On becoming a statistic – Leaving “The Church” Part 5: Brave new world

O Wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t.
-William Shakespeare, The TempestAct V, Scene I

I started this series talking about steam locomotives in a world of jet airplanes. It seems almost trivial to say the world has changed, and that technology and culture are shifting at faster rates than they have for a couple of centuries. Because we live in the midst of a shifting world, it can be hard to get our bearings. Culture is like the old story of two young fish swimming one day. As an older fish swam past in the other direction, he asked, “How’s the water this morning boys?” “Great!” they replied, then continued swimming upstream. After a few minutes, one of them looked at the other and said, “What the heck is water?”

Culture – and church culture is a part of this – is something we are born into, and have a hard time recognizing. We are so immersed in what is happening around us that it can be hard, even in the midst of dizzying changes, to really get a handle on how things have shifted, let alone take a guess at where they might be going.

I graduated high school fifteen years ago, which places me right on the border between Generation X and Generation Y (the Millennials). Consider a few of the things that didn’t exist when I started college: Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, iPods, iPads, iPhones, and “broadband” (let alone wireless) internet connections. Amazon was still a book store, and Apple Inc. was still Apple Computer, and it was almost bankrupt.  Over half of the top ten websites (by traffic) in 2012 didn’t exist fifteen years ago. When I went to college, cell phones only made phone calls, didn’t fit in your pocket, were expensive to buy, expensive to talk on, and most people didn’t have them. You didn’t call home to your parents every day. The only people who owned laptop computers were businessmen, since the cheapest ones cost $2,000.

The key to recognize here is that technology is not just something churches need to employ to “keep up with the times.” Rather, technology is something that fundamentally changes how people interact with the world around them. And furthermore it’s possible to have access to and even use technology, without understanding how the same technology is used by people who grew up with it. Think about the differences between how 70 year olds and 20 year olds use email/Facebook/texting. Technology changes the ways organizations function, most importantly by changing the ways people access information and connect with each other. This matters, from a practical perspective, because most models of how people do church evolved over years to be successful in a particular kind of world, and the world those models expect is increasingly divergent from the world we live in. And as a result, even churches which have done very well in responding to all of the issues I addressed in my second and third posts may find themselves in decline if their church models don’t take into account the way the world shifted. These churches aren’t losing members because they suddenly got bad at doing church – they’re losing members because the world changed.

As a word of caution, it would be easy to think the solution to “doing better church” in a world where technology has changed the way people interact is by employing that technology to do the same things we’re already doing, but in a more tech-friendly way. In other words, it’s the idea that a church will see more people show up events if they have a twitter feed. We cannot “fight technology with technology” – rather we have to understand how technological changes have fundamentally changed the game for what people need, and expect a church to be. The issue – still – is about identity. What does it mean to be a community of faith in the world we now find ourselves? Where have we come from, who are we, and where are we going?

I’d like to spend this post talking about two pillars of how churches have traditionally functioned, and how those pillars are challenged in the new world.

First, churches have long functioned as social gathering places. A large part of coming to church has always been about fellowship – to catch up on the lives of people you hadn’t seen in the previous week. Second, church was a place you went to receive information about God and salvation. If you imagine a person thirty years ago who didn’t know anything about Christianity, but wanted to learn, most people would say the best resource for that would be to go to a church building. Additionally, most churches in modernity have functioned as though their main role is to be a repository of information about salvation to a lost world.

And to be perfectly clear, those are all good things. I don’t have any problems with people having friends at church, or Churches lecturing about God. At the same time, a changing world means churches need to ask whether these functions still resonate in the same way, or if they look like a steam locomotive in the jet age.

