Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Is Facebook killing the church?

Richard Beck thinks so; here's an excerpt of his argument:

The difference between Generations X and Y isn't in their views of the church. It's about those cellphones. It's about relationships and connectivity. Most Gen X'ers didn't have cell phones, text messaging or Facebook. These things were creeping in during their college years but the explosive onset of mobile devices and social computing had yet to truly take off.

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. . . .

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!

To the extent that this argument has merit, I'm guessing it holds more truth for Protestants than for Catholics.  In general, my experience of Protestant churches is that the churchgoing experience is more social, especially for young people, than the experience at most Catholic churches, where the experience is more centered on the individual, and where folks tend to flee as soon as Mass is finished (or sooner, in many cases).  In any event, it's an intriguing thesis.


Vischer, Rob | Permalink

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Quite interesting. We have dropped the ball, but not when it comes to social networking. The purpose of Mass is NOT, I repeat NOT, connecting with people. It isn't about "us." The Mass is the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross in an unbloody manner. It is about HIM. When we focus on the most Holy Trinity in our worship it is efficacious. However, when we focus on ourselves then it ceases to be worship. It is only for us in the sense that we need to worship, we are created for it. I constantly remind the youth that Mass is not meant to be entertaining or "fun" it is far more then that. We should not cheapen Mass, but we have over the last few decades. We should use the new translations as an opportunity to teach people how to worship again. I suggest the book Liturgy and Personality by Von Hildebrand.

Posted by: Fr. J | Feb 17, 2011 11:09:55 AM

A comment about Shiffrin's post in regard to this: just today the annual stats on church growth came out. It is Catholic and conservative faiths that are growing, not the more liberal "tolerant" (sic) ones. In fact the more "progressive" churches are the ones that decline most rapidly. When focus on God is lost and the focus becomes us or our current pc wisdom then decline is inevitable.

Posted by: Fr. J | Feb 17, 2011 11:14:38 AM

If the argument is churches are losing people because they don't offer young people something worthwhile that they can't get on Facebook, then shame on the churches.

Although there is a social aspect to the church experience (my parish has coffee hour after morning masses every Sunday), I hope the message churches are conveying is not that church is simply a physical networking site.

Posted by: Susan Stabile | Feb 17, 2011 11:47:26 AM

My son, Michael, has talked about the need for a Catholic Social Network that would eventually compete with Comcast, Google, Facebook, etc. Certainly the potential is there if enough Catholics unite, not to mention the fact that the content of material would be appealing to many, not just to Catholics.

Posted by: Nancy D. | Feb 17, 2011 11:48:51 AM


I would agree that Catholics don't go to church for the reasons that Evangelicals do. But Catholics (and Orthodox) also do go to church for a reason that Evangelicals don't: to participate in the mass and, for most, to receive Christ's body and blood in the Eucharist. And there ain't no app for that.

Here one sees an important difference between Protestantism and the faith of the Catholic and Orthodox Church: the stress on the physicality, the materiality of our faith. This is why, I would submit, it is much easier to explain to a Catholic young person than it is to an Evangelical why it is important to get up and go to church on Sunday.

For both reasons, I would presume, you are correct: the "Facebook effect" would hit Evangelicals much more than Catholics.

Posted by: Eric | Feb 17, 2011 2:47:11 PM

For practicing Catholics, the Eucharist is the source and summit of our Christian life.

Posted by: Nancy D. | Feb 17, 2011 3:18:41 PM

I agree with Eric. Catholic Church attendance is fundamentally different than Protestant Church attendance. As a recent convert, I can attest that there is hardly anything in a protestant church that isn't also attainable through 1) facebook for likeminded socializing, 2) TV for worship, sermons, etc and, 3) a book about whatever flavor of Christianity you prefer.

Facebook can only "kill the church," as Beck puts it, if the church has nothing tangible to offer.

Posted by: Lindsey Bachman | Feb 17, 2011 3:23:46 PM

oops, that should read: For practicing Catholics,"The Eucharist is the source and summit of our Christian life". Social networking that is not reflective of genuine friendship is a symptom of the failure to develop healthy and Holy relationships grounded in The Truth of Love.

Posted by: Nancy D. | Feb 17, 2011 3:34:30 PM

Interesting to read because I am evangelical. I think it is hard to get direct prayers from others or counseling outside of actual attendance at a Protestant church (both of which happen every week at the front of my church), but I definitely concede you are all right about the relative importance of mass. I think the best reason Protestant parents have to tell their kids is: Jesus commands it, so do it!

Posted by: anon | Feb 18, 2011 10:01:01 PM