders in our program,” De Angel says now. “I mean, they already are. These are kids that have been impacted by the use of media. My ability to show them, just at our fingertips, has had an impact.”

Ever since the former Pope Benedict sent his first tweet in December of last year, the world has paid a bit more attention to the relationship between religion and media. The Vatican had been media savvy for years before the tweet, having set up a Facebook page and iPhone app for the beatification of Pope John Paul II, but individual churches, synagogues and mosques are moving at their own speed. Some have embraced the medium, saying they need to meet constituents “where they are,” especially young people.

“For some, it’s an outlet,” De Angel says. “It might connect them more to us.” For others it’s simply a tool to organize meetings. Better to send one invite to a group of people on Facebook, where they can see all the event’s details, than to call everyone individually.

And still others think it creates too much competition for the ever-shifting attention of the teens they’re trying to reach. They use social media as a way to “look for that confirmation that they’re cool or that they’re in,” says Patrick Jacobeen, a youth minister at St. Timothy Parish in Chantilly. “They don’t use it to learn.”

No matter how the average teenager uses social media, it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Whether Christians see it as a useful medium or not, the way each parish responds to its prevalence may shape the future of their constituency—for better or worse.

Breaking Barriers

Like nearly all components of life, every religion has run into the digital era and had to keep moving despite not knowing what to make of the media smorgasbord of YouTube videos, text messages, social media sites, blogs and whatever else is out there. And, also like all components of life, some parts of religions are adapting more quickly than others. It’s nearly impossible to quantify, but patrol the websites of Northern Virginia mosques, synagogues and churches and sometimes one will find nothing more than the address of the place that Google pulled up for you, sometimes there will be a website with little Facebook and Twitter icons toward the top of the page, and every once in a while a robust website pops up that advertises online sermons and sports a vertical list of always updating Tweets.

But how religious groups adapt to the digital world goes far beyond whether or not they’ve set up a Twitter account and Facebook page. Based on talks with religious leaders, youth groups and experts on the intersection of religion and modern media, that intersection is something of an intersection itself—between education technology and online communities. It’s about how best to use the media that is all around us to better communicate religious messages, and how to connect to more people online without losing the personal connection that religion is meant to be.

“I don’t know how that’s going to play out,” says Dr. David Bryfman, who is from Australia and is now the director for the New Center for Collaborative Leadership at the Jewish Education Project in New York. “But there’s no point in pretending it’s not happening.”

De Angel says religions seem to be adapting in fits and starts. “From parish to parish it’s gotta be different. There might be a priest who is very keen on using media and another who’s not.”

Bryfman agrees. He says sometimes it comes down to an innovative rabbi, who is as passionate about the brick and mortar congregation as the online one or a more conservative priest who isn’t yet ready to have his sermons recorded and played back past Sunday. “For me, it’s a mindset that makes the shift,” Bryfman says. “It’s almost a philosophical realization that needs to happen.”

The most public example of religion meeting the online world was when former Pope Benedict joined Twitter last December as @pontifex. He may only have sent out a few tweets of his own, and required assistance when he did, but the name “pontifex” means “bridge builder,” which perhaps shows that someone at the Vatican believes that an online relationship with the leader of the Catholic Church could mean a lot to Catholics across the globe. Turns out they were right—within an hour, the account had 250,000 followers.

“The number one thing that [religious leaders] need to understand is that the distinction they have in their minds between the real and the virtual is virtually nonexistent for people under the age of 30,” Bryfman says. “If they can’t overcome that barrier, then I don’t know how they’re going to adapt.”

Roll with the Flow

Adapting to anything digital has never been a problem for the children, teenagers and young adults who spend time in religious youth groups across NoVA. Their classrooms have always had the Internet, their phones have always been able to do much more than dial a number, and Facebook is an intrinsic part of how they relate to their friends and the community around them.

But not having to adapt, and therefore little realization of the way the world used to be, isn’t always the best thing.

“There’s pros and cons to everything,” says Joshua Salaam, a Muslim youth group leader at ADAMS Center in Sterling. “I think it’s harder for them to communicate in person, except with their very close, tight friends. Outside of that they want to email, they want to text, they want to Facebook.”

Salaam says that phones especially can be a distraction, but he’s “not sold” on telling kids to keep them out of youth group. At this stage of the digital era, he says, telling someone not to have a phone is cutting off too many lines of communication.

De Angel has also decided that pushing back defeats the purpose. He knew the people in his youth group were on Facebook a lot, so he made a Good Shepherd youth group page and set up in-person events through that.

But, he says, it’s not just about coordinating, but also keeping up a relationship throughout the week. Facebook gives him the chance to say things like “good job at the science fair,” when something like that might never be brought up in a weekly session.

“There are kids who are super, super shy and they wouldn’t hardly talk,” De Angel says. “But on Facebook they’re super open.”

And media is hardly in competition with religion.

“As much as you might have a student distracted by the latest video, or, you know, the latest viral video, there are others that are into faith and want to learn,” De Angel says. “In those cases I’ve been able to use media, and in particular social media, to really gather information and show them, “Check this out” by posting videos or lectures that can be easily found on the web.

But De Angel and others will say that texting, tweeting and messaging on Facebook still don’t foster the same connection that being in the same room with somebody does.

