Despite a recent uptick, church attendance numbers have been declining steadily in both the United States and Europe. Explanations for the trend range from the child sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic church to the antimodern cultural outlooks of fundamentalist and conservative evangelical denominations. But Richard Beck, a professor and experimental psychologist at Abilene Christian University, has advanced a novel theory: He argues that the internet, and specifically the social-networking site Facebook, has eroded the sense of community that people have typically obtained via church membership.
In an essay posted on his blog titled, “How Facebook Killed the Church,” Beck writes that the notion of a more porous, just-in-time digital community has taken strongest root among the so-called Generation Y folk–people born in the 80s and 90s who are also referred to as “Millennials”–who obsessively use social media on mobile devices.
Beck originally published the essay last year, to little public notice. In recent days, however, social media observers revived it, passing it around on sites like Twitter, Tumblr, and, somewhat ironically, Facebook. He writes:
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. Particularly with the loss of “third places” in America.
But Millennials are in a different social situation. They don’t need physical locations for social affiliation. They can make dinner plans via text, cell phone call or Facebook. In short, the thing that kept young people going to church, despite their irritations, has been effectively replaced. You don’t need to go to church to stay connected or in touch. You have an iPhone.
Sure, Millennials will report that the “reason” they are leaving the church is due to its perceived hypocrisy or shallowness. My argument is that while this might be the proximate cause the more distal cause is social computing. Already connected Millennials have the luxury to kick the church to the curb. This is the position of strength that other generations did not have. We fussed about the church but, at the end of the day, you went to stay connected. For us, church was Facebook!
While it is hard to dispute the general reasoning in Beck’s argument, it’s not only millennials who are maintaining relationships and building communities online. In fact, a new website logs the sinister reach of the elder set in social media bearing the eloquent name “Oh Crap. My parents joined Facebook.” And in full recognition that we are in the midst of a bona fide trend here, “Saturday Night Live” produced a parody commercial for a new product called “Damn It, My Mom is on Facebook!”
Meanwhile, Beck’s own blog, titled “Experimental Theology,” hosts a wide range of comments on the relationship between devotion and social media. One provocative comment suggested that the core concept of divine punishment–a key motivation behind many past generations of church observance–just doesn’t resonate with a generation of media users conditioned to customized online experiences.
“Gen Y’ers don’t have the same type of fear of God as earlier generations… and therein lies the problem for the church. The church has not succeeded in roping the Gen Y’ers in with obligation and guilt and fear to their thing,” commenter “Heather G” wrote. “Gen Y’ers feel un-obligated to anything that doesn’t fit their goals, their dreams for the world, etc. If church isn’t contextually purposeful to them, they have no compulsion to show up….whereas earlier generations would keep going to churches even if they felt no connection to the church whatsoever, simply because they feared a God who they had been taught REQUIRED that they go to church – they felt they ‘HAD TO.'”