Opinion

Can Facebook replace church?

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks on stage during the annual Facebook F8 developers conference in San Jose, Calif., on April 18, 2017. Photo by Stephen Lam/Rueters

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks on stage during the annual Facebook F8 developers conference in San Jose, Calif., on April 18, 2017. Photo by Stephen Lam/Reuters

(RNS) During a rally for Facebook users last month, Mark Zuckerberg laid out his dreams for the future of his social media behemoth.

As the website reaches 2 billion users, Zuckerberg is turning his attention to the next frontier – building online communities.

In Zuckerberg’s mind, the days of institutions like “churches and Little Leagues” are over. Using Facebook’s new artificial intelligence software, the social media giant can organize its users into groups that will serve the same purpose.

While Zuckerberg missed some important purposes a church community serves, he was right about one thing: Christians are leaving their traditional, brick-and-mortar churches – in droves.

Studies show there are 30 million “dones” in America today. They read their Bibles, listen to Elevation Church’s Steven Furtick podcasts and know every word to every Jesus culture song. They talk about Jesus – a lot, in coffeehouses or at happy hours. But you’ll rarely find them in church.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg speaks during the alumni exercises after the 366th commencement exercises on May 25, 2017, at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters

As someone who has made the agonizing decision to leave a church I loved before, I understand how these people feel overlooked or ignored by Christian leaders. Instead of learning why members are leaving their churches, most congregational leaders continue with business as usual, hoping the missing members eventually come to their senses and return.

The problem is the “dones” aren’t coming back, and their numbers are only increasing. (There are about 7 million “almost dones” right behind them.) And, if the church doesn’t figure out how to create community they are seeking, someone or something else, like Facebook, will do it for them.

Certainly, some of us do not look for community from Facebook. We value face time with our friends. One-on-one real conversations that take time, don’t involve devices or photos but actual being with one another.

In her novel “Open House,” Elizabeth Berg asks, “Why isn’t there a Community Center for People Who Need a Little Something?

“If people would only tell the truth about the way they felt, it would be busy all the time. There could be folding chairs arranged in groups, people sitting there saying, ‘I don’t know, I just wanted to come here for a while.’”

That’s what the “dones” are looking for. They want church-that’s-not-really-church. They are seeking a place where they don’t have to dress up, where they can ask questions, where people know who they truly are.

They want a place to grapple with the hard stuff, out loud, with others. Face time, not necessarily Facebook. Depth of relationships, depth of study, depth of service. They don’t want to “bowl alone” or stay in “the shallows.” Zuckerberg is right – we are turning to bars, bookstores or Facebook to find it.

Could this be the New Reformation?

Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer explained that every 400 years, the Christian church undergoes a major transition, led by laypeople. Our 400 years are up, and the laypeople have spoken by exiting our congregations.

Some time ago, the primary focus of many leaders was to take their churches to the “next level.” In their minds, to be truly successful, they needed bigger facilities, more activities and programs and more cars in the parking lot. Everything needed to be slick and produced.

Unfortunately, to reach more people, we took Christian community and turned it into a Christian country club. In this modern age, where authenticity is one of the most valued character traits, our churches just aren’t working anymore. We have lost track of being pro-Jesus.

It’s time for a churchwide “yard sale.”

Leaders must take the possessions, procedures and attitudes that no longer work, box them up and throw them out. Throw away the clutter that is holding us back: the unnecessary, the unjoyful, the underfunctioning, the no-longer-functioning at all… Toss! Toss! Toss! Get rid of the extras and put our focus back on what matters most — Jesus and relationships.

Mark Zuckerberg recognizes something that so few Christian leaders have. There is an enormous void among believers and a desperate yearning for community. Will we step up and build communities that meet their needs, or will we let Facebook fill that void for us?

(Andrea Syverson is the author of “Alter Girl: Walking Away From Religion Into the Heart of Faith,” which will be released Sept. 5)

About the author

Andrea Syverson

23 Comments

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  • Facebook ain’t no church. Nones, dones, Huns, it doesn’t matter. You’ll never get what you’re looking for off of Facebook, even if you skip church for the rest of your life.

    Churches got problems, yeah, but Facebook got problems too. Shoot, we all got problems. We all therefore need God.

