This article in the New York Times describes two tools that Facebook are developing for churches. Firstly, a subscription service, “where users pay, for example, $9.99 per month and receive exclusive content, like messages from the bishop” and secondly a prayer service “where members of some Facebook groups can post prayer requests and others can respond.”
As my friend Duncan put it to me:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptise them and teach them to observe all that I have commanded you. But make sure to put the really good teaching behind a paywall.”
Friends, Scientology is not our model. The fact that senior leaders of a number of churches didn’t immediately smell a rat means something’s gone wrong with their noses.
I won’t speculate what their problems may be, but this is a terrible idea. So terrible it surely only needs to be laughed at. What we offer we offer for free. Yes, we ask for people’s money, that’s how all churches exist and continue to run, but these are generous offerings in response to what they received from God.
Or in the crassest terms, if you really want an extra £10 a month from someone, teach them the really good stuff. God might inspire them to want to give it to you.
Praying to commercial gods
I’m more concerned about the prayer tool, because it sounds like something we might conceivably use. But why are Facebook doing this? After all, Facebook is not our friend. People who used to work there have been surprisingly candid about their intent to ‘exploit a vulnerability in human psychology’.1 The old adage that if it’s free you’re the product rings true. Facebook are an advertising company, which they make no bones about.
I am concerned that if I input my prayer request I will be bombarded with adverts on their platforms for services which will fix my problem in some fashion. I may even be deceived into thinking this is a message from the Lord. Can the Almighty move an advertising algorithm to my benefit? Yes. But that doesn’t mean he did.
Imagine the most painful situation. A couple struggling with the deep feelings of shame and the ongoing heartache of infertility summon up the courage to input their prayers online. Adverts from fertility clinics, potentially offering all manner of unethical options, abound. At best this is confusing, most likely asking for prayer seems to have deepened their pain.
Even in a more run-of-the-mill situation, do I want an advertising company knowing my deepest thoughts? Their business is structured around knowing as much as they can about me in order to sell me things.
Or, if people are aware of this, do we want them to be afraid to ask for prayer because of how Facebook might use it?
It’s quite possible that many of the tools they’re developing will be useful to gospel ministry. Have a look at my previous post to for some initial thoughts about tools in ministry, and how to approach those questions.
Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg is quoted as saying “Faith organizations and social media are a natural fit because fundamentally both are about connection.”
Are they? It’s the sort of thing that sounds very reasonable in an executive’s mouth, but let’s pause to hear the nonsense. Is Christianity fundamentally about connection? Is church? It sounds like it could be true enough for us to nod along, but it’s not actually true. It’s truth-adjacent, if you will. It isn’t wrong, but it’s not what the message of the crucified carpenter king is about at all.
“I died on the cross because I really want you all to love each other and get connected.”Not Jesus, thank goodness
Let’s not accept the premise. Are we given ‘connection’ with God by Jesus work on our behalf? I suppose, but much better I’m given sonship, friendship, and a table richly laden. I’m adopted, not simply connected. By the Emperor of the cosmos, the Potentate of Time. As the meme goes, “you and I are not the same.”
A Centre of Gravity
Here perhaps we reach for a bigger lesson. Is there nothing that cannot be online? Is there nothing that cannot be subsumed under totalising social platforms? Sometimes it feels like there isn’t anything left. But it’s a lie. Most of what makes life good, from the Lord’s table to gathering around my table, is not online.
I appreciate that there will be some who would beg to differ, and that they have often been driven to online places that understand them from deep and lasting hurt. I can only sympathise and gently suggest that while I’m sure those spaces have been very helpful, there is better promised. Even if it doesn’t deliver in this life, there is better promised.
In the last post I mentioned the concept of cultural ‘liturgies’ building loosely on the work of James K. A. Smith and Charles Taylor. This is what I mean when I keep talking about stories. Social media has a liturgy—it has a story. I’ve written on it here. We need to be liturgised by things that form us to the good, the true, and the beautiful as well. We need both deliturgising efforts and counter-formation. We need to tell better stories.
Which is to say that we need Christ to effect and change every aspect of our life. There is nothing you do which the proclamation of the gospel doesn’t in some way change. It will take a lifetime to absorb them all as we’re changed into his image, but I believe that he is inviting this reflection from you today. What else is to be brought under his Lordship? What activities do you engage in that God would like you to reflect on how he changes them?
