Wednesday, March 02, 2011

THE SOCIAL NETWORK GOSPEL

"Basically, Facebook killed the church. May it Rest in Peace."

Over the last couple of decades the dominance of Christianity as the American religion has experienced a steady decline. Self identification as Christian was stable at around 85-90% of the population, and at 1990 it was at 87% of those surveyed. By 2008, that number had dropped to 76% and is believed to still be dropping. Church attendance is also dropping. The Northwest, where I live, is the region the lowest church attendance in America, but the whole nation is seeing fewer and fewer people going to church. The average attendance of a given church in America has steadily dwindled since 1990, according to the Barna research group:

Year Attendance
1992 102
1997 100
1998 95
1999 90
2000 90
2003 89

There has been a lot of discussion over the years of why that might be and who is to blame, but the most recent is to point a finger at social media, particularly Facebook. Richard Beck is an experimental psychologist at Abilene Christian University and he wrote recently:
Generation X didn't have cell phones. Nor did they have Facebook or text messaging. And you can't tell me that Millennials see the church any differently than Generation X saw it. Look to the right at cell phone subscriptions plotted by decade. Most have Generation X as birth dates between 1961 to 1981. Which has Gen X as college students in the years 1979 to 1999. As you can see, most Gen X'ers didn't have cellphones. And based on the sociological evidence Gen X was much more cynical and anti-establishment when compared to the Millennials. So you can't tell me Gen X'ers didn't see the church as judgmental, hypocritical, or sold-out. They did.

So what happened? Why didn't Gen X leave the church while the Millennials are leaving in droves?

The difference between Generations X and Y isn't in their views of the church. It's about those cellphones. It's about relationships and connectivity. Most Gen X'ers didn't have cell phones, text messaging or Facebook. These things were creeping in during their college years but the explosive onset of mobile devices and social computing had yet to truly take off.
I think there's something to this analysis; younger people tend to connect more online at their own command and leisure rather than in person, and this develops patterns of isolation and interaction which do not lend themselves well to corporate worship. Why spend an hour or two in a church with people when you can hang out and chat or text or talk with a web cam when you choose in the comfort of your own home?

However, there is some error in his analysis as well. First, he presumes that Generation X didn't leave the church, when they actually did. This drop in church attendance goes back further than the last twenty years. Generation X and the Boomers before them were a bit more loyal at church attendance than newer generations, but they did slack off more and more as years went on. He also, without any factual basis, flat out states that the church has not changed in the last fifty years, which is utterly absurd.

Churches have gone from largely staid, well-organized affairs with old songs from the 16th to 19th century and people sitting quietly and reverently to sometimes chaotic, wild and raucous affairs, with people playing electric guitars, driving motorcycles down the aisle to preach, and projected songs written primarily in the 1970s on a screen. The mood, patterns, and style have all undergone immense change in the last fifty years, particularly in the last twenty when the megachurch became ascendant. To pretend nothing has changed is to be either utterly ignorant of reality or blithely ignore facts because they interfere with your pet theory.

That isn't to say that there were no holy roller charismatic churches in the 1950s, but they were a rarity and considered odd in the general church going population; similarly there are some very traditional and quiet, reverential churches out there still now, but again, they are a rarity and often considered odd today.

While I agree that social networking and the internet is changing what people consider interaction and socialization, I question how seriously that's affecting church attendance. For some church has always been about socialization and interacting with friends. It used to be the only place you'd get to see some people, once or twice a week, because of travel limitations, but by the 1970s people were so mobile and interconnected that was less of a factor in many churches. I don't know if my church is unusual in this, but in over 30 years of attendance I can only remember 3 marriages between two people attending the church at the same time; the rest of these relationships came from college, other churches, work, and so on.