    But in the church-house, even no-good churches with problems and needs, God shows up in a peculiar way that’s more than just when he’s helping you or being with you on an individual basis or prayer.

    They call it “koinonia”, (Greek stuff and all), but it’s hard to describe it. All I know is, you need church if you want to experience it. Forget Facebook.

  • The data consistently show exactly what is holding churches back and needs to be thrown out – the Bibles (and magical, superstitious beliefs). That’s why this article starts out good, but then goes off the rails, suggesting more of exactly what is killing churches – the contradictory, hurtful and unnatural fabrications that make up Christian doctrine. Contrived 400 year cycles aren’t relevant – if they exist at all. Dropping mythology and having a religion based on actual reality is what is needed as we move into a future where churches based on Attis, Mithras, Jesus and Apollo all don’t fit any more. Here’s the data, showing that simply not buying the beliefs accounts for as much of the nones leaving as all the other reasons put together. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/08/24/why-americas-nones-left-religion-behind/

  • I tend to agree, but would also agree with the author that while people are seeking a new model, they are not rejecting a biblical one. Jon Cleland’s post puzzles me, I would ask him: What is a church without the bible? The answer is: A non-sequitur. Of course you and I know that the Church will prevail until the end of time even as its membership at any given time will either wax or wane. On another note, I’d like to see how Facebook will manage to replace Little League.

  • Facebook is never going to replace the Little League, either.

    (Probably won’t even get to first base!)

  • Churches are ‘done’ because secular institutions and technologies take care of our non-religious needs, including ‘community’, cheaper and better—and because churches are not addressing specifically religious needs effectively. If we want ‘community’ there are secular venues where we can find it, both online and on the ground—usually with people who are more congenial than those we’d find at church. If we want psychological help there are innumerable therapies and self-help groups available. If we want to learn about the Bible or theology, we can read: we don’t need sermons or teaching by clergy.

    The only thing the church can provide that we can’t readily get anywhere else is religious experience, the experience of transcendence, mysticism, the spooky whoo-whoo, through being in sacred space and participation in liturgy. That is something most churches are not providing and which those that do hide under a bushel.

  • Facebook and other “social media” put people out of touch, not the contrary. The social media gave us Donald Trump as president. The “social media” are no substitute for real community. Facebook is artificial, just as artificial as preachers and priests preaching at silent congregations.

    People are not leaving the churches because of the more convenient, at-home conditions of social media. People are leaving the churches because they have lost the beliefs of religious mythology. They have learned more–just like Mark Zuckerberg–and are thinking more for themselves, rather than allowing clergy to do it for them by bombarding them with sermons. They are leaving the mythology of religion behind in exchange for the facts of science.

    Mark Zuckerberg is as guilty as the clergy in pretending to use religious mythology to guide the lives of others. He is hoping to move people out of their churches and into his Facebook. Then he is “Priest”! Then he becomes even wealthier than his current $63 billion!.

    Zuckerberg is a con artist who readily distorts religion to fill his pockets with filthy lucre! Clergy have done that for millennia! Zuckerberg hopes that religious people increase his Facebook income! Such deceptive schemes have been the practices of every filcher in history!

    Watch out, Donald Trump, Mark Zuckerberg is after you current job!

  • All good. What other name would you recommend? We currently have the word “religion” having unclear meaning. It can mean “community that agrees on the meaning and purpose of life and joins to celebrate” or “supernatural beliefs”. We need the former and not the latter, and perhaps a more clear word, as you point out.

  • Do you seriously think that all religions use your (or another) Bible? You need to get out more. There are non-Christian religions – and depending on how we define “religion”, there are non-supernatural groups too, such as Sunday Assembly.

  • Is it possible that some are “done” with churches because churches continue to cling to increasingly arguable assumptions of the historicity of the Gospel narratives and, indeed, of Jesus himself? I wish churches would take seriously the findings of objective scholars like Thomas L. Brodie, rather than sweeping them under the rug. (Brodie has been silenced for life). Christianity eventually will need to come to grips with a possibly mythical Jesus (in both senses of the word), just as it had to come to grips with the non-geocentric universe models of Copernicus and Galileo. http://raised-catholic.com

  • That old Reformation exalted the Bible to the absolute and sole source of truth. Time for the Bible to be overthrown. Fundamentalist Bible Christians are already ignorant of the Bible except for a select few passages thrown at them by preachers. Lol, I even heard a TV preacher seeking $200 a pop for a personal miracle rant on and on about the miracle of the loaves and the fishes taking place far out in the middle of the dessert. His ignorance of Scripture won’t stop his audience from throwing their money at him.

