20/20 Vision: What Role for Social Media?

Facebook Doesn’t Kill Churches, Churches Kill Churches is the title of a recent article by Dr. Elizabeth Drescher a religion writer and scholar of Christian spirituality at Santa Clara University.  She argues that part of the popularity of social media is that they help people feel in community with each other across a wide range of areas important to their lives.

Churches, she argues, used to play that role but less so today because church social relationships are too superficial to be reinforcing.

Whether you buy that argument or not, it is true that we see people drawn to causes or opportunities to get involved beyond church.

Our 20/20 Vision goal of being a welcoming parish open to all requires that we reach out to the unchurched and underserved in our community to invite people to try out St. Timothy’s rather than just waiting for people to show up on our door step.  This marketing and ‘outreach’ is new to us but not new to the church.  Our challenge is to find ways to reach those likely to be most attracted to our parish community.  Today that means social media connects and a steady, persistent, and attention-getting marketing and communications strategy.

Which brings us to the question she asks in the article:

“Can social media redeem the church?

The short answer is of course, “no.” Maybe the long one is, too.

Indeed, experimental psychologist Richard Beck recently set the religion blogosphere—forgive me—atwitter with a post entitled, “How Facebook Killed the Church.” Beck, a professor at Abilene Christian University, argues that, rather than replacing face-to-face relationships with so many digital doppelgangers, “Facebook tends to reflect our social world,” extending and enriching established friendships rather than, by and large, inviting the development of new ones that take us away from longstanding networks of friends, family, and coworkers.

Beck draws on unpublished research on college retention that showed that freshmen with active Facebook engagement were more likely to return for their sophomore year precisely because their Facebook activity was closely correlated to meaningful face-to-face relationality. This echoes other findings about the more narrow scope of active Facebook affiliations, despite the number of “friends” a person’s profile page might boast.

With regard to churches, Beck reads the data as suggesting that Facebook and other social media are replacing what he believes is the “main draw of the traditional church: social connection and affiliation.”

It’s an engaging argument. Beck is certainly right that church is no longer a central gathering place for the majority of believers and seekers. And, it seems, too, that Facebook has taken up much of the chat about “football,… good schools,… local politics,” and other matters that Beck sees as the “main draw” of routine ecclesial practice in days gone by. Yet the sneak peek Beck offers of his own research appears to undermine the argument.

Not Enough Social to Go Around

The relationships among the undergraduates in Beck’s research were not formed on Facebook, they were enriched by students’ continued digital contact. The problem with regard to churches and other religious communities (and we see this over and over again with Facebook group pages whose only visitors are the minister and the technophile parishioner who championed the church’s foray into the digital domain) seems to be that there’s not enough social to go around.

That is, if church were, indeed, a robustly social experience, Facebook would enrich and extend that experience, enhancing week-to-week retention through ongoing conversation with valued friends—just as it appears to do with undergraduates moving from the first to the second year of college. Thin connections in face-to-face settings are not magically transformed by technology.

Other data suggests deeper reasons for believers and seekers’ abandonment of the institutional church, much of it linked to an understanding of the “social” that has more to do with involvement in practices of compassion, justice, and stewardship than it does with mere interpersonal entertainment. An extensive body of data on growing participation in volunteer activities, especially among young people, and the connection of this activity to religious organizations and spiritual values that are not nurtured in other settings suggests that people are not leaving the church merely because they can more easily connect socially with friends on Facebook. Social media participation does correlate positively to charitable and civic group participation. But here again, where people already have meaningful interpersonal affiliations, social media supports those relationships.

Beyond a growing distaste for the rancor around hot-button issues like human sexuality, gender equity, and reproductive choice, people seem to be put off church because they are able to do the kind of work—tending the sick, advocating for the oppressed, caring for the earth, comforting those in trouble or need—that was long the stock in trade of local churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples; but which, through the modern corporatizing of mainstream religions, was largely outsourced to separate agencies.

This is why you’ll probably find more people volunteering in any given week at Martha’s Kitchen food pantry in downtown San Jose, California than at Sunday services at the church across the street. If Facebook is killing the church, that is, it’s probably more accurate to call it an assisted suicide.”

Elizabeth Drescher, PhD, is a religion writer and scholar of Christian spiritualities who teaches at Santa Clara University. Her book Tweet If You ♥ Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation will be released in Spring 2011. Her Web site is elizabethdrescher.net.

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6 thoughts on “20/20 Vision: What Role for Social Media?

  1. Looking at history: The printing press didn’t cause the protestant reformation, but it made it possible. Social can’t ‘redeem’ the church, but it will make it possible

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