How Facebook killed the church (as we know it)

Facebook isn’t replacing “real” relationships with “virtual” relationships.
It’s simply connecting us with our real friends.
And if you can do this without getting up early on Sunday morning why go to Church?
-Richard Beck

This analysis is deeply informed by Dr. Richard Beck at ACU, who authored a blog post in 2010 entitled, “How Facebook killed the church”. Beck points out that answers to the question, “Why are Millennials leaving the church?” generally, as in my previous posts, take aim at the character of the church itself. Beck specifically cites Barna Group research published in the book unChristian, where Millennials talk about their views of the church – too judgmental, too hypocritical, etc. He then points out that, to some extent, the church has always been this way. It’s not like the church suddenly became hypocritical in 1995, but was a faithful representation of Christlike virtue before. Beck:

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.

So why has mobile social computing affected church attendance? Well, if church has always been kind of lame and irritating why did people go in the first place? Easy, social relationships. Church has always been about social affiliation. 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.

To some extent, Beck’s answer to the question, “Why are Millennials leaving the church?” is, “Because they are able to.” The advent of mobile communication means the church has lost some of its importance as a central social gathering place. As Beck says, “For [older generations] the church was Facebook!”

And here’s the thing – if church is only or even primarily about making social connections with your friends, then Facebook becomes almost what an economist would call a substitute good for going to church. And as any economist will tell you about substitute goods, when the cost of one good goes down, the demand for its substitute goes down as well. In other words, if the main reason I go to church is to connect with people, and I now have alternative ways of doing that, then if those alternatives are easier or less obtrusive in my life (they cost less), I’m more likely, from an economic point of view, to choose them over going to church.

I’d like to go a couple of steps farther than Beck does here, though. First, it seems to me that Beck simply assumes that one of the main reasons people come to church is to socially interact. Let’s start by acknowledging that a church where this kind of social interaction didn’t take place would be a failed church. There’s a good reason, in other words, that this has been a pillar of how churches function for as long as most people can remember.  And let’s also acknowledge that, if Beck is right, Facebook isn’t necessarily all that instrumental in helping people make the connections to new people, so much as it is in helping us sustain the relationships we already have in new ways. In other words, how did you meet all those Facebook friends you have? For many Christians, the answer is church. So even if church becomes a place where people may feel less need to attend on a consistent basis because they don’t need to connect with their “church friends” in person, this doesn’t completely eliminate church’s place in the social structure for forming those “real” relationships in the first place.

At the same time, I think for many older Gen X and younger boomers, the reality is that social interactions are one of, if not the main reason they come to church. A simple stroll down the halls of the church building during Sunday morning bible class should indicate to us that an alarmingly high percentage of members are not there to participate in what is going on with regard to spiritual formation or learning about God. The “coffee pot” class generally has as many, if not more attendees than bible classes taught by the best teachers. True, many of these “coffee pot class” attendees are also interested in making sure that their children are in children’s class, but this in itself should tell us something about why 18-35’s are leaving the church. If what they’ve learned from their parents is that church is primarily a social gathering spot, they will be more than willing to see church as “just another place” to connect with their friends. And, as Beck says, Facebook becomes a fairly good alternative for doing that.

In my first post, I said I wasn’t going to be big on offering solutions, but I want to deviate from that for just a moment. I think one traditional practice that could be helpful to churches here is the practice of confession. Confession is inherently social, in that you can’t really “confess” to yourself. Furthermore, the practice itself strengthens community bonds. However, it also transforms the social into the spiritual. In other words, when we engage in the practice of confession, we are all simultaneously entering into a place of vulnerability and humility. Our conversations in confession move from the mundane (sports teams, local politics, the best place to eat lunch or buy groceries) to the holy, allowing the penitent to release their burdens, and the confessors to practice the sacred exercise of forgiveness. I am fully aware that a dedicated time of confession is difficult to pull off, given most people’s expectations of what church is supposed to be, nor am I under the illusion it will eliminate conversations of the mundane – but it does provide a dimension of the social that is both inherently meaningful, and difficult to easily substitute in a virtual domain.