    Entertainment Praise and Worship concerts have replaced the Bible I’ve heard ex-Catholic kids who are active in entertainment churches say that they do miss the deeper hymns and deep readings of Scripture, and reflections on Scripture, that they got in their old Catholic Church. They also miss Communion. But they aren’t going back.

    Trads may sneer at it but entertainment Christianity does draw in people. Much of the Emo Rock music is infantile but it works because it enables the audience to participate, get emotionally high on love songs, and feel real good, just like a real concert (the ones without the constraints of having to sing clunky phrases about God or Jesus, but instead let the musicians explore actual human experiences and the broad and contradictory range of human emotions; or jack up cliched songs with some great dance moves).

    Where I live coffee shops (all local, no chains) are places where people meet and talk. No talk about Jesus and the Bible being anyone’s ticket to heaven, even though some of the cool young people have joined a church (emphasizing individual Redemption/Resurrection stories, and avoiding politics).

    The media can prattle on about the churches being in decline but in rural areas there’s nothing to do and little to talk about so being involved with church and talking the Bible fills the gap of “nothing to do.” Churches will not lose their grip on the rural Republican areas of the country. Cynical Republican politicans will continue to exploit their religious views but the local scene will be enriched in a way by church, Bible talk, sin talk, redemption talk, Baptism talk, who’s in with Jesus, who’s out, etc.

    And of course there are the political cults, with their own doctrines, rituals, specialized language, pious talk, etc. Loves for the “ins,” not for the “outs,” just as in traditional Christianity.

    Perhaps a deeper longer lasting trend is the formation of intentional families, that is, social groups that constitute themselves as new immediate and extended families for their members. Hugs, birthdays, holidays, all that family stuff without the tensions. And some of these intentional families are Christian, taking in those rejected by the local Christian establishment and their followers (you know the anti-gay, pro-fetus/anti-life crowd).

  • It surprises me that Zuckerberg, with his Ivy League background, did not mention what has replaced Christian religion for the nation’s elitely educated elite: the cult of alma mater. This happened long ago with liberal (as to doctrine, not necessarily politics) Episcopalians. I am aware of how alumni of certain elite schools cannot talk to anyone outside their inbred alumni circles. And I am not impressed with the educations they received (except in STEM and Theater) though I am impressed (in a way) with the internships and jobs they were offered through their alumni networks. I do tend to see those jobs as generally exploitative of the rest of us, but that’s my leftie (non doctrinaire) bias. P.S. Among the elite the Country Club/Golf Club cult long ago also replaced church for the rich parent crowd. And one of the strongest cults for the “I’ve got plenty of money” folks is the foodie cult. Somewhat downscale from that foodie thing is the craft beer cut. And unless churches can merge their cult with the sports cult (many do) they may lose a lot of people to the passive sports fanery cult (which gets even grown men to wear sports jerseys in the hope that someone will talk with them about their Olympus, the team they worship).

    The US is like the Roman Empire, with a wide variety of pagan cuts that one can join. And some of these pagan cults are Christian on the surface, or the pagan alt-cult rides in a person’s soul alongside or even over their Christian cult

  • In the Bible Belt the drug addiction cult, not Facebook, is a strong alternative to church.

  • The Nones have left for the most part, as the Pew study shows, because they just no longer believe in the tenets of the religion. This article is more about the “Dones,” people who still consider themselves Christians (and therefore not a None), but intentionally no longer attend a church.

  • Good article about the Done issue, but Zuckerberg never said Facebook was going to replace church. He said that he envisioned Facebook fulfilling the same role that existing community organizations, like houses of worship and youth sports, already play. If anything, pastors should be thanking Zuckerberg for giving them a springboard to write hundreds of articles decrying in one way or another Zuckerberg’s ‘stated goal to replace church.’ It’s like the Starbucks red cups all over again.

