Facebook Doesn’t Kill Churches, Churches Kill Churches

Can social media redeem the church?

The short answer is of course, “no.” Maybe the long one is, too.

Indeed, experimental psychologist Richard Beck recently set the religion blogosphere—forgive me—atwitter with a post entitled, “How Facebook Killed the Church.” Beck, a professor at Abilene Christian University, argues that, rather than replacing face-to-face relationships with so many digital doppelgangers, “Facebook tends to reflect our social world,” extending and enriching established friendships rather than, by and large, inviting the development of new ones that take us away from longstanding networks of friends, family, and coworkers.

Beck draws on unpublished research on college retention that showed that freshmen with active Facebook engagement were more likely to return for their sophomore year precisely because their Facebook activity was closely correlated to meaningful face-to-face relationality. This echoes other findings about the more narrow scope of active Facebook affiliations, despite the number of “friends” a person’s profile page might boast.

With regard to churches, Beck reads the data as suggesting that Facebook and other social media are replacing what he believes is the “main draw of the traditional church: social connection and affiliation.”

It’s an engaging argument. Beck is certainly right that church is no longer a central gathering place for the majority of believers and seekers. And, it seems, too, that Facebook has taken up much of the chat about “football,… good schools,… local politics,” and other matters that Beck sees as the “main draw” of routine ecclesial practice in days gone by. Yet the sneak peek Beck offers of his own research appears to undermine the argument.

Not Enough Social to Go Around

The relationships among the undergraduates in Beck’s research were not formed on Facebook, they were enriched by students’ continued digital contact. The problem with regard to churches and other religious communities (and we see this over and over again with Facebook group pages whose only visitors are the minister and the technophile parishioner who championed the church’s foray into the digital domain) seems to be that there’s not enough social to go around.

That is, if church were, indeed, a robustly social experience, Facebook would enrich and extend that experience, enhancing week-to-week retention through ongoing conversation with valued friends—just as it appears to do with undergraduates moving from the first to the second year of college. Thin connections in face-to-face settings are not magically transformed by technology.

Other data suggests deeper reasons for believers and seekers’ abandonment of the institutional church, much of it linked to an understanding of the “social” that has more to do with involvement in practices of compassion, justice, and stewardship than it does with mere interpersonal entertainment. An extensive body of data on growing participation in volunteer activities, especially among young people, and the connection of this activity to religious organizations and spiritual values that are not nurtured in other settings suggests that people are not leaving the church merely because they can more easily connect socially with friends on Facebook. Social media participation does correlate positively to charitable and civic group participation. But here again, where people already have meaningful interpersonal affiliations, social media supports those relationships.

Beyond a growing distaste for the rancor around hot-button issues like human sexuality, gender equity, and reproductive choice, people seem to be put off church because they are able to do the kind of work—tending the sick, advocating for the oppressed, caring for the earth, comforting those in trouble or need—that was long the stock in trade of local churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples; but which, through the modern corporatizing of mainstream religions, was largely outsourced to separate agencies.

This is why you’ll probably find more people volunteering in any given week at Martha’s Kitchen food pantry in downtown San Jose, California than at Sunday services at the church across the street. If Facebook is killing the church, that is, it’s probably more accurate to call it an assisted suicide.

Clicking the Church Catholic

Rather than “killing the church,” available data suggest that social media can be a part of revitalizing religious practice. Hence the loopy zeal with which Pope Benedict XVI and sundry Vatican agencies are taking to the digital mission fields. Earlier this year, the Pope offered a second helping of encouragement to the faithful on participation in social media spaces. This time around, Benedict moved beyond his ham-fisted 2010 call to clergy with a yet unseen “competence in current digital technology” to “invite Christians… to join the network of relationships which the digital era has made possible.”

Okay, that’s kind of like welcoming everyone to a party that started hours ago, but you’ve got to at least applaud the Vatican’s effort to be digitally magisterial. Along the same lines, Rome recently announced a new Facebook page that promotes the beatification of Pope John Paul II. Monsignor Paul Tighe tells USA Today that the page is a move in the direction of greater interactivity: “What we found is that Facebook doesn’t just share information, it creates community. People begin talking to each other and sharing ideas.” He’s right! Just probably not on the John Paul II Facebook page.