The church has suffered a lot of well-meaning attempts to keep it relevant over the years, from Charles Finney's belief that excitement and emotionalism was what was needed in the late 1800s to the charismatic movement which extolled personal gifts and emotion to the hippie churches of the 1970s which were meant to be more loose, relaxed, and more like what they believed the New Testament church to be like. Then there was the seeker sensitive-megachurch movement, which used marketing and demographics to find what people wanted out of a church and change it to be more like that and abandon what they didn't like. The latest trend is the "emergent" church movement, which tries to blend multiculturalism and relativism with Christianity in an "anything goes" approach which is reminiscent of the Unitarian church which was so popular in the 18th and early 19th century.

All through this, church attendance and self-identification as Christians underwent a slow, steady decline with momentary spikes and surges. The new techniques and different styles and alternate approaches stirred interest then became old or failed to hold people. Recently megachurches did a long study of their congregations and found out something they didn't care for: while some churches in this system (Willow Creek, Lakewood, etc) became gigantic, the overall total number of people attending church in America was declining. Further, they found that these churches kept large numbers not by retaining people but by an ever shifting group which would attend one a while, move to another, and so on, so only a very small core would be loyal to and stay at one church. The Emergent church movement is less organized, less focused on numbers, and less interested in studies and marketing, so they have no such data, but as the overall church attendance in America declines, its clear that system isn't growing Christianity either.

The answer, I think is to look around the world, rather than focus on the United States. While American and European churches decline, African and Asian churches are exploding in growth and influence. While it is difficult to actually identify and know, some show numbers claiming that Christianity is the fastest-growing religion on earth. In China, for example, there were an estimated 1.5 million Christians in 1970 and 90 million today. In 1960 there were only 25 Christians known in Nepal, as compared to nearly a million in 2010. In South Korea, Christians now are the largest religious group in the nation, outnumbering Buddhism. Africa has experienced similar growth in many nations, particularly in central and southern Africa.

What's the difference here? I would argue that culture and worldview are the difference. These are nations less hostile to the very concept of religion, nations which are not mired in relativism or naturalism (the belief that this world is all there is, and reality is defined by what we can measure and sense). America and Europe both have embraced this post-modern philosophy so greatly that any religion at all is declared not just wrong but absurd, stupid, and even destructive. Asia and Africa do not share this perspective, and faith is a considered real and reasonable. Asia and Africa are also less inclined than the west to believe that personal comfort, wealth, happiness, and health are the highest human goals.

As the newer generations age, they will tire of the social networking concept just like Generation X and the Boomers tired of digital watches which were endlessly fascinating to them in the early 1980s. It isn't that social networking will vanish, just that it will reduce in popularity and go from fad to one more aspect of society.

What won't change is the general worldview of America which is so corrosive to the very idea of church. As each generation ages, it will move further away from church where you do something you might not care to, with people you don't know well and may not personally consider friends, in a manner which reminds you of something greater than yourself and your desires, focused on someone other than yourself, for goals which do not bring immediate satisfaction. Church is uncomfortable and alien to modern western ideology, at least when properly done. It is supposed to be slightly odd and unique, not just one more form of entertainment that slips Jesus in while you aren't expecting it.

Sitting in church means listening to someone talk about God, praying, singing songs together, and reading scriptures and creeds from sometimes thousands of years ago. These ideas are simply not welcome in the modern worldview; they are old, they are not self-centered, they are uncomfortable, they are not entertaining. Until the basic worldview of the west changes, churches will continue to wane in popularity, leaving fewer and fewer people in the pews.

In some ways, this isn't so bad. It tends to winnow out the people who attend only out of some feeling of compulsion or guilt, the people who show up only to use it as a platform to network their business from, the people looking for a relationship, and the people who come out of habit or tradition rather than faith. However, even if you aren't a Christian, religious study of whatever kind and contemplation of something more significant than yourself as well as the ethical instruction received at a church is beneficial to society. Losing that means losing a moral foundation which is not and will not be replaced by any other source.

Even worse, it might lead cultures to begin seeking that center in other sources, such as Islam, which offers men a strong position of leadership, women a foundation in morality and strong men, and culture a structure and stability that western civilization has all but abandoned. And an Islamic nation is far more hostile to liberty and the principles of democracy than Christianity, who was in part its very foundations.