  • Community centers? therapy groups? philosophy classes? bars? coffee houses? Celebration centers? Take your pick. All this is good, but not to my taste since I don’t think that life has either ‘meaning’ or purpose, and don’t care. I like rituals, fantasies, myths, and the whoo-whoo, that is, religion.

  • Do they advertise? Evangelize? Make their presence known to the public outside, many of whom have had little or not contact with organized religion? Yeah they’re heard of ‘Catholic’, but how many Americans do you think have even heard of Eastern, much less, Oriental Orthodox?

    The public face of Christianity in the US is currently conservative Evangelicalism. That’s what the unchurched think of when they think of religion, and they want no part of it—IMHO with good reason.

    I’m Episcopalian. The Episcopal Church has all that good stuff—beauty, spookiness, and transcendent whoo-whoo. But people don’t know about it and, in my experience, the church makes very little effort to get the word out. I tried very hard when I was involved but there was no real support.

  • I agree it was, and continues to be, a bad show—I know all about it.

    The primary reason that TEC and other liberal protestant churches are collapsing isn’t doctrinal, or political, or institutional but demographic. These are churches that catered for an educated upper middle class urban-coastal clientele. That demographic is increasingly secular. And they also don’t have many kids. Most aren’t dropping out to join more conservative churches (and, yes, I know about the few conservative malcontents who went Orthodox or affiliated ‘continuing Anglican’ churches)

    The average churchgoer does not know, or care, about the shenanigans going on at the national church HQ, or in their diocese. Apart from the few conservative contrarians, it’s not the silly PC that’s driving them away. What they know of the church is the building, the music, the rummage sales, and youth programs.

    As far as outreach it’s a matter of will, and TEC hasn’t made that a priority and hasn’t been willing to invest. They pulled out of campus ministry way back when I was in college. They do not advertise or publicize. I live two blocks away from the church I dropped out of years ago and, if I hadn’t been involved, I would never have even realized that the place was around. There really is no solution because we’re beyond the tipping point. In my social group religion is simply not done.

    I’m not looking for a place to hang out. I’m looking for a building and liturgy. That is all the church has to offer and, now that membership is collapsing, it’s become impossible in an increasing number of places to maintain the buildings and keep the show going.

  • Ah, yes: the predicted response. As in _Why The Conservative Churches Are Growing_. Until they stopped growing and some, like the Southern Baptist, started declining.

    I find it implausible that Spong et. al. ‘demolished’ anyone’s religious belief. Who ever paid any attention to what priests said?

    But, I digress: it’s demographics, demographics, demographics. The US, though behind the curve, is following secular Europe. Or rather those of us who are educated, urban, comfortably off and culturally more similar to Europeans than to our brethren in Fly-Over Country (apart from conservative contrarians like yourself) are dropping out.

    As for what TEC has to advertise and publicize—beautiful buildings, a wonderful tradition of music and literature, a grand history, the most glorious liturgy in Christendom and, oh yes, sacraments. Valid ones.

  • Naturally I do not think that all religions use the bible, but the term “church” is by historical definition a reference to the Body of believers Christ established during His time on earth, therefore any usage of the term relates directly to the bible if used in its proper context.

  • The crux of the matter is that community is not, cannot, be about *me* and that’s what Christianity-on-my-own and Facebook are all about. Real community is about *us* which is messy, painful, costly, and ultimately the answer to that deep yearning. (BTW, my UCC church is a totally safe place to ask questions, be LGBTQI, dress however you want, and not give a rat’s ass about what proper people think of you. In the UCC, we don’t leave our brains at the door…the Congregationalist UCC strand founded Zuckerberg’s alma mater, Harvard, as well as Yale, Dartmouth, Oberlin, Howard, Carleton, Talledega, Colorado College, Pacific, Pomona, etc.)

  • Community yes. But, “Using Facebook’s new artificial intelligence software, the social media
    giant can organize its users into groups that will serve the same
    purpose.” One of the huge problems with communities, churches included, and Internet communities in particular, is they tend to group likes with likes who then reinforce each other. Contrary or even different thoughts get short shrift. I gently suggest that what we need are inclusive communities where diverse opinions are welcomed and encouraged.

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