The page, which offers videos highlights from the life of John Paul II, has garnered an impressive amount of global traffic. Alas, the fact that more than 13,000 around the world “liked” the page in the first days it was up does not mean that it is enriching or extending relationships. It’s cool to see people offering shout-outs to the late pope in just about every language you can think of, and that certainly shows the global diversity of the Roman Catholic Church. But it doesn’t exactly enact the church catholic. Indeed, the page tends to illustrate the spoke-to-hub separateness of believers rather than any essential unity. They come to the page, after all, to venerate John Paul, not to act together on his teachings or any other shared beliefs. Nothing there encourages interactivity in the digital environment nor invites face-to-face engagement at a church or anywhere else. Thus, the John Paul II Facebook page might well be experienced by believers as standing in for local church participation. Again, this has nothing to do with technology. Nor does it reflect a displacement of the social from the local church to its digital presence. Rather, it expresses a flawed understanding of contemporary relationality and spirituality that extends from local to digital locales.

Bible in one Hand, Entertainment Weekly in the Other

Where does it work better? In these early days of the Digital Reformation, especially rich examples are thin on the ground. But one is the social media-infused ministry of Nadia Bolz-Weber, founding pastor of the Church of All Sinners and Saints, a Lutheran mission church in Denver. Bolz-Weber doesn’t quite have the megawatt celebrity of John Paul II, but she is well-known in the mainline Protestant emerging church movement. Her Facebook wall is routinely abuzz with conversation with and among members of the All Sinners and Saints community as well as digital “friends” from the wider Facebook domain.

Bolz-Weber’s general philosophy and practice of ministry is pretty much summed up in a tweet that appeared on her Facebook wall:

“you have to preach with the Bible in one hand and Entertainment Weekly in the other” —@rosaleeharden

The short post reveals more than Episcopal priest and social entrepreneur Rosa Lee Harden’s riff on a quote attributed to Karl Barth—“We must hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” It also shares a distributed, de-centered practice of ministry that values the contributions of others. It expresses a practice of social and spiritual interactivity that is woefully absent from most of the Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and other online locales established by religious institutions, including the way-more-numerically-popular John Paul II Facebook page. And, it notices that believers draw on their faith to negotiate a wide, and often weird, range of contemporary spiritual and ethical issues.

Bolz-Weber’s social media ministry reveals the secret that most churches have not yet faced: institutions don’t know how to be social. People do, which is why the bump in retention Beck and his colleagues tracked among undergraduates related to their own Facebook pages and those of their friends rather than to their university’s page—abundant “Go Wildcats!” cheers notwithstanding. Unlike John Paul II, Bolz-Weber is not an institution. She’s a person. She has conversations with other people. They sling funny little theological witticisms hither and yon. And, as a quick glance at her website or Facebook page illustrates, she offers a ministry that facilitates the kinds of social engagement that are a significant part of contemporary spiritual practice, especially among younger adults. The people she encounters in local settings seem more than happy to continue the conversation on her Facebook page, often inviting their friends (which is how I came to be there myself).

Twitter or Jazzercise?

On April 22, Good Friday, the Vatican will at least come to the digital window when Pope Benedict will respond to three questions about Jesus (the subject of the pontiff’s new book) submitted online by the faithful. The conversation won’t be live or interactive. The pope’s responses will be broadcast on Italian state television, wending their way from there to YouTube and, we may presume, individual and institutional Facebook pages.

It’s a start. But until churches and other religious groups, their leaders, and members feel comfortable interacting with one another around real questions of meaning and value—questions having little to do with doctrine and much to do with practices of compassion and justice—their social media participation will do no more to revitalize declining religious institutions than holding weekly Jazzercise classes in the parish hall.

Mobile computing and associated social media have not replaced the main draw of the traditional church: spiritual connection in social context. But they have made it more difficult to mask the modern, broadcast-era practice of social and spiritual disconnectedness that plays out as much in generic coffee hour chitchat about football scores and the latest lame Seth Rogan chucklefest as it does in Facebook pages that enable participants (really, the old Facebook “fan” terminology is more accurate) to see a church’s message and comment on it, but which don’t invite genuine, person-to-person or people-to-world interactivity.

No, Facebook hasn’t killed the church. Churches are doing just fine on that front on their own. 

Elizabeth Drescher [@edrescherphd] is the author, with Keith Anderson, of Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012). She teaches religion and pastoral ministries at Santa Clara University. She is currently at work on Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of Religious Nones, a project funded in part through a grant from the Social Science Research Council’s “New Directions in the Study of Prayer” project through the Templeton Foundation. Her website is www.elizabethdrescher.com