More on How Facebook Killed the Church

In my recent post How Facebook Killed the Church I made the argument that the Millennial Generation is less interested in church attendance because the social affiliation aspects of church have been dramatically replaced with mobile social computing (e.g., texting, Tweeting, Facebook). Not needing the church for social affiliation or networking Millennials are positioned to pose some hard questions to the church: Beyond social affiliation, what is your purpose? And do you live up to that purpose? These questions are hard because if a church claims to create "Christ followers" the Millennials will want to see concrete evidence that the lifestyle and attitudes of these "Christ followers" are qualitatively different from those in the surrounding culture. And more often than not, the Millennials just don't see that difference.

This argument of mine gets some support from a recent article--Generation Next--in Time by Nancy Gibbs (H/T Mike Cope). Here are some quotes from the article. On the role of mobile social computing in this generation:

Today's kids aren't taking up arms against their parents; they're too busy texting them. The members of the millennial generation, ages 18 to 29, are so close to their parents that college students typically check in about 10 times a week, and they are all Facebook friends. Kids and parents dress alike, listen to the same music and fight less than previous generations, and millennials assert that older people's moral values are generally superior to their own.

Yet even more young people perceive a gap. According to a recently released Pew Research Center report, 79% of millennials say there is a major difference in the point of view of younger and older people today. Young Americans are now more educated, more diverse, more optimistic and less likely to have a job than previous generations. But it is in their use of technology that millennials see the greatest difference, starting perhaps with the fact that 83% of them sleep with their cell phones. Change now comes so strong and fast that it pulls apart even those who wish to hang together--and the future belongs to the strong of thumb.

But we miss the point, warns social historian Neil Howe, if we weigh only how technology shapes a generation and not the other way around. The millennials were raised in a cocoon, their anxious parents afraid to let them go out in the park to play. So should we be surprised that they learned to leverage technology to build community, tweeting and texting and friending while their elders were still dialing long-distance? They are the most likely of any generation to think technology unites people rather than isolates them, that it is primarily a means of connection, not competition.
Importantly for my argument, the Millennials aren't radically against church as such. As research suggests, in many ways the Millennials are fairly conservative in their values. As Gibbs notes: some respects the millennials emerge as radically conventional. Asked about their life goals, 52% say being a good parent is most important to them, followed by having a successful marriage; 59% think that the trend of more single women having children is bad for society. While more tolerant than older generations, they are still more likely to disapprove of than support the trend of unmarried couples living together.
Further, Millennials appear to be less cynical than Boomers and Gen X:
In any age, young folk tend to be more cheerful than old folk, but the hope gap has never been greater than it is now. Despite two wars and a nasty recession that has hit young people hardest, the Pew survey found that 41% of millennials are satisfied with how things are going, compared with 26% of older people. Less than a third of those with jobs earn enough to lead the kind of life they want--but 88% are confident that they will one day.
And yet, despite their optimism, conventional outlook, and robust interest in faith the Millennials are moving away from church:
[Millennials] are, for example, the least officially religious of any modern generation, and fully 1 in 4 has no religious affiliation at all. On the other hand, they are just as spiritual, just as likely to believe in miracles and hell and angels as earlier generations were. They pray about as much as their elders did when they were young--all of which suggests that they have not lost faith in God, only in the institutions that claim to speak for him.
How do you explain these trends? If Millennials are optimistic, conservative and religious why would they leave the church? It can't be due their liberalism, cynicism, or irreligiosity. So what is it? My argument hits on what Gibbs notes as the defining characteristic of this generation: mobile social computing. One of the key attractions of the church in past generations--social connection--has been effectively replaced.

Again, Facebook killed the church.

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10 thoughts on “More on How Facebook Killed the Church”

  1. Richard

    This whole business about social networking and community is fascinating to me and I wonder if it might not push on what we mean by church in the first place. Your posts certainly point, I think, to the inadequacy of church defined by voluntary association verses the church as an eschatological people living intentionally around a peculiar story. The first sees the church as a support group, the second as the necessary environment for the ecology of the Kingdom of God. I think, if the second is the case, then social networking might not kill the church but aid its appearing in new ways.