Change has to come to the worldview of the west because the momentum of greater, more faithful and centered generations is grinding to a halt. When that coast ends, where will the west find its self?

3 comments:

eric said...

What are your thoughts on how prayer is conducted in modern churches? I live in an area with a lot of strong and somewhat traditional church communities (out of all our local friends with children, we are one of a very few who don't claim a church membership and attend regularly). But one thing I've noticed growing in all the churches over the last few years is a sort of obsession with the power of prayer. There have always been prayer chains and calls for prayer request for sick/troubled people, but often now it seems that is an excuse for taking action, sort of a salve to to make everyone feel better about having acknowledged a person's troubles before God. "We did our part, now it's up to God." I recently had an experience with this that disturbed and angered me because I ended up investing a lot of time trying to better the situation of a fairly helpless person in need, only to later find out his church family (who he faithfully tithes 10% of his sub $1000 per month income to, and has for over a decade) knew about his predicament and had been praying for him... but nothing else.

What are your thoughts on the proper Christian application of prayer? (personally, I often express prayers of grattitude, but prayers of supplication have always seemed odd to me... but I'm not working from a doctrinal standpoint).

Christopher Taylor said...

I think prayer has its use, but Jesus told us to help people out in more tangible manners too. Prayer is sometimes used as a substitute for action and when it is, I doubt God is very pleased.

Tina said...

Eric, you make a profound point that one need not go to church every Sunday or belong to the local denomination in order to be a faithful practicing Christian. Thanks for sharing your story as a reminder to pray with our hands as well as our voices!

Christopher, your comments in the article about the decline of open faith in the western world point to the great need for courage in the face of ridicule. The stories of the rich young ruler, and of the prodigal son come to mind.

I was raised in church. My mother usually slept in, but my grandparents took us 3 times a week. They did not attend with my mother when she was a child, but later changed denominations and made church the center of their social and volunteer lives.

I changed churches & took my own children to church sporatically until they were teenagers, by which time we were "too busy".

Now, my husband & I attend church each Sunday in yet another denomination (a local congregation that we belong to, give to & work in, but without officially joining the membership rolls). My mother also changed denominations and began an active role in her new church after mid-life.

I think my family's history of church attendance is probably the most common pattern throughout the past 100 years for multi-generation families. Young adults have always been too busy for church, but they come back to it for their grandchildren's benefit.

That said, I suspect the single most significant factor affecting church attendance today is the presence of children in the family. How likely were single adults, unmarried couples, or married couples who did not have children, to attend church in 1930, or even in 1880?

As these demographics expand, and fewer people have even fewer children, church attendance and participation may lag accordingly.

In addition, recent studies confirm that Americans continue to overwhelmingly identify themselves as professing the Christian faith, even if they do not attend church often at this stage (or this year) in their lives. Given the ridicule believers face, some may be unwilling to even answer polls truthfully.

For perspective, Facebook was launched in 2004, MySpace in 2003, Friendster in 2002. Even eBay didn't exist until 1995 (and was not a household word until around 1999/2000). While very young people have grown up with these tools, the techno-communications revolution has not been around long enough to have had some of the impacts Beck credited to it.

In other ways, of course the capacity for instant constant communication, shopping, entertainment and research does have an impact - as did the Printing Press before it, which put a personal Bible in the hand of nearly every person in the Western world and thereby promoted a high rate of literacy for both sexes, democratic principles, foundation of hospitals, orphanages & homeless missions, care for one's neighbors and missionary efforts to improve the lot of the suffering.

How many Christians receive their Verse of the Day email, regularly read faith blogs, BeliefNet, and others? How many missionaries receive regular PayPal donations? And, profoundly, how many Americans now see, from sites like CompassDirect.org, the extent of persecution Christians are suffering, still, around the world?

I think the Net leads us toward a renewed era of Christian literacy and meaning. Just as Jesus' followers gradually stopped going to Synagogue and began worshiping in other gatherings, so, too does His Church continue to be made new each generation. As you noted, the Church in Asia and Africa is rich with vitality. What a wonderful world it will be!