A recent article by Diane Winston published at Big Questions Online discusses both some of the benefits and some of the potential obstacles social media and the Internet in general can provide to people of faith.
In her essay "Does Digital Communication Encourage or Inhibit Spiritual Progress?", Winston begins her discussion of these issues by talking about a Benedictine nun named Sister Catherine Wybourne who is the prioress for a group of nuns who use Twitter, a blog and other online resources to reach people all over the world.
According to Winston, "... Wybourne appreciates the Internet as a means to promote religious education in the widest way possible. Podcasts, blogging, [and] videostreaming provide unprecedented opportunities for laypeople to study and learn. But that very accessibility enables what Wybourne calls a 'lowest-common-denominator eclecticism,' or what sociologists dub a 'cafeteria-style' approach to religion.
"The ability to pick and choose religious teachings without reference to religious authority or community norms can pique consumerist tendencies at odds with the more particular objectives of the tradition itself. Thus, to answer the question as to whether digital communication encourages or inhibits spiritual progress, Wybourne’s both/and experience is a salutary starting point."
As Winston points out, in some ways the Internet has made seeking out spiritual truth incredibly easy. Someone with questions about Christianity, Islam or Judaism can go to sites such as Beliefnet, Islam 101 or the Jewish Virtual Library and at least get pointed in the right direction.
A seeker doesn't really need to attend a church, or a mosque or a synagogue any more, considering how easy it is to find sermons online, or find Bible studies, language lessons and other resources floating out there on the world wide web along with all the funny cat pictures. This is good for people who would not have access to them otherwise, but it can also be bad for people who use it as a substitute for interacting with like-minded believers.
According to Winston, "[Digital communication's] democratic nature can reinforce individualization to the detriment of community. Its openness challenges religious authority and devalues spiritual apprenticeship, the ongoing, long-term commitment to mastering esoteric knowledge. Its accessibility yields to the demands of a competitive marketplace; commercialization creeps in, if not from providers than from users."
In other words, it is easy for people to use online resources as a justification for doing the exact opposite of the Biblical model presented in Hebrews 10:23-25.
In the New International Version, that passage reads: "Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching."
The Bible encourages mentoring and meeting in small groups with other believers. Many churches provide opportunities for their members to put these ideas into practice through home fellowships and other church-related activities.
Being under some form of religious authority is important for many reasons. Not only does it provide people with a community to be part of, but it allows them to get the instruction they need to make certain they correctly interpret the Bible or other religious works.
People who do not have friends or spiritual mentors who share their interest in religious issues could end up following paths that may not be the best for them. These mavericks flying solo might reject orthodox theology before they take the time to fully understand it, or possibly even come up with some strange ideas that could affect a proper understanding of their religion's sacred texts.
There is also the danger of falling into the consumer mindset of "What's in this for me?" This is already a huge problem in the Christian world, with people frequently leaving churches in order to seek out one with a better worship band, or more programs that they like.
In order to appeal to potential new members, churches often act like competing retail stores and focus on services they provide, such as child care or espresso bars, more than things such as doctrine or the head pastor's approach to teaching.
Considering how many options are available online, it would be easy for somebody to stop going to church because they can stay home and hear sermons they like more on YouTube. The convenience of being able to study the Bible whenever they have some free time might make their old Sunday rituals seem kind of silly--especially during football season, or when other things come up that create scheduling conflicts.
Forming strong relationships with other believers is hard and often challenging. By comparison, using the Internet is usually extremely easy.
In our modern, tech-savvy age, it would be easy for people not to bother with the hard stuff if they feel like they can get what they need without it. For people who want to live by the examples shown in the Bible, the Internet should be another useful tool and not a substitute for learning and spending time with other people who can help them in their spiritual journeys.