Professor Richard Beck offers a provocative and well-written look at a truth that hardly anyone else is willing to state. In his piece “How Facebook Killed the Church,” he argues that our new connectivity through Facebook and cell phones, and the broader digital world of Twitter and Skype, is hammering away at the foundational social purpose of organized religion and its houses of worship. He cites demographic evidence that the millennials are leaving in droves and not returning, arguing that this is not because of some new awareness that religion is corrupt or boring, but rather because the digital world is providing what the Church once provided nearly exclusively: a center of social networking.
He writes that the main reason that churches thrived in the past is “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.
This rationale makes sense, and it is worth taking very seriously. The digital age has changed more than we know, and this will continue. Just as so many publishers and producers have gone belly up in the face of new methods of distribution, so too social institutions need to wise up to the competition they face from social networking in the digital age.
Before the age of digits, I can recall feeling sorry for my unchurched friends who would try to find other community outlets to attend, like barren civic organizations or dance groups. They would hang out in bars and libraries and coffee shops just to find some center for their social lives. They become like cultural nomads, searching here and there for a support group while finding little that wasn’t superficial and generally unreliable. I can think of many people who decided to throw in the towel and affect a kind of faith if only to find a “church home” as a base of social networking.
This is not so much a problem anymore. These days, social relationships can take off from a chance meeting — in person or online — and then blossom into a community in the digital universe. Here people can get to know each other, find attentive ears for their opinions, and get instant reaction from others. They can stay in touch and foster that sense of being part of something larger than themselves. They can form groups based on interests revealed in profiles that might have taken years to reveal in the past.
And contrary to what some argue, digital relationships are not necessarily inferior to face-to-face ones. They are an extension of them, an opportunity to deepen friendships in a speedier way than face-to-face relationships ever could. And such relationships extend beyond geographic limits and even time: We are as likely to strike up a good conversation with someone we haven’t seen in 20 years as we are to do the same with someone we see every week. These are not artificial relationships but very real ones that interface beautifully with the non-digital world.
Not only that: The digital world is already providing face-to-face contact instantly, and at no charge. The iPhone 4 offers “FaceTime” as an option along with audio-only calls, and Skype permits anyone to place calls with audio and video in real time, all at no charge. But contrary to what one might expect, most people are disinclined to use the FaceTime option as frequently as the audio-only or texting option. When people are free to choose, it turns out that they prefer a bit of distance over digital media that more closely approximates physical contact.
Professor Beck doesn’t go into this, but there is also an important “pairing up” element to consider. Online dating sites are not a place just for “losers” or the forlorn; they have evolved into serious and beneficial venues for finding people who might make good partners for life. They are organized by interest and religious opinion, and, crucially, they permit a degree of honesty in revealing our true selves that face-to-face contact does not. The older generation might see these venues as suspect, but not so young people. Interacting this way with people is the norm, and it makes sense that dating is part of that.
Here again, we see the gradual replacement of an important social function of organized religion, one that is very real and important in people’s lives. No longer do the unchurched among us face lonely evenings sitting on bar stools or suffering in miserable quietude and loneliness. Now people can easily sign up, post, and enjoy the hunt in the digital world. People can meet others from within their online milieu and establish and develop relationships apart from church.
This is a very serious reality: Many young people are wondering what value is added from getting up on Sunday morning to slog to some building and sit for an hour, when they could otherwise be sleeping or engaging in real (digital) social times with their real (digital) friends.
Catholics might wonder whether this analysis really applies to our own Church, but if we are thinking purely about the social aspects of the faith, it must. This presents a serious challenge to any parish that hopes to survive in the digital age, especially one that has solely emphasized the communal aspects of worship: gathering, shaking hands, meeting those around you, enjoying the personality of the priest, feeling at home with one’s neighbors, and reveling in all the ways we are drawn together as people.
All of these features of the worship experience are more or less replaceable by digital contact and modern communication media.
Presuming that we do not desire the death of the Church, the question we must ask is: What is the value added by the physical structure of the church? For Catholics, the answer is easy and profound: The Church offers the Real Presence of Christ. There is nothing in the digital world, or any online community, that can replace that contact with the Real Presence.
The social relationships, the mating game, the sense of community, the togetherness — all of this can be replicated and conceivably improved upon through another media. Not so the Real Presence. Everything that Catholics do is bound up with this idea, which is why the tabernacle is (or should be) in the center of the sanctuary. The liturgy and its rituals are centered on Christ’s presence in physical form. The sacrifice of the Mass that takes place on the altar can only occur here. The graces that come from being there are only available by being there.
But if Catholics in the pews are not aware of its profound mysteries and its significance, there is no particular reason for them to be at Mass rather than anywhere else. The push for recapturing traditional liturgical forms is not merely to reassert ritual for its own sake, but rather to make us aware of the reality of what is happening in the physical space — helping our minds and hearts transcend that space and leave temporality altogether, doing that impossible thing of touching eternity. This is what happens at every Mass, and the ritual is there to achieve this in the most dignified and precise way possible, in a manner that glorifies God and heightens our own consciousness of God’s message to us.
The digital age offers a profound challenge to religious believers who continue to desire that the faithful gather to praise God. The Church has served other purposes as well, and this is all to the good. But to the extent that these are not theological and liturgical purposes, they are in danger of being displaced.
Many Catholic thinkers and writers have for decades chosen to emphasize the communal and social aspects of the liturgy over its theological dimension. This comes through in their recommendation of music that “people like” and “can sing” with gusto. The presider should be friendly and accessible, like your best friend. Homilies should be upbeat and funny. We must greet our neighbors and extend a hand of friendship, dragging out the “sign of peace” as long as possible.
This perspective now faces a serious problem. What is it that the Church offers uniquely? Here we must embrace a deeper understanding of why we gather: not only the traditional teaching concerning the Real Presence, but also the traditional liturgical structure that makes that awareness an integral part of the experience at Mass. This goes for music, vestments, architecture, and every other aspect of liturgical life.
The world is crying out for sacred space, and there is little that the digital world can do to create that. There is nothing that the digital world can do to create the Real Presence of Christ. This is the “app” that the Catholic Church offers, and it is a very serious matter because it deals with eternal, immortal things.
The Church does have something unique to offer, even and especially in the digital age. But if we do not embrace the liturgical forms that underscore that unique offering, we are as much in danger as Professor Beck suggests. Facebook may indeed kill the touchy-feely form of Catholicism that many have urged on us for decades. Community feeling will not fill the pews in the future. However, re-embracing ritual, solemnity, and truth will.