I watched The Social Dilemma the other day—mostly because I saw everyone talking about it on Facebook (which is ironic). And, right off the top, I want to say that it’s a sobering and informative piece. For many folks, this documentary didn’t offer any new information. But it’s critical that we remind ourselves (and each other) that we are the product tech companies are manipulating and selling to advertisers.
After the documentary was over, I reflected on the ecclesiological implications. The universal problems that social media creates are bad enough, but what does it mean for the church. What challenges does it pose for the kingdom of God?
Are we being programmed?
As the doc pointed out, these platforms aren’t really interested in selling our data. They’re making billions of dollars by selling our attention. Which means they need to do two things:
- Predict our behavior
- Keep our attention
The sobering reminder at the heart of The Social Dilemma is that they’re using manipulation to accomplish both feats. Not only does a sophisticated algorithm accurately predict your behavior, but it also uses notifications and individually selected content to keep you engaged.
The problem is that they serve up content based entirely on your past behavior. It’s like having a butler who recognizes your penchant for sweets and now only feeds you pie. Unfortunately, this means that social platforms zero on your current opinions and attitudes and then lock them into place.
What’s chilling is the fact that these programs are unable to differentiate between truth and fiction. If you’ve demonstrated a penchant for right-wing information, it has no problem suggesting news stories and videos to you that promote QAnon conspiracies, COVID and anti-mask propaganda, or other nonsense. It cannot discern the quantifiable differences in content. It just knows you hate liberals and wants to suggest more articles about that.
No matter your starting point, social media algorithms will suggest groups, pages, and content that pushes you further down that rabbit hole. This is why there so many stories about people who have been sucked into an insane vortex. It starts with someone’s son reading a right-wing blog and ends with them posting on Bugaloo Boy message boards.
I have an older Christian woman in my family who has always been the picture of poise, wisdom, and gentleness. But over the last couple of years, we’ve watched her get sucked into bizarre right-wing Christian nonsense online—recently posting about Antifa starting all the California wildfires and how America needs to go to war against them.
It’s troubling and incredibly dangerous.
Artificial intelligence and evolving perspective
Human perspective is never entirely static. We’re all evolving, changing in response to our environment. We gather knowledge and information, and if the conditions are right, we grow and mature. If we’re lucky, we become wise. But wisdom isn’t a natural byproduct of information or age. It takes work to acquire.
So what happens when artificial intelligence (A.I.) becomes the center of our daily human experience—especially when that A.I. isn’t programmed to enrich us? It’s entirely probable that someday an algorithm could be created to augment and develop understanding. But for the time being, it’s being used to harvest our attention to make stockholders wealthier.
A year ago, the Pew Research Center reported how social media was becoming a primary news source for many people. Here’s the percentage of people who get their news from major platforms.
- Facebook: 43%
- YouTube: 21%
- Twitter: 12%
- Instagram: 8%
- LinkedIn: 6%
- Reddit: 5%
- Snapchat: 5%
That was a year ago. You can almost guarantee that all of these numbers have gone up. What’s troubling about this is that it makes acquiring information a passive activity. We scroll until something catches our eye. And so it makes sense that platforms would want our feed to be algorithmically juggled to ensure we see more of what we’ve demonstrated an inclination toward.
If we tend to rage click on content that pisses us off, we will find more and more of that to respond to. What is the long-term impact of this on the human psyche? How does that impact our development?
Social media is changing us, but not with any strategy or intention. We’re like infants being spoonfed, but it’s not by loving parents who feel responsible for our nutrition. It’s an emotionless program that’s sole aim is to maintain our attention as often and for as long as possible.
“What is truth?” retorted Pilate
Throughout the nineties, evangelical leaders warned that post-modernism would usher in an era where truth no longer mattered. The take at the time was that godless, heathen liberals would intentionally dismantle the fabric of reality. The loss of objectivity would be intentional and malicious.
It turns out that they were somewhat correct, or at least right adjacent. There were a few key things they were wrong about:
- The dismantling of truth couldn’t have been less intentional. Relativism has become a problem, but not by design. We’re being siphoned into our own single-serving realities that reinforce our natural biases—and we all think they represent actual reality. It’s not that we think there’s no such thing as truth; we’ve just all decided that only our truth matters.
- The damage isn’t just being done by liberals. One could (and should) argue that right-leaning Christians are greatly responsible for dismantling reality.
American evangelicalism has become so arrogantly committed to the accuracy of their views, perspectives, and interpretations that they’ve begun dismissing objectivity as “fake news.” All the while, they’re gobbling up actual fake news about celebrity pedophile rings, Antifa, COVID-19, etc.
But the problem with social media isn’t conservative. It’s a human problem. On some level, every single one of us is developing a primarily individual and personalized truth. We’re all bellying up to social media’s epistemological buffet and sitting down with plates piled high with our favorite stuff.
Of course, some variance in perspective and worldview is to be expected. But it’s a problem when we can no longer agree on basic facts—especially about clear things Jesus has communicated.
What does this mean for the church?
