The Church of Facebook

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg knows that his social network is an avenue for human connection. He also knows that traditional means of social capital are on the decline, which means more fragmentation and weaker communities. Facebook has surpassed 2 billion online users worldwide, and Zuckerberg believes his platform can be a solution to our trend of coming apart.

In an address given in Chicago last week, Zuckerberg compared Facebook to Little League and church communities, citing both as examples of declining social connection. Robert Putnam chronicled this phenomenon many years ago in his book Bowling Alone. Americans are not the joiners they once were. Zuckerberg believes that Facebook can bring communities together in the manner churches and other civic organizations once did and that online users should now relate to one another like pastors.

Zuckerberg’s analogy clicked. Here is coverage from Relevant Magazine. On Twitter yesterday I saw more than one comment on the matter, mostly in jest, saying that Facebook’s dominance over the internet and politics is now being extended into the religious sphere.

Here are two key quotations from Zuckerberg’s speech: 

  • “People who go to church are more likely to volunteer and give to charity—not just because they’re religious, but because they’re part of a community.”

  • “A church doesn’t just come together. It has a pastor who cares for the well-being of their congregation, makes sure they have food and shelter …  Leaders set the culture, inspire us, give us a safety net, and look out for us.”

In an effort to replicate this kind of connection online, Facebook has launched a project that increases effectiveness for suggesting groups to online users that enhance a sense of purpose and meaning in life. Zuckerberg remarked that this effort has been effective: “In the first 6 months, we helped 50% more people join meaningful communities.” It is yet to be seen if online connection has thus far been only a first step, or if these communities have made an impact in their localities.

Zuckerberg’s vision is noble, and his remarks suggest that community building will become a major focus of Facebook in the years ahead. This idea parallels one solution often cited among church leaders in reaching millennials and generation Z: better technology and more online effective engagement is key. I have been covering this impulse among church leaders for over a decade. Though he remains one of this generation's greatest innovators, I think Zuckerberg is behind the curve on this one. 

Leading megachurches have started online campuses, conversation forums, job boards, service initiatives, and prayer partnerships in an effort to engage members and reach new people. Churches have hired online pastors who are responsible for facilitating digital connections and increasing social media visibility. I once heard one megachurch pastor tell his congregation that within a five year window more people would participate in their online campus than would be in worship across several physical locations on any given weekend. But it didn’t happen, and it won’t either.

Zuckerberg makes a tremendous assumption: if Facebook users are told to care for one another and make a difference, the social network will respond, meet needs, and communities will be bound together. But where will users learn to do so? Where will they obtain a vision of a better world and a flourishing social order? Where will users encounter exemplars of love and care? What will keep them inspired when times become tough? My expectation is that group membership will be up, but real world impact will be minimal.

There is a prophetic word to be said to millennials and Gen Zers concerning the power and the limits of technology. There is an irreplaceable benefit in “getting together,” and face to face connection in physical spaces gives us the chance to obtain skills in being human that can be gained no other way. Body language and voice inflection cannot always be perceived in online interaction. An no matter how sweet the emojis, nothing can replace a hug, handshake, or high five. Screens cannot wipe away tears.

There is also a prophetic word to be spoken to members of all generations concerning community, particularly with regard to our caring for one another, telling the story of redemption well, and putting what we hear into practice. Whether the church is increasing in membership or in decline, Christ is still our Lord and head. That does not change. But the call to faithfulness among the committed is constant.

Dallas Willard once observed that there is no challenge facing the church which discipleship cannot solve. If our communities are fragmenting, Christians have the means to gather in and bind together members of a community that are much more ancient than any social media network, and the church is animated by a power far more effective than any technology. The task will require a return to Jesus Christ, obedience to his teaching, and a reliance on his grace.

All these are available, and none require wifi. I do hope Facebook does succeed in their efforts to make the world a better place. But I’ll take the actual church over Facebook any day.