There has been some buzz around the interwebs over the last few days about a post from a professor at Abilene Christian University which purports to explore "How Facebook Killed the Church." In his post, Richard Beck, a professor and experimental psychologist at ACU, writes that the reason Millennials are "leaving the church in droves" is that the social networking function of the church has been replaced by Facebook and other social media. "Church has always been about social affiliation," he writes. "You met your friends, discussed your week, talked football, shared information about good schools, talked local politics, got the scoop, and made social plans ('Let's get together for dinner this week!'). Even if you hated church you could feel lonely without it.
Comparing Gen Y and Millennials, Beck writes, "But Millennials are in a different social situation. They don't need physical locations for social affiliation. They can make dinner plans via text, cell phone call or Facebook. In short, the thing that kept young people going to church, despite their irritations, has been effectively replaced. You don't need to go to church to stay connected or in touch. You have an iPhone."
There's a lot going on in this analysis. For the sake of argument lets assume that Beck is right about the trends and differences between Gen Y and Millennials. And let's even assume that he's right about Facebook and social media doing social networking better than the church has. What then is the root cause of this phenomenon?
I would point to faulty ecclesiology. An ecclesiology that views the church as essentially "about social affiliation" is doomed for precisely the reasons Beck outlines. There is a definite social aspect to what the church is and does. But that doesn't exhaust what we know about the church and the Christian faith, and to reduce it to these social functions seriously distorts our view of Christianity.
Jonathan Malesic, assistant professor of theology at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, PA, recently wrote in the Journal of Markets & Morality (PDF) that the danger of "appealing to Christianity's positive social function is that it substitutes a theological defense of Christianity for a sociological one. It admits that it is right to judge Christianity on its social function and then leaves it up to sociologists to amass empirical evidence for and against Christianity's positive social effects." And when parshioners calculate that their social affiliation needs can be more efficiently served by logging on to Facebook rather than rolling out of bed on Sunday morning, churches be at the losing end of that empirical struggle.
It’s true as Hunter Baker responds in the context of that controversy that Christianity (and the functions of a church) cannot be reduced to social effects. So what's lacking in an ecclesiology that sells itself as a social network? There’s no sense of the marks of the true church, what you get at church that you can’t get anywhere else: proclamation of the Gospel in the preaching of the Word and the right administration of the sacraments. These are things, most especially the sacraments, that you just can’t get from Facebook.
Rob Vischer has responded to Beck's post, and writes,
"To the extent that this argument has merit, I'm guessing it holds more truth for Protestants than for Catholics. In general, my experience of Protestant churches is that the churchgoing experience is more social, especially for young people, than the experience at most Catholic churches, where the experience is more centered on the individual, and where folks tend to flee as soon as Mass is finished (or sooner, in many cases). In any event, it's an intriguing thesis."
As a Reformed Christian, while I may disagree with my Roman Catholic brethren that transubstantiation is the only authentic way to understand sacramental presence, in this sense I fully agree with viewing the “liturgy” as a “center” of the Christian life. If you don't see the sacraments as means of grace (in one form or another), it seems hard to avoid the kind of social networking definition of the church. On that score Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and magisterial Protestant traditions might well have a better leg to stand on than essentially Anabaptistic sacramental and ecclesiological views.
Quite frankly, with the kind of unsacramental emphasis you get in so much evangelicalism it is not surprising that the church becomes a social club, and on that score Facebook does do it much better. But movies entertain better too, and pop music is way better than CCM. So on all of these points the church has to be something more and not just “culture-lite” with a veneer of spirituality.
If church really is about something deeper, and some deeper form of spiritual community, then something like Facebook need not compete, but indeed can augment and amplify those social relationship that are founded on something greater and not merely ends in themselves.
Beck has written a follow-up post in which he explicates the argument in a bit more detail, "Facebook and the Church Redux." As he writes about the reference to the church, "I wasn't referring to the communion of the saints. I was referring to what we might call 'the Facebook church,' the church-as-affiliation-network. Such a church does indeed exist, for better or worse. And I do think the demise of that church is a good thing. I think it will help move Christianity toward a more missional future."