Pope Francis became an Instagram sensation earlier this year, gaining 1 million followers on the social media service within 12 hours of signing up.
People around the world have liked, shared and commented on his posts, expanding the reach of a religion that's already practiced by more than 1 billion people.
The pope's popularity online embodies the promise of social media for religious communities. Faith groups can use sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to share their work with the world.
However, social media's influence on religion isn't all positive, according to new research on technology and faith, published May 10 by Sociological Perspectives (paywall). Young adults who use social media sites are between 35 and 49 percent more likely than non-users to believe it's acceptable to pick and choose religious beliefs, likely because they are exposed to statuses, tweets and pictures that promote the most interesting aspects of other faiths.
More research needs to be done to understand how social media sites and religion interact, but that doesn't mean faith communities should hold off on joining Instagram and other platforms, social media experts said.
"To be relevant, churches have to constantly think about the people they want to reach and then, as (the theologian) John Wesley said, go to people where they are," said Douglas Cannon, a public relations professor who worked in communications for the United Methodist Church for 25 years.
Sites like Facebook allow users to connect with the people, brands, celebrities and shows that excite them, said Paul McClure, a doctoral candidate at Baylor University who authored the new study. They have access to a wide variety of information, including about religion, and there's no pressure to draw limits.
"Social media inclines people to pick and choose among a number of different things," McClure said. "Our likes and preferences are not guaranteed to be logically consistent and there's no expectation that they are."
For this reason, young adults who use social media are more open than their peers to "cafeteria-style" religious practice, in which spiritual seekers cobble together their own faith from their favorite pieces of global religions.
"They're also between 53 and 80 percent more likely (than young adults who don't use social media) to think it's acceptable for members of their own religion to practice other religions," McClure said.
His study used data from the National Study on Youth and Religion, analyzing three waves of interviews with more than 2,000 people at different stages of young adulthood.
Social media sites could weaken young people's ties to their family's faith, as McClure's research illustrated. But they also enable religious communities to reach out to teenagers and young adults in meaningful new ways, Cannon said.
Some religious groups already recognize these possibilities. For example, Archbishop José Gómez of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles hired a team of 20-somethings to boost the archdiocese's social media presence more than two years ago.
"Currently, they manage 15 Facebook pages and more than a dozen Twitter and Instagram feeds," America Magazine reports. When they helped spread the word about a Day of the Dead celebration, around 2,000 community members appeared at the event.
This team is achieving at a local level what Pope Francis and his staff do on a global scale. Even before his Instagram success, the Catholic leader reached millions of people with his Twitter account.
"I was seeing his tweets show up in my feed from friends who were retweeting, commenting and embedding them," said Michael O'Loughlin, author of "The Tweetable Pope." "He was weighing in on current events like war, the refugee crisis and climate change."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has also adopted effective social media strategies. Church members share pictures and stories online with hashtags like #ShareGoodness, and some active missionaries are allowed to post on Facebook about their experiences.
Other faith communities continue to struggle to make sense of social media, in spite of these success stories, Cannon said. Mastering sites like Facebook takes energy and patience, and some groups aren't willing to invest it.
"Social networks require strategy and understanding," he said. "The essence of social networks like Facebook and Twitter is interaction and dialogue. That takes a lot of time."
Religious leaders have to figure out where to get started and how to build a following. It's easy to get burned out, especially when members in the congregation aren't invested in the project, Cannon said.
"The average age in most United Methodist congregations is over 50," he noted.
Older generations are less likely to use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram than their younger counterparts, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. Nearly 9 in 10 Internet users who are 18 to 29 years old (87 percent) use Facebook, compared to 73 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds and 63 percent of Internet users who are age 50 to 64.
Faith communities might also be missing out on the benefits of social media because they don't know how to translate their work into a Facebook status or 140-character tweet, O'Loughlin said.
"It can't be too slick and can't be seen as a marketing tactic," he said.
Faced with these varied challenges, many religious groups end up not doing enough online to attract young people and other new members, Cannon said.
"The congregations I'm involved with have Facebook pages and post something once a week, but it's not targeted or interactive" he said. "They're not creating communities and dialogue and engagement."
Embracing social media
Faith communities often struggle to promote their good works on social media for the right reasons, Cannon said. They might be too busy serving others to post a Facebook status or tweet a picture.
These congregations remind him of a church he once consulted with that delivered Thanksgiving dinners to low-income families. Leaders wanted to have a larger presence in their town, and yet the congregation hadn't thought to label these baskets of food with information about the service project, a Bible verse or even the name of the church.
"I said to the leaders, 'Why are you doing that?' If that's your motivation, say something," Cannon said.
He offers the same advice to religious leaders struggling to engage creatively with social media. They should embrace the opportunity to explain their church's mission in photo captions, event descriptions and anywhere else on social media sites, he noted.
"The foundation of the witness of a congregation is what it does in the name of Christ," Cannon said.
Similarly, O'Loughlin said social media posts could be an extension of the mission of the church. Pope Francis' tweets are popular because they reinforce the messages he's sharing in public addresses, rather than simply promoting his personality.
"Pope Francis is pointing to the gospel, Jesus and church teaching," he said.
A lively social media presence is less crucial in a life of faith than serving those in need, preaching the gospel and drawing close to God, but it is a valuable communication tool that faith communities should take seriously, O'Loughlin added.
"So much of our life is spent in front of a screen. Religion can't operate outside of that realm, so faith leaders don't have a choice," he said.
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