“The one thing for me as a director of a school, it’s not a replacement for being together,” says Scott Littky, the education and youth director of the Agudas Achim Jewish congregation in Alexandria. “I think it can be an enrichment for that, but it shouldn’t be a replacement for that. Nothing beats one-on-one or what happens spontaneously in the classroom.”

That enrichment, though, has gone far beyond the period in between classes. The Behrman House, a Jewish publishing company whose online learning center provides education content to 320 schools in North America including seven in Virginia, has created plenty of opportunity for media to enhance that classroom spontaneity. They allow Jewish schools to sign up for their content, and provide supplemental material such as text, videos and computer games that will help the instructor.

“Kids are reaching so much of their information online,” says David Behrman, president of Behrman House. “It becomes imperative to have that information in the classroom.”

Just like in a regular education classroom, there has been some resistance to games as learning tools, but Behrman says that studies have proven that interactivity boosts what kids comprehend.

“Because the games are linked to learning, it’s not just fluff,” Behrman says. “The kids are spending more time with it because they’re having fun.”

New Tricks

It’s not just select religious community youngsters and their educators who are innovating and evolving to meet the needs of modernity, though.

Take McLean Bible Church, for example. Those familiar with the church probably have an opinion about it. It can be construed as controversial because it fits into the “mega church” mold, with its massive parking structure and stadium-style seating, and the singing and television screens during mass give off a progressive feel that doesn’t always sit well with other Christians and perhaps even members of other faiths. But without a focus on the mega church aspect, the group’s physical and virtual community comes into view.

On a Sunday this past March, someone who got a bit lost while driving in search of Tysons Corner could pull into the parking lot of McLean Bible Church’s main “campus” and not realize they were in the wrong spot until they opened one of the church’s front doors.

Cars zoom in and around the massive lot, and the building itself is two sprawling stories that look big enough to fit store upon store. Inside, the buzz of dozens of conversations greets anyone who steps through the row of glass doors, and patrons can walk down a spacious hallway to lounge on some couches with a few friends, or stop halfway, buy a cup of coffee and a doughnut from the little shop inside the church, and set up a laptop at a nearby table. The rest of the ground floor is filled with “community” rooms where people are speaking or birthday parties are being set up. The second floor bustles with just as many people. Some flip pages in the bookstore, while families make their way to the cafeteria-style restaurant that serves everything from eggs and fruit cups to fries and tater tots. But the top level’s main attraction is the auditorium. People filter in after the posted 12:30 start time, but no one seems to mind. Everyone is smiling and casual, and it’s hard not to be with the five singers, mini-brass band and children’s choir making music that wafts up the tiers of seats toward the back. Huge TV screens show the song lyrics so no one has to rifle through a hymnal to figure out what song everyone is singing and then jump in at the right moment. And, when mass is over, couches, coffee and doughnuts are still there.

McLean Bible Church wants its parishioners to stick around and feel like they’re a part of something, and it’s the same message with their digital presence. Can’t make it out to McLean for the usual morning service? The pastor will be streamed live to campuses in Loudoun, Prince William and Bethesda, or right onto your computer screen. Miss mass altogether? That’s OK, go download the sermon on iTunes. On a train with spotty Internet some Sunday morning, but don’t want to miss mass? McLean’s website has its own app, and anyone can live-stream the sermon from there. Want to be more a part of the community during the week? Check out their online weekly bulletin, or their monthly newsletter, or their Facebook page or their Twitter account.

People at the McLean Bible Church politely refused interview requests to talk about the community they have built, but Bryfman commented on the social part of modern religious groups: “The ripple effect of Facebook means that we now have a very different definition of what it means to belong to a community,” Bryfman says. “At the base level, people all have the same needs. But the implementation, coming to your house or whatever, is very, very different.”

Same Destination

As De Angel strolled through Good Sheppard on a recent March evening, he pointed out different aspects of the church’s new wing, some of which was still under construction. A small hallway snaked through new classrooms, some that already hosted kids sitting on the floor, playing with one another while their parents took a class a few doors down. The new rooms finally have televisions that can be synced with YouTube, though the Internet still fades in and out.

Like many other things trying to figure out their place in the digital world, the place at which modern technology meets religion is still a gray area. But it will be figured out, for the most part, at places like Good Shepherd and by people like De Angel—places that were built to help answer some of life’s toughest questions but not necessarily answer them in a Facebook group, and people who have devoted themselves to helping others navigate life and faith, though not necessarily providing direction via YouTube.

It’s about doing the same things—building a big, tight knit community—with the new tools that are available.

Ari Paskoff, a youth leader at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, opened his toolbox and found Hunger Games, and he used clips from the hit novel-turned-movie to show how themes from something associated with pop culture can help them reflect on their religious beliefs.

“I think that’s one of the issues that a lot of rabbis face is how do they connect to his text and what was written thousands of years ago, and I think the best way is to show them how it relates to their lives,” Paskoff says. “I think media offers a great way to do that.”

And that’s the general consensus, that media, technology, whatever it’s called, offers a great way to deepen religious teachings and build bonds within a religious community, but doesn’t change anything about the goals religious groups have for their members, and certainly won’t be forced on anyone.

“There’s a place for it all,” De Angel says. “For the traditional, for the media, for the charismatic. There’s a place for it all.”

(July 2013)