By Todd Dildine, who is a pastor at a small neighborhood church in Uptown, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Chicago. He is most passionate about helping the church navigate the challenges of post-Christendom. Todd loves playing volleyball and he’s going to get married this summer!
This is Part 3 of a blog series that aims to identify the main reasons why the church is dying, and the steps necessary to take in order to restore it. Make sure you read Part 1 and Part 2 before continuing on to Part 3.
Today, we’ll cover one of the Anti-Community Forces that is a main reason behind why church participation has decreased 38% in the last few decades, and 59% of millennials have left the church—our relationship with technology.
The Second ACF: Screens and Technology
The second most influential Anti-Community Force that is affecting our communities is the rapid development and uptake of technology for personal and quotidian use. Over the past several decades, Americans have witnessed a flood of technological devices and systems that has radically altered our lifestyles, and as a result contribute in large part to the decline of our social fabric. Just recently, Americans crossed a particularly alarming technology threshold: The average American now spends more time in the virtual world while awake than in the physical world. Digital technologies, especially screen-based platforms, have transformed the way and rate in which people interact. For churches to speak about our decline and neglect the technological society in which we are swimming in will prove only to provide a cosmetic solution to our decaying structure (see Part 1 for a fuller discussion of this).
This blog post will emphasize the impact of screen-based technology on social engagement, but it’s worthwhile to note that community-disrupting technologies range much broader than merely TVs and smartphones.
We begin with the birth of the screen: The black and white television began to claim a central spot in our lives by 1955, at which point half of Americans owned a TV. It began to reshape our living rooms, reorienting the space dedicated to talking and sharing with others toward the television as the single focal point, and it’s only been more fully embraced as a part of social life since then. By 2007, it evolved into a different form, but equally central to our lives and lifestyles—the iPhone.
Today, nearly 98% of homes have a TV at their center, and 77% of Americans have a smartphone, just 10 years after their introduction. We have swallowed the promise and pleasure of personal technology whole hog, without first evaluating whether it’s good for human flourishing. And at this point, we’re moving fast.
Technology & Community
Besides being an interesting phenomenon, we know our relationship with technology is important to examine for three critical reasons, each of which I’ll explain more in depth.
1) Technology is not neutral. It will shape us and our environment to varying degrees.
2) Technology has changed the way we spend our leisure time.
3) There is a negative correlation between screen time and community participation.
1) Not neutral: Screens, like all forms of technology, do not have a neutral impact on our communities when introduced. We shape our tools, but in turn they shape us by altering our physical and social environment. For example, imagine you lived in the 1950s. After a hard day at work, where in your house would go to relax and cool off on a hot evening?
Your basement? Nope.
Your family room? Nope.
Your bedroom? Nope.
That’s where the breeze is. Remember, this is pre-A/C.
Picture this: You are chilling outside, looking out over an active neighborhood. You see most of your neighbors sitting on their front porches, too, neighbors waving as they are walking by. With 16 supervising eyes, the neighborhood kids are playing some sort of game in the street.
Now, fast forward to the present. Where do you sit when it’s hot?
Your porch. Nope.
The A/C makes it cooler, and that’s where the screens are.
Watch this video to illustrate.
Innocently, we have embraced technological advances with open arms, not knowing that they would have a dramatic impact on our habits, our neighbors, and our church.
2) Leisure time: From 1950 to now, television has changed what we typically do when we go home. It devours more leisure time than any other form of entertainment or pastime for Americans—the average American now watches at least 5 hours a day! That’s over 35 hours per week! And the number jumps to 7 hours per week for persons over 65 years old. Just looking at the numbers makes it seem like the American life consists of three things: sleeping, working, and binge-watching The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. (We fit in eating between episodes, of course.)3) Screen’s impact: TV has a negative habitual effect on the viewer. Social psychologist Rolf Meyersohn dubbed it “the more, the more”—the more you watch it, the more tired you get. The more you watch it, the more you want to watch. The more you watch it, the more you want to stay inside. Try calling me to hang out after I’ve watched 3 episodes of The Office. Nope. Not going to happen. I’ll put my phone on silent because you’re not as funny as Michael Scott in diversity training exercises. (For those not getting my references, you probably have more friends than I do.) If you’ve “borrowed” your mom’s Netflix account, you know exactly what I’m talking about—it’s so hard NOT to hit the “next episode” button. People who typically categorize themselves as “homebodies” also agree to being heavy television viewers.
Research has shown the major casualties of increased TV viewing are church participation, visiting friends, shopping, and hosting and going to friends’ parties. (Putnam, 237)
More recently, researchers are discovering the adverse effect the smartphone is having on social engagement. Contrary to Putnam’s expectations, America has not bounced back from its decline in community engagement, in large part due to the combining effects of the smartphone, social media, and the internet. These disruptive technological advances are reinforcing the community disengagement trend. Psychologist Jean Twenge in her recent book analyzes the effects of the current technological landscape that we handed the youth. When looking at the youngest generation, Twenge notes that:
“iGen’ers are less social than millennials, Gen Xers, and boomers were at the same age… they are less likely to take part in every single face-to-face social activity measured across four data sets of three different age groups.”
And she identifies the main cause to be the combining effect of social media and the smartphone:
“Its conclusion is inescapable: the internet has taken over. Teens are instagramming, Snapchatting, and texting with their friends more, and seeing them in person less.”
Addressing the Impact of Technology
There is not enough space here to adequately sketch all the steps necessary to take in order to address the destructive impacts of technology in full. However, I believe the following will point us in the right direction.
We need to look at community health the way your average yoga instructor with a man bun looks at his individual health. He shops at Whole Foods to buy his organic kale salad and drinks kombucha because he discovered eating and drinking healthily is good for his body. He would love to eat two pounds of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream every evening, like he did in college, but he found that eating healthier is better for him to tackle each day. When yoga instructor man chooses what to eat, he prioritizes his body’s health over stomach cravings. This is a wise approach.
Similarly, as a church looking at our corporate bodies, we need to discern wisely what we will consume. We shouldn’t expect healthy bodies If we are uncritical and lean into whatever our cravings are. The path forward in our technological age is not pro-technology or anti-technology, it’s pro-people. The church must prioritize people over things.
Consider the wisdom of the Amish. When an elder was asked why they don’t have TVs like 97% of America…
“We can almost always tell if a change will bring good or bad tidings. Certain things we definitely do not want, like the television and the radio. They would destroy our visiting practices. We would stay at home with the television or radio rather than meet with other people… How can we care for the neighbor if we do not visit them or know what is going on in their lives?” (Putnam, 235)
The reason the Amish don’t use the TV isn’t because they are anti-technology! They don’t endorse having TV in their communities because they prioritize visiting each other over Netflix. They understand that TV would anchor them inside and slowly create habits in their communities that would inhibit people from visiting one another. And guess what?! They were right!
I am not saying that we should sell our devices, buy candles, and become Amish—but in the words of Andy Crouch, all of us should become more Amish than we think!
One of the main reasons why the church has declined over the past several decades is because of our abandonment of wisdom and submission to the powerful wave of “new technology,” and especially screens. The restoration of church will look like a group of people in love with Jesus that take steps to move closer to and with one another, and who choose to engage technology with wisdom.
The restoration of the church will look like at least two things: It will look like a group of people who love Jesus that choose take steps to move closer to one another and a people inspired by the Spirit to engage technology with wisdom.
This is at least what it could look like. But, even if we do both of these things, we will still be neglecting the most influential Anti-Community Force.
Next Week Part 4: the Last ACF