One of my concerns is that the more we put online, the more people will think that what we’ve put online is ‘enough’ church for them. As though church were a thing you do—but lots of people in our churches will think it is. We have to accept that the end goal of our use of tools like Facebook, if they are genuinely helpful, is that they reach people where they are and they connect them to Jesus as he is to be found among his people the church. In other words: online transitions to offline if it works well.
There’s a lot of hybrid church chat at the moment. Should our churches keep streaming their services when we don’t have large numbers of people having to isolate? Or, for the more forward thinking, how can these online tools we’ve learned to use during the pandemic continue to be a part of who we are and what we do.
The direction of travel suggests we should all be ‘hybrid’, having online and in-person church forever more. Putting aside my theological objections, I don’t hear those advocating this having wrestled with the impact of these mediums. They mostly dismiss those who have as luddites and cranks who need to move into the 21st century or get out the way. I’m quite happy in the 15th, or the 4th, century thanks. Maybe they’re right. Maybe this is the screed of a curmudgeonly old-before-his-time Millennial who was born in the wrong century. Obviously, I don’t think so or I wouldn’t have written it, but you can decide for yourself.
There’s also a centre of gravity problem. There’s a weight to these platforms and their totalising efforts are stronger than the Church’s in lots of people’s lives.
There are two reasons for this. Firstly, our time on these platforms, whichever empire is your poison, is significantly larger than the time we spend hearing from the church. We could advocate evening up the time—so spending much more time in our week engaged with our local church and other Christians—but I’m not sure that’s helpful. Ignoring even that most people simply would not engage for that many hours, and how unsustainable it would be, the only way a suggestion like that could work is with a root and branch reimagining of what it means to be a church community.
Which might be a good thing, but is getting a little off the topic. It certainly could be an argument for careful church use of platforms, to seed light in darkness, if attention is paid to the issues raised in the previous post.
Secondly, these platforms are more powerful than the local church. You might scoff at this, thinking of the church as the all-conquering bride, brimming with wisdom, that the world wishes to come to and be amazed as the Queen of Sheba did to Solomon. You are of course right to scoff, but think of it from another angle:
It is easier—more comfortable, less effort, and less vulnerable—to engage with church content on social media platforms than to do so in person would be. While using the platforms to their upmost could be a helpful step into church for many—and enough so that I think it’s worth engaging in some fashion—the conversion will be hard, and harder the more you’ve suggested what you’re doing online is church. Also, plenty of people will feel the draw the other way, to disengage from meeting together and to use the online ‘alternatives’ instead.
That’s the centre of gravity problem. The platforms are powerful. They pull. And they pull more frequently than we can typically pull back.
We should also acknowledge, loudly and frequently, that almost everything that the church is and does, whether on a Sunday or throughout the week, cannot be done online. It can’t. When we have no other options, we settle for what we have and thank God that much is available, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that it’s more than it was.
Which matters for thinking about how to use social media well. Whatever we do will be tangential to the primary work of the church. The secondary and tertiary too, for that matter.
When we’re thinking about how to engage online, we might be drawn to and consider Jeremiah’s injunction to seek the good of the city (Jeremiah 29). We might suggest that virtual spaces are as real now as, well, real ones. While the language shows up the falsehood, there’s something in that. Considering the internet, or particular corners of it, a city that we inhabit as strangers and aliens is not a bad beginning to an approach.
We aren’t from here. We aren’t staying here. But, while we are here, we are committed to seeking the Good for all those around us. I think that’s a good frame to use individually, and it will work for churches too.
So, if it’s reasonable to think of social media as Babylon, it’s reasonable to seek the good of the city as well. However, we often take the imperative to “seek the good of the city” away from the context of that city being Babylon. Babylon is the Bible’s typological stand-in for evil.
In their excellent book Faith for Exiles, David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock describe the place that Gen Z find themselves as ‘Digital Babylon’. I think that’s apt, and not just for Gen Z. Social Media is a digital Babylon. We should seek its good, but first see that it is one of many archetypes of Babylon the Great. A city of evil empire: in this case a corporate one.
If that is the case, we cannot cede the ground. But, perhaps Facebook are not our best ministry partners. “We’re planting a church in Babylon! There’s the woman here who seems great and I think she’ll be really helpful for us—we’re really excited!” (Revelation 17).
1 Allen, M., ‘Sean Parker unloads on Facebook: “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains”‘, Axios, 9/11/17
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