What Did Facebook Really Kill?

Last week I linked to an article by Richard Beck (written in February 2010) titled How Facebook Killed the Church. If you haven’t read this post, take a few minutes to read through – it isn’t long.

In the post, Beck discusses the decline of church attendance among Millennials (or Generation Y). He notes that the most common reasons given by young people focus on problems with the church itself. Citing the Barna Group’s book unChristian Beck says:

Young Christians and non-Christians tend to feel that the church is “unChristian.” Too antihomosexual. Too hypocritical. Too political. Too judgmental. That’s how young people see “the church.” And it’s hard to blame them.

However, as he goes on to say, this isn’t a new critique. Previous generations of young people have tended to feel the same way. Why didn’t they leave?

They didn’t have Facebook (and the vast technology universe it represents).

The church’s place as the social hub for friendships is diminished by the hyper-connectivity our current mobile culture. Of course, this was taken by many to mean that Beck saw socializing as the primary purpose for the church. That of course INFURIATED some folks – and, in good internet (non)etiquette fashion, they let him know in the comments.

But the point wasn’t that this is what church should be focused on, or even that Facebook has actually killed church (which, by the way, isn’t dead). The point is that for many people across the ages, whether we like to admit it or not, social networking has played a very prominent role in our regular church attendance (particularly as young adults).

Perhaps a more accurate (though less eye-catching) title would be How Facebook Killed Our Illusions About Why We Gather.

It may make you mad, but I’ve been around churches for over 30 years and I’ve been working with them since 1998 – I haven’t seen much that would challenge the social-network theory of Beck’s post. That isn’t necessarily an indictment – much of our approach to church planting is a recovery of deeper communal experiences in discipleship…an inherently relational concept. I will say though that too often we opt for social-networking (getting together with friends to hang out) over more significant relational connection (communitas: relationships formed through shared mission or struggle).

I began noticing the diminishing impact of the “hang-out spot” when I was in youth ministry in Dallas. It has always been an unchallenged rule with teenagers that, “if you feed them, they will come.” Well, we had a pretty awesome youth room at our church in Dallas. We had plenty to do, a decent sound system, a kitchen, enormous projection screen for dvd’s…and lots of pizza. But when I would pull these things together for an evening to simply hang out (which I did regularly in the summer) it just wasn’t nearly as effective as it had been when I was a teenager or when I worked for churches in smaller (less affluent) communities.

As I talked to the teens about it I began to realize something – they have better options elsewhere. I’d been raised on the assumption that youth ministries served a needed purpose of (among other things) getting kids off the street with a more healthy option. But these kids weren’t (usually) skipping to do drugs, have sex and torture puppie-dogs. They just had big screen HD tv’s, a larger movie selection and better food at home or at a friend’s house. Most of them had cars (or friends with cars) and could go to wherever their group of friends happened to be that night. It was simply no longer the case that they looked to the church as the best place to hang out. They were still involved, they were still good kids – for the most part πŸ˜‰ – they just didn’t jump at the chance to hang out in the youth room.

Part of what this post highlights (and which fits with my own experiences in ministry and church planting) is that the younger generation isn’t merely leaving the church because they’re able to get their relationships elsewhere. The problem is that while a significant life of meaning in Jesus is proclaimed clearly in the Gospels and repeated regularly “in church,” it is too rare for such life to exist beyond the world of language. In the past, people stuck it out because while they may have frustrations, the church was still an important part of their relational network (if not the hub). Today, Facebook (representative of mobile/technological connectivity in general) has rendered that aspect of church life less important…so many opt out.

For sure “Facebook” doesn’t get at the whole issue – there are any number of reasons why young people are increasingly less involved in a church community.

But this pulls back the curtain a little. I talk to people all the time who assume that young people aren’t going to church because they have no (or less) morals. Neither my experience nor statistical data supports that claim (read Beck’s follow up post – Generation Next.) I meet people all the time who have left the church but have very conventional, even Biblical, belief sets. To be sure, this doesn’t describe everyone I meet…but should I begin citing the number of “church folks” who don’t have very consistent Biblical beliefs and actions?

What did Facebook kill? It hasn’t really killed the church, though it may well have contributed to the church’s health (I’ll let you decide if that’s for the better or worse). It may someday help kill some of our illusions…but in reality, our illusions are not easy to kill.

So, what did it kill? Probably nothing, but it makes for an interesting conversation.


Posted on September 5, 2011, in facebook, missional community and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. So, this is completely morbid, but I bet Facebook has killed a life or two with people updating their statuses while driving…

    And, coming from the youth minister’s wife perspective, you are dead on. We have lots of great kids who don’t come to events just because they have better options… or sometimes choose a church even over home because of the screen size or resolution. Seriously. Dead on, Bret. Dead on.

  2. Thanks Lyd.

    I think the temptation that youth ministries often succumb to is the same (though it may look a little different) that the church as a whole faces. Whether it’s the increase in social networking technology, shifting trends in entertainment or, as Alan Hirsch describes it, the very effective discipleship of advertising and “secular” culture, our temptation is to battle these influences on their own terms. “You like Xbox? We have 3 in the youth room.” “you like Xgames? Our youth ministry has it’s own skate park!” “You like cocktail parties? Live music? Coffee shops? Book clubs? Our church has all that, you never have to look anywhere else.”

    The problem isn’t that we’re embracing these activities rather than shunning them – it’s that we’re conceding that they’re all there is to life…and pulling ourselves out of the very places where God has placed us to be reflections of a life less ordinary.

    I think one of the unspoken points in Beck’s post – and certainly a point I’ve tried to make before – is that we should embrace rather than hide from the value of these things, we just need to do so where they already happen… As we do this, we must be intentional to invite others (including ourselves) to a life of risk, adventure and meaning in Christ – right in the midst of the good the bad and the ugly of this world.

    Youth ministries that fail to do this will continue to hemorrhage young adults – and the same goes for congregations. That’s my prediction anyway, for whatever it’s worth.

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