    I also think that the reason younger people are seeing no use for church is more complex than the lack of need for the social networking congregations once provided. While in some ways younger generations are more conservative, in other ways they are not. Their views on social justice, homosexuality, etc, are more liberal than most traditional churches. There is a principled reaction against religion as well. While I think their values are more traditional in some ways, we live in a post-beauracratic culture where hope is no longer expressed through institutions, as the study you cite also suggests. In other words, part of what they might be rejecting is that church served its parents primarily as a means of social networking.

    Social media is certainly a part of of this mix. It might be interesting to ask if social media has reduced connectivity of people who do value their congregational experience. My sense is that it hasn't. I'm wondering if the same kind of study you did with student retention might also be true of church. I'm wondering, in other words, if facebook participation makes persons more likely to stick with a congregation. I think it might. I know I feel more connected to the congregations I'm associated with because of facebook.

    I think the relationship might be amplification as much as it is creation/destruction. The web amplifies our commitments. One of the questions I have is does the proliferation of discourse on the web function more to open us to new commitments or move us to greater entrenchment around the values we already have. Researchers are torn about this. Some see twitter and other innovations as the technology necessary for Habermas' ideal communication to find fruition. I'm far less optimistic. We read some of the major lit on this in a seminar I took on gospel and cultures last spring. I'm unconvinced by the idealists.

    For what its worth...

  2. meh. The church killed the church. The new generation can see further than any generation before it thanks to the internet. Anybody can find out about the gospels of Nag Hammadi and anybody can read Solomon's Key. The people there aren't all that great anyway; they're outrageous hypocrites who spend their Sundays condemning a behavior they all practice the rest of the week.

    Church doesn't offer ANYTHING in a spiritual sense, it's just a two-hour-long lecture every week about what you oughta believe. If I didn't know better I'd say that the actual literal purpose of the church is to PREVENT people from having numinous experiences; to replace the longing in their heart for the numinous with a bunch of moralizing edicts written by people who'd sell their own children into slavery. And made rules for it!

    The purpose of a system is what it does. The ends don't justify the means because the means are somebody elses' ends.

  3. I think it's too easy to blame externals. The lack of interest in church (I have 3 children 15-21) is because the contemporary church has lost any sense of what it means to be the church. If the gathering offers no more than they get outside of the gathering, then why bother?

    It's a theological deficiency, combined with seeker sensitive nonsense, combined with the pastor's belief that his sermon should be the foundation of everyone's spiritual life. It's time to wake up.

  4. A part of the sloppiness in my argument is that I should have been putting scare quotes around the word church. As in:

    How Facebook Killed the "Church."

    Obviously, the "Facebook Church" (church as affiliation network or "club") is going to get hurt by social computing. The "Facebook Church" in light of social computing doesn't add any value to life, socially speaking. But the church as God's people in the world isn't affected by these trends and, per Mark's comment, might be aided by these social networking advances.

  5. > meh. The church killed the church.

    Heh, I thought the same thing.

    I disagree with Dammerung somewhat, but I think he's essentially correct. Looking at how things went down in continental Europe, it seems that it's actually exposure to diverse faiths and people that fuels the trend away from church. So the Europeans couldn't stay in church because the church was deeply invested in /not/ helping them accept and integrate other people's faith.

    In the states, ordinary people have been culturally isolated from the rest of the world and other faiths (probably because of geography), but now widespread use of the Internet is breaking that isolation. If that's correct, then restricting the trend to Facebook and social media is probably not quite accurate.

    At any rate, I think the church can still survive and thrive, even as a social phenomenon. But it has to stop power-protecting. If it wants to continue to help people find God, it has to be willing to risk its own doctrine and identity. Losing its life to find it, I guess.

  6. Reading this discussion (it being brought up a second time) made me realize something profound. Being 50, I have realized and enjoyed both spiritual growth AND social connection BECAUSE of the advent of the internet.

    A very profound property of the internet (especially when it first came about) is
    its pure lack of censorship, particularly free thinking in regards to history, arts, science, AND YES biblical doctrine among MANY other endeavors. I would never have learned about the possibility of Universal Reconciliation without the web.