Data (and information) became cheap

Data is not information.
Information is not knowledge.
Knowledge is not understanding.
Understanding is not wisdom.
-Clifford Stoll

Not so long ago, data was expensive. Consider the statistics on marriage, divorce, and births I referenced in my third post. Fifteen years ago, if I’d needed that data, it would probably have required a trip to the local university library, a lengthy chat with a librarian, and an hour or so of skimming through very large reports – assuming the library had the reports at all.  By contrast, it took me less than five minutes of searching on the census bureau’s website to find the information I needed, all from the comfort of my couch while drinking a cup of coffee – and with the advent of smart phones, I could have looked up the data almost anywhere.

The internet fundamentally changed the value equation for people accessing information. In a span of less than 20 years, our society has been transformed from one where data was a relatively valuable commodity, to a society where data is almost free. In addition, not only has the internet increased our access to existing data, it has substantially increased the amount of data available. Consider this blog post. If I’d wanted to write about challenges facing Churches of Christ in 1998, what would I have done with it? An op-ed in my local newspaper? Chances they’d publish a 15,000 word missive? Pretty low.

This shift dramatically changes the way people interact with data and information. If data is hard to acquire, it is valuable, and a person who controls data has power. In an age where data is cheap, a person with access to data is no more special than anyone else with a smartphone. Another facet of cheap and readily available data is that the quality of data starts to vary dramatically. Sure, you can read incredibly thoughtful blog posts by preeminent Christian thinkers online these days, but you can also subscribe to the Westboro Baptist Church Podcast. And if you’re new to this whole Christianity thing, and you’re just “looking at the data”, these both count, right?

When data was expensive, the main problem was, well, finding and acquiring data. People who were really good at this and who had large amounts of data and information at their disposal were called “experts”. You went to an expert because they had spent the time, effort, and energy required to do the research. They functioned as a central repository of information, and in general could be trusted. This still happens in certain fields – if you want to get information about electrical arcing on low-voltage systems, I would be a pretty good person to talk to. But even in very specialized fields, the balance is starting to change.

When data is cheap, the problem is very different – specifically, the problem changes from collecting data, to assessing the quality of data. How do I sort through all of this stuff to figure out what is the most important? How does this mass of data turn into information? How do I know who or what I can trust? How do I know what to believe? And it turns out this doesn’t really stop at the level of data – it continues at least to the level of information. Can I trust what this source of information is telling me (think about the WMD dossier in the Iraq war)? When Google gives me search results, how do I know it’s not leaving important ones out, just to tell me what I want to hear?

Wasn’t this supposed to be about church, you say? Ok. Let’s think about how this changes things.

Most of our church services are oriented, whether we like it or not, on the sermon. And most sermons, like it or not, are oriented around information. And this made a certain kind of sense when information was valuable. The preacher was an “expert” who, at least in theory, spent time diligently searching for a message out of the data available to him, distilled to a few nuggets of importance that parishioners could take home with them. The preacher was likely to be the one person in the church with the good commentary set, the largest religious library, the most translations of the Bible – in short, the one with access to the most data and information on the topic. And sure, maybe he wasn’t an “expert” in a true sense, but comparatively, preachers and ministers were guys who had access to more information than their parishioners – whether that be original language resources or someone else’s sermon notes.

Many preachers today still function under this “expert” model, where their most important function is to dispense information to their churches. Preachers in this model face (at least) three challenges that I can see:

