In the era of Facebook, just what are congregations for?

In the era of Facebook, just what are congregations for? April 2, 2012

What are congregations for? It’s a simple question at face value, but I think the answer to it is becoming less and less obvious in the West. You could reply with something like, “They’re for collective worship, as they have always been,” and quote me Hebrews 10:25 and be on your merry way to the next blog. But you’ll have oversimplified it and overlooked all the other things that people often hope or wish for, or benefit from, in a congregation. The frenzy of “church shopping” suggests people either don’t know what they want in a congregation, or else they don’t know what congregations are for.

Christian congregations do more than just get together to (produce) worship, obviously. Theoretically, people in congregations also socialize, form friendships, learn (via small groups or classes), support each other, and bear burdens and celebrate joys. Congregations often contain particular people that you want to (or hope your children) emulate or model, too.

But you don’t have to go to church to find this stuff. According to new nationally-representative data on 18-39-year-old Americans, however, 26 percent of men and 36 percent of women spend at least an hour a day using social networking. (That’s more than the share of Americans who spend an hour once a week in religious services.) So if churchgoing was once in part about social interaction with like-minded people, then very many people, including Christians, are getting plenty of that online today. In other words, people don’t need congregations for socialization as much as they might once have, because they can (and plenty do) get that online. Sure, virtual communities are different, but for many it’s close enough, and for some people I know it’s largely replaced the sociality of congregational life.

Facebook in particular seems particularly adept at fostering a mediated (although IMHO pathetic) form of social support: if you post something difficult about your life or circumstances, flocks of people seem to come out of the woodwork to post nice things in order to make you feel better. But caring classically involved a physical reality, so long as it was possible to be present. And yet plenty of people, Christians included, seem to have settled into a far more modest form of social support that is public and seemingly enthusiastic in appearance but short on real substance and nearly nil on actual effort. Forty posted comments can’t replace a bona fide visit or two if you’re in the hospital. But that’s where we’re at, and likely where we’ll stay.

So the social support function of congregations may be changing, giving way to virtual community rather than taxing, expensive presence. Now, on to social control.

In a coffee-time discussion with a friend whose marriage is on the rocks, we batted around this question about the purpose of congregations. He had hoped that his congregation would be more helpful around his struggling marriage. But what does it mean for a congregation to act to improve his position—in this case, to encourage a spouse to return? If Facebook posts are replacing in-person hospital visits, it’s almost beyond imagination that congregants would do the much-harder work of calling each other to account (even if people would concur about what to do in the first place.) I’m not talking about formal, old-school church discipline here–no–just the standard encouraging each other to do what is good (Heb. 10:24).

So this particular social purpose of congregations seems “on life support” today. Perhaps it’s OK: I can recall stories from before my time about public confessions of premarital pregnancies—yikes—and occasional “interventions” with alcoholics or chronic abusers (which of course strike us as far more reasonable). Congregational social control, if it much exists at all, seems pretty ineffective today. People really do mind their own business. And so we’ve largely become self-policing.

But the problem is that people still yearn for social control and authority. They want some things to be out of bounds, and at bottom social order and external authority is what helps people get through tough times. Parents have always known that about children. But parents, too, want order in their own lives. And yet we’re ambivalent about authority outside of the self. It seems risky.

Back to the question: what are congregations for? In a consumer-oriented society, social support will be what people say they want. But what if what they’ve become poor at—social order and authority—is what people really need?

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  • John Riley

    I don’t think social media will ever come close to the friendships and relationships developed anywhere, but especially the ones developed inside the church. I wouldn’t want to try to build those through any other means than face to face contact.

  • John Riley

    I don’t think social media will ever come close to creating the friendships and relationships developed in real life, but especially the ones developed inside the church. I wouldn’t want to try to build those through any other means than face to face contact. You don’t end up having the broad, life-changing conversations over twitter, Facebook, and even text as compared to coffee or even a phone call.

    • Mark Regnerus

      Agreed, John, at least conceptually. But people vote with their feet, or in this case, their fingers. I wonder seriously whether many people 20 years from now will have settled for ethereal relationships, or whether the social media thing will have run its course.

  • randy

    I’m troubled by the term “social control” due to the largely negative connotations of “control,” would you consider it a term of art? On the issue of public confessions, I’ve never seen one, but that feels more like a counter-anecdote than anything like data – is there any kind of analytic work on this topic (I’m not even sure what that would even look like)? How does self-policing comport with a meaningful concept of sin? Is there a difference between Roman Catholic and Evangelical (to narrow the field a bit) churches? What about things like marriage, which is a public sacrament (is that right), there must be room for accountability there?
    Finally, should I be asking a theologian these questions? Should I just convert to Catholicism? Should I wait for the book?

    • Mark Regnerus

      Good questions, Randy. I’m not sure that those questions are best aimed at theologians, although in my experience theologians will always give an answer. But theologians typically focus on ideals, and I always lean toward wanting to know how people and organizations function, since there’s quite often a gap between ideal and reality. But the question about self-policing and sin is probably aimed more in their direction than mine.

      Social psychologists Roy Baumeister and Michael McCullough (FSU and U of Miami, respectively) have written on religion and control, but typically more about self-control than social control.

      The Catholic and evangelical question, however, is something I’ve thought about. The following was in the original version of my post, but I edited before posting. Didn’t want to go there. But since you asked…

      Social control in Catholic parishes seems often indirect—that is, it’s not typically via people but via its positions (things like its teachings, the Catechism, what you know the priests would and would not affirm, etc.). In that sense, it’s like the law, and fairly fixed. All the chatter of several weeks ago about how 98 percent of Catholics (or something like that) have used birth control (at some point) highlights this: Catholic social control is more in the foundation, the law, even if popular behavior seeks to demur. And they note this in the Cathechism: a bad priest doesn’t nullify the teaching.

      Social control in Protestant congregations—no matter what the flavor—seems more a function of the people than of positions or foundations. Congregations, or even denominations, can take positions, but unlike in the Catholic world people can just church-shop their way to a congregation that takes positions they prefer. So social control there, I think, functions differently. The foundation is more apt to be a moving target.

      And of course both Protestants and Catholics can shun people, for whatever reason–that’s still a pretty effective way of social control. And shunning is nearly universal, hardly limited to Christians. (See “Adolescence” for examples…)

      • Karl

        Interesting stuff Mark.

        The problem with self-policing is that we all think we are pretty good people, doctrine about original sin notwithstanding. I’ve been reading about “self-assessment” in education – such as, physicians self-assessing their own training needs – and the literature is very firm that self-assessment is normally too positive. We think we are doing well in the clinic, until we get the data and realize we are only properly vaccinating 65% of the kids. Similarly, leaders tend to over-rate their abilities in team and organizational leadership. All of this leads people who work in continuing education, performance improvement, and leadership development to recommend external sources of assessment (e.g. opinions of friends, or data) as a spur to change. Put differently, most of us think we are above average drivers.

        This is just another angle on why self-policing will not be very effective. But you are right, even in small groups in the church, its hard to challenge one another without seeming to be a jerk. We do benefit from the examples and gentle counsel of others in those settings, but we rarely challenge toward discipleship.

        We are reading a book about discipleship and it says that in churches we tend to assume discipleship rather than intentionally cultivating it. Rings true.


        • Mark Regnerus

          Amen, Karl. Good points.

          (You, however, are truly an above-average driver. Like me.)