    That is the biggest indictment of the "church" as I've known it (being deeply involved for 20+ years). Hearing the "Gospel" or bible study in "church" is no less biased, tilted, or
    pre-conceived than learning history, poli-sci, biology, etc in "school" (depending on what kind of school one attends, and where).
    Whether intentional or not, these physical
    institutions have enforced some degree of
    information censorship (or at least a highly
    edited information base). Isolated dogma
    can no longer remain unaccountable. Open
    discussion and exchange such a this typically
    doesn't occur in the institutional church.

    Technology has crushed such information barriers/limitations (propoganda if I wanted to be cynical). Therefore, the liberation of information and personal communication via technology has at least exposed the ....
    I'll just say the limited illumination (at least theologically speaking) offered by what we have known as "church".

    Socially speaking, my only connection with
    potential like-mindedness has been ....
    places like HERE. Of the many Christians I've known (wife, family, relatives, close friends, etc as well as many I've met in church), there
    is no way I could have the honest and healthy .... "fellowship" that I enjoy here.

    Experimental Theology is in my top 5 favorite sites and I visit it daily.

    Many of us here live hundreds of miles apart. We might have a variety of beliefs both "Christian" and non-Christian, yet I enjoy
    the free exchange here and am thus "edified".

    So as an old geek who's not a "millennial" and no longer attends church, I have become an extreme beneficiary of technology in this
    paradigm that could possibly be referred to as .... "church". I could see having lunch with many of you who post here and have a really great time if we did live near one another.

    OK - maybe Facebook is killing the "church".
    But there wasn't really a whole lot left over to kill.

    Gary Y.

  7. Definately, Anonymous. To expand on this point...

    We're told the Bible is the word of God, like, God all but held the pen. But, The Quran was supposed to be dictated by Gabriel to Mohammad. The Baghavadgita is supposed to be a dialog between Arjuana and Krishna.

    In church, the claims of the Bible come OUT of the broader human context. Times used to be, you needed a college education to have the kind of exposure to world religion and culture offered by the internet today. Old Christianity just can't compete and it won't endure, because the fanatical anti-pluralism of Evangelical culture is totally reliant on a near-total ignorance about other people and the world at large.

    I see, among smart and well-educated Christians, a kind of movement towards Christ-venerating Buddhism. Mahayana has always been a big tent faith, a REALLY big tent at that. There's no contradiction in venerating Christ in the context of Mahayana. Once you've decided that all gays AREN'T going to Hell and the afterlife isn't as simple as death/judgment/Heaven or Hell; what's left for "Christianity" to be unique?

    What, other than a belief "...only begotten Son ...salvation your Lord and Personal Savior" differentiates Christianity? If you don't go to Hell for not being a Christian, why be a Christian in particular? You're just Buddhists colored by American culture and religious history with a particular interest in Jesus of Nazareth.

  8. I'm sure there's not just one thing we can point to as the cause of decline in church attendance - reality is more complex than that. Church dysfunction ("not being the church") is commonly pointed to by reform minded Christians (and that's all well and good), but dysfunction has always existed in the church - even during times of growth. Social networking on the internet is highly suspect as a cause since this same decline in church attendance took place in Europe decades ago - long before such things were a reality. In fact, the secularization of Western Society began hundreds of years ago - you will find more substantial reasons for the decline of the church if you examine the ideas that were forming during that period. For example, one aspect of the worldview that emerged post-Enlightenment was individualism - which necessarily will march people further and further away from communal institutions. Add to this the emergence of modern science, history, etc., and you start seeing the big picture. The technology of the past couple of decades just intensifies the effect.

  9. Gary Y., you said it so well! The Experimental Theology community is a perfect example of substance of thought, and differing or contrasting viewpoints offered graciously. Meat for the mind, and substance for the soul. Iron sharpening iron. I love it! In my experiences, churches I knew did exactly the opposite: shut down/cut down any challenge or honest questions, and isolate to the "in" group. Hence, as a borderline BB/GenX ('65), I'd also have to classify myself as institutionally de-churched.

  10. If Beck is correct, this will have more influence on social congregations than on liturgical congregations (see related Beck article:

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