  • First, their parishioners no longer need them to acquire information. With online resources and Amazon.com, anyone in the pew can have access to the same amount of data and information as the guy up front. If a minister’s only value is to bring back a deep new idea he heard on the lectureship circuit, it’s likely that at least some of his church members have already heard it. And because people have access to more, and higher quality information than ever before, it’s possible – maybe even likely – that they will have heard the new idea before the minister. To summarize, twenty years ago, ministers could derive a lot of value from being the one person or group at a church capable of transcending the “information barrier” to access high-quality spiritual information. In the internet age, that barrier no longer exists.
  • Second, the information ministers dispense is no longer so easily trusted. That’s not to say that that nobody trusts the guy up front, but especially for Generation Y, it is no longer taken for granted that the information they receive – from anyone – is necessarily trustworthy. To quote the Russian proverb, “Trust, but verify.” And because the critical skill in the internet age is not finding information, but vetting information, the sermon is critically scrutinized in ways it seldom has been before. And so, if a preacher in a sermon says, “This passage in Luke 10 is the only place in the Bible where someone asks Jesus what they need to do to go to heaven,” an increasing number of Gen Y’s would simply respond, “No it isn’t… and if you can’t get that simple, factual statement that correct – especially when there are reference notes in the text linking you to the other passage – why should I trust anything else you say?”
  • Third, it is increasingly simple to seek out other “experts”. Thirty years ago, if you didn’t like your preacher you were basically stuck with what you had. Aside from some television preachers with big hair and a propensity for asking for donations, you didn’t have a lot of options other than ordering tapes, via mail, from a far off congregation. Today, almost every lesson in every church in the country is recorded, archived, and placed on the internet, for download, usually for free. Why go to church and listen to a guy who isn’t very good if you can stay home, drink coffee in your pajamas, and listen to three or four of the best preachers in the country?

So what other ways could we think about sermons which might be more constructive?

I think the first step is the recognition that, for many Gen Y’s, faith is no longer simply a cognitive assent to a few key beliefs. It’s not “looking at the facts” and making a decision about them, or “evaluating the data about God.” Rather, as I’ve stated before, for Gen Y’s, faith and belief are intimately tied to one’s identity. In his compendium on the parables of Jesus entitled Stories with Intent, Klyne Snodgrass put it this way when discussing the parable of the Good Samaritan:

Our fear of earning salvation has led to the idea that Christianity is a religion concerned only with what one believes/thinks, not what one is, but this is a shallow understanding of belief. The parable, like most of Scripture, is concerned with identity. In effect, when people asked Jesus ‘What do I have to do?’ he asked in return ‘What kind of person are you?’ The answer to the second question answers the first.

One way to think of a preacher’s task, then, is to think about identity formation. And for many Gen Y’s, identity formation is largely wrapped up in the idea of narrative, and story. George Lindbeck, in his book The Nature of Doctrine, says, “To become a Christian involves learning the story of Israel and of Jesus well enough to interpret and experience oneself and one’s world in its terms.” Alasdair MacIntyre, in his book on ethics, After Virtue, makes essentially the same point: “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself apart?’” Preaching, in a new age, then, is not a matter of dispensing information or providing people with useful life lessons so they can make it through their week – it is about faithfully telling the story of Christ, and helping people see Christ’s story as their own not only through a monologue on Sunday morning, but more importantly by demonstrating a life which has been changed and shaped by the story of God.

This may sound astonishingly simple, but it’s shocking how seldom preachers spend time actually telling the story of Israel and the story of Christ. I don’t know if it’s because they think it is too boring, or they think everyone already knows it. My casual observation is that most preachers seem to think we will tune them out unless they are talking about us and our lives. But the way to engage people and really change their lives is not by telling them what they are supposed to do, but by reminding them of what God has done and is doing. When preachers turn sermons into series on “how to deal with depression” or “how to be a servant” or “how to have a stronger family”, they are subtly implying that the good news of Jesus and the inbreaking Kingdom of God isn’t really good enough news for us to care about.

Belief in the Kingdom of God doesn’t change your life by giving you four simple steps to “Dealing with Worry” – it changes your life by asking you to trust and participate in a story where God raised Jesus from the dead. And if you really believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, then that opens new possibilities and ways of life. It sounds crazy to do things like turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you – unless you believe that God’s power to raise your life is greater than your enemies’ power to destroy it. That is a story that is different. It’s a story that makes sense of the world in a new way. It’s a story that, when lived, says, “I will respond to greater measures of anxiety in my life not by increasingly trying to control my circumstances, but by trusting in the power of God for new life.”

