The Google-fication of God, Part 1

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Try this quick experiment: Google your name and see what pops up in the search results. Next, call your friend across town or across the country and ask her to google your name, too. Compare the results.

And don't be surprised if they are completely different.

While my search results might be full of links to my blog, my book, my church's website and the sarcastic comments I left last week on a political forum, my friend is likely to just have a pile of links to a band that happens to share my name: Brian Kirk and the Jirks. Why the discrepancy in search results? To my surprise, while reading Eli Pariser's new book, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You, I discovered that these disparate results are just what Google intends.

Pariser writes,

Most of us assume that when we google a term, we all see the same results—the ones that the company's famous Page Rank algorithm suggests are the most authoritative based on other page's links. But since December 2009, this is no longer true. Now you get results that Google's algorithm suggests is best for you in particular—and someone else may see something entirely different. In other words, there is no standard Google anymore.

Pariser explains that even though Google was expected to make our personal worlds larger by connecting us to a vast storehouse of diverse information, in truth it has only helped to make our worlds smaller and increasingly homogenous. The more you use Google, it seems, the more it "learns" you and begins returning a narrow selection of results reflecting back your own opinions, politics, interests, and prejudices.

I have to wonder sometimes if this is exactly what we are doing in the mainline and progressive Church with our youth. Just as our teens are accustomed to Google, MySpace, Facebook, Amazon, and Netflix acting as a mirror that reflects what users already believe, what we already read and watch, and what we already like and desire, so too in the mainline church we are guilty of allowing youth to simply define Christianity to be whatever teens (and adults) want it to be.  

How often do we ever teach that there are some non-negotiables when it comes to Christian faith? How often do we ever respectfully engage conflicting points of view that don't fit our liberal/progressive spiritual worldview? How often do we allow for the possibility that our conservative or evangelical brothers and sisters just might know something about the faith that we don't? How often do we encourage our teens to interact with the church down the road that doesn't share our politics or our sense of social or moral justice?

Kenda Creasy Dean, in her text Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, suggests we have now raised several generations of youth who value their own limited personal experiences most of all with little or no understanding of historical church tradition, practice, or language. These youth may be actively involved in a congregation, but the faith they practice is fairly utilitarian—it's there when they need it and often it simply reflects back to them what they already want to think, believe, or feel about the world around them. This is the Googlefication of spirituality. It leads to a shallow faith in which teens are ultimately left with the message that Christianity is simply about being "nice" and occasionally connecting with a God who, not unlike Google, is just there when we happen to need an answer or help with something.

So what's to be done? How do we uplug our youth from this overly self-reflective approach to faith and challenge them to seek a deeper and more challenging experience of Christian life? I'll explore those questions in part two.