From the very outset, Christianity happened within the context of community. The faith isn’t about a bunch of individuals and their personal relationship with Jesus. It was about responding to an invitation to the kingdom. But community doesn’t occur on accident. It has some basic requirements:
- Shared truth
- Shared values
- Shared goals
Now when I say “shared truth,” I don’t mean perfect objectivity that sees the world exactly how it is. And I’m not talking about complete homogeneity, where everyone agrees on everything.
I’m talking about a general shared worldview and outlook. And even if that shared perspective is dead wrong, it can still lead to community. Consider the Branch Davidians, Jonestown, or the Manson Family. They all shared faulty truths that manufactured legitimate (if not dysfunctional) community.
These three things are the building blocks of community—even if they’re imperfect or dangerous. Without them, cohesive communinity becomes almost impossible to achieve.
Churches all over the United States are experiencing the tragedy of congregations full of people living their unique truths, values, and goals. Often hostile to the ideals of the person in the pew beside them. How can Christian community be created when there are dramatic differences around issues about racial inequality, justice, women in leadership, the value of immigrants, and God’s view of the poor?
Without these shared perspectives, churches end up with is a mission statement like “We affirm Jesus is important, but what that looks like is entirely up to you.” It’s like trying to run a meaningful book club around choose-your-own-adventure books.
The average American spends more than three hours each day on social platforms (even more when you factor in other types of media). How can the church compete with people already catechized by algorithms catering to their personal fears and desires?
Clergy need to firmly and consistently cast a vision for their shared truth, vision, and goals. But to do so requires challenging the alternative truths, values, and goals that people drag into community. Anyone who fears immigrants, believes them to be dangerous or evil, and pushes for hardline immigration policies should be uncomfortable in a Christian environment. Period.
But the minute you confront their delusion, people will leave for the church down the street. Our overhead requires that we hold onto (and make tithers) out of everyone. Free-market Christianity demands that we entertain our members, not challenge them. This is why you’re five times more likely to hear a sermon about overcoming stress than one on the idolatry of patriotism.
That said, there is one evangelical demographic that does this well. Unfortunately, it’s ultra-right-wing churches. They don’t care about offending their parishioners, being abrasive and dogmatic is their whole draw. They will clearly, consistently, and unapologetically lay out the truths, values, and goals that they gather around—and often they experience community in ways that other churches don’t.
Imagine what would happen if we could do the same while turning out people who acted and loved like Jesus. Sadly, it’s a lot easier to create religious bigots than self-sacrificial disciples.
We know that divisive fault lines are running through our churches and threatening their health (if not existence). But the problem isn’t politics; it’s media companies profiting off of division and rage.
If churches continue to focus on politics being the problem and see the goal as creating peace at all costs, we cannot offer anything transformative to our congregations. This was Jesus’s whole point when he said “I didn’t come to bring peace, but a sword.” He was challenging presumptions, and he knew people weren’t going to stand for that.
Here’s a basic fact that free-market Christianity needs to understand. The body of Christ is like any other body. It needs to periodically eliminate waste. Regular bowel movements are a necessity. If you’re trying to hold onto everyone, you’re not saying anything they truly need to hear. If racists, homophobes, or misogynists feel comfortable in our congregations, they’re not hearing the gospel. And you can be sure that Facebook, Twitter, and 4-Chan are affirming what you ignore.
We need to double down on who Jesus is, what Jesus stood for, and what Jesus asked from us. And we can’t just do it for 90 minutes on Sunday morning.
Calling all mystics and servants
More than anything, we need to quit presenting Jesus as a mere propositional truth. Faith has to be more than a concept or a premise. We need to make theology a verb.
It’s time to prioritize the disciplines.
Isn’t it crazy to think that the Desert Fathers withdrew from society to find Jesus? And the societies they abandoned didn’t have a third of the noise and chaos modern society generates. We would not last 20 minutes in the dull, stimulus-free environments that these Christians felt agitated their spirits. They believed these boring towns were too distracting to their spiritual goals.
Meanwhile, in the midst of a constant bombardment of noise and stimulation, modern-Christians tout a 20-minute quiet time of Bible reading or maybe a devotional. Then perhaps some intercessory prayer where believers rattle off a few requests. This just cannot offset the invasive maelstrom of the modern world.
We desperately need disciplines of silence, stillness, hospitality, and minimalism. We live in a new world that requires we come up with all new and improved practices and ways to experience gospel realities.
If churches want to combat media indoctrination, it can’t be done by merely offering an opposing set of facts. It has to be about exposing people to an alternative experience. Hearing about the kingdom is worthless when there is a legitimate kingdom experience waiting to be discovered and enjoyed.
The problem is that we’re fresh off of decades where our energy, efforts, and resources have been poured into improving our facilities to get people to come see our show.
Seeing the church as an empowering and sending force is a massive paradigm shift. But the basic fact is that corporations are using social media to disciple your people. Whatever ceremonial ritual you’ve been using at church for the last 40 years (announcements, worship songs, sermon, worship song) is no longer adequate for creating disciples (if it ever was).
It’s time to take this seriously and make some drastic fundamental changes from the ground up.