Brave new world, Brave new life

The vision of Ezekiel 37 dares to say
“It doesn’t matter how dead you are…
there is always the possibility of new life in the Spirit of God.”
-Mark Love

The world is changing, and the way people see the world is changing. And in many ways, that is probably a good thing. Many Christians lament the idea of a post-Christian world, but many of us believe this new type of world may help us see more clearly what it means to truly follow Christ. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in The Cost of Discipleship:

The price we are having to pay today in the shape of the collapse of the organized church is only the inevitable consequence of our policy of making grace available to all at too low a cost. We gave away the word and sacraments wholesale, we baptized, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation without condition. Our humanitarian sentiment made us give that which was holy to the scornful and unbelieving… But the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way was hardly ever heard.

In his later work, Bonhoeffer wrestled deeply with what he called his central question: “what Christianity is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today.” And that, really, is the question for churches at a crossroads: who will Christ be for us, today? In this time? In this place?

We might do well to remember Bonhoeffer’s words in Letters and Papers from Prison – “God lets himself be pushed out of the world and onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.” In this brave new world he reminds us that, “Our relation to God is not a ‘religious’ relationship to the highest, most powerful, and best Being imaginable – that is not authentic transcendence – but our relation to God is a new life in ‘existence for others,’ through participation in the being of Jesus. The transcendental is not infinite and unattainable tasks, but the neighbor who is within our reach in any given situation.”

We will find life in our story – whether it be our individual lives or the lives of our churches – only insomuch as we align our stories with the story of Jesus. And to align ourselves with the story of Christ, we must first hear the story of Christ – not as a set of abstract propositions, but as the God who lets himself be pushed out of the world and onto a cross; the God who trusts in God to not abandon him to Death, but who, through resurrection, undoes the very power Death holds over us.

Where, O Death is thy victory?
Where, O Death is thy sting?
Death has been swallowed up in victory.

4 Replies to “On becoming a statistic – Leaving “The Church” Part 5: Brave new world”

  1. Very insightful and informative. I agree that if the church has set itself up mainly as a social gathering, it will become obsolete due to other available outlets. The key is understanding what the purpose of the church is, that it does not exist for me, but for Christ, and me for it. On the other hand, I can’t help but wonder if the recent emphasis on story might just as quickly be deemed out of touch by the next generation of church updaters.

    1. DHGtunes –

      I certainly think that is a possibility. I think it’s way too early in the game to say what “post-modern” is going to eventually look like, so it’s possible this is just one iteration before it lands on something a bit more stable.

      At the same time, I do think there are some advantages to the idea of story and narrative that could give it some staying power. Though storytelling varies from culture to culture, most cultures do have a long tradition of telling stories. Additionally, stories are easier to relate to, in ways, than abstract concepts like soteriology, or even the scientific method.

      Whether the current emphasis on story remains or not, I think it does provide a helpful framework for many people.

      Thanks for your comment.

  2. Jeff, I wish you would give us some kind of road map of where you are heading. It seems to me that many of your critiques could be applied to any faith group, not just the Church of Christ. Therefore, it would be nice to see where you have landed at this point in your journey, so that we can better understand how your concerns lead you to the place you are now.

    I have been on this journey myself over the past ten years, and I think I understand what you have been going through. There is a natural tendency to want to share your epiphanies with the world with the hope that others will join you for the trip, or that the Churches of Christ will somehow reform and follow your recommendation. This is all part of the process of leaving.

    I have read Dr. Beck in the past, but I had to stop, for I found that he provided no real direction, but just a sense of meandering and psycho-babble. (I don’t mean to be disrepectful here) To each his own, but I hope you are not falling into that trap.

    All the best.

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