In 2001, sociologist Robert Putnam wrote his influential thesis about the decline of community engagement in America. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community described the culture’s retreat from traditional in-person social networks like civic groups, service clubs and even churches toward the more isolating kinds of entertainment and interaction made possible by technology. Almost right on cue, Mark Zuckerberg founded the social media platform Facebook while a college sophomore at Harvard in 2004. Originally designed as a platform for college students to check one another out, Facebook is now a worldwide network of some 2 billion users who interact with many “friends,” some of whom they have never met in person. What was originally a chance to connect and reconnect with new and old friends has morphed into a global phenomenon that purportedly shrinks the distance between people and gives them an opportunity to interact and share themselves with one another. Now in its second decade, Facebook is engaged in a new mission. With a nod to Robert Putnam, Zuckerberg noted in a June 2017 speech: “It’s striking that for decades, membership in all kinds of groups has declined by as much as one-quarter. That’s a lot of people who now need to find a sense of purpose and support somewhere else.” For Zuckerberg, that somewhere else is Facebook, which he sees as a postmodern, post-traditional form of “church.” “People who go to church are more likely to volunteer and give to charity,” says Zuckerberg, “not just because they’re religious, but because they’re part of a community.” Zuckerberg’s vision of Facebook as a kind of church doesn’t rule out God, but it does lift up a kind of community for community’s sake. In the Facebook church, who or what is being worshiped? What’s the community’s purpose?
We do engage in social media, and have a church website https://faithchurchsandiego.org/ , and Facebook pages https://www.facebook.com/faithchurchsd/ and https://www.facebook.com/FaithPresSDSU/ and an Instagram site https://www.instagram.com/faithchurchsd/, but they pale in significance to experiencing fellowship together in Christ in person!
Comparing a virtual church of billions of isolated individuals tapping on keyboards to the real thing might cause us in our Faith Presbyterian Church family to smile and perhaps laugh. But we have to ask ourselves the question: What is the church missing that would allow Zuckerberg and millions of others to want to substitute wading through political rants and vacation selfies for real interaction with a living, breathing, worshiping community? In what ways has our church allowed the Bowling Alone theory to become a reality? We began this month singing our alleluias and proclaiming “he is risen!” We trace our roots to the miracle and might of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which empowered and guided the community of the followers of Jesus. Their stories are told throughout the book of Acts. Almost nobody worships, evangelizes or bowls alone in that book and all the interaction is face to face. This is what the church does. While Facebook’s innovation has had an amazing impact in the world by bringing us faces (of friends and family) right to our screens, the church allows us to experience faces— the faces and lives of people in a community of faith, a community in which we act, serve and work together for the glory of God!
From the very beginning of Acts we learn that God, via the Holy Spirit, created this community called church not for the purpose of people merely checking one another out, but for introducing people to the good news of what God had done through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The very premise of the community was that God had come in person in Jesus and hadn’t settled for sharing a meme or posting a manifesto. Jesus would form a real community of disciples, complete with their own quirks and flaws, and train them how to interact with others in order to bring them into God’s kingdom. The Spirit empowered them for this work and, as a result, the community platform grew by leaps and bounds. Immediately, this community began connecting in person around tables in their homes, in the temple and through sharing their goods with one another (Acts 2:42-47). For the community of the early church, they were a lot more about selfless service than selfies! What we see in someone’s Facebook profile is precisely what they want us to see and no more. Those vacation photos, pics of new cars and beautiful selfies are all designed in some way to show everyone else that we’re doing quite well, thank you very much. For some people, the goal is to attract more “friends” and receive more “likes,” which can make even the most mature adult begin acting like an insecure and self-obsessed seventh-grader. There’s even evidence that using Facebook can cause depression in some who see the lives their “friends” present online as being much better than their own.
The church, on the other hand, was designed as a community where people focus on others more than themselves. It was created as a group centered on belief in the God who had saved them because they were all in the same situation — they were all sinners in need of grace. They had no impression to manage because they were all outsiders to their culture. Instead, they were “of one heart and soul,” completely focused on what God had done for them in Jesus (Acts 4:32). They modeled their lives after him by voluntarily and sacrificially caring for others to the point of seeing their own personal possessions as being available to everyone else in the community. Facebook, on the other hand, has no overarching narrative other than the collective stories of its users and no authoritative testimony other than the individual’s opinion and worldview.
A need for community led the early church to be generous with one another. As God had been generous with his grace in Jesus, so they would be generous with one another, believing that their lives were part of something much bigger than themselves. While Facebook has launched a revolution in the way people relate to one another in a technological age, it can never replace the church and its real life impact. Perhaps if we took seriously the way of community in the early church we wouldn’t be competing with a virtual substitute. We can once again more completely be people of the Book who share with others face to face! How might our Faith Presbyterian Church family better reflect this kind of community? What are we doing to promote it? How are we helping people to move from bowling and posting alone toward a real encounter with Jesus and his people? Sisters and brothers, think on these things.
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? Isa. 43:18-19
Faithfully, Yours in Christ,