From the late 1980s, many churches made the decision to run like businesses and now, in a surprising twist, businesses in 2017 are running like churches.
At Facebook’s inaugural Communities Summit earlier this summer, CEO Mark Zuckerberg lauded the role churches historically played in society, from providing support in community to stoking charitable volunteerism. In the face of declining church membership, he suggested that Facebook could now fill the void left behind.
“It’s so striking,” he stated, “that for decades, membership in all kinds of groups has declined as much as one quarter. That’s a lot of people who need to find a sense of purpose and support somewhere else.”
At Facebook, he continued, “we started a project to see if we could get better at suggesting groups that will be meaningful to you. We started building artificial intelligence to do this. And it works. In the first six months, we helped 50 percent more people join meaningful communities.”
There’s much that Zuckerberg gets right.
The much-discussed “nones”—those unaffiliated with any particular religion—have indeed been on the rise for decades, and their growth isn’t just obvious in emptying churches.
Instead of Catholics or white evangelicals, it was religious nones that represented the largest religious voting bloc in the 2016 election. Another set of affiliations, major political parties, also saw allegiances drop with the rise of the independent voter, who refuses to align with either party.
In 2000, Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam first noted the collapse of civic engagement in American society. Since the 1960s, fewer Americans had been investing in “social capital”—that is, the rich communal connections made by going to church, having family dinners, hosting friends at parties, and participating in organizations or political activities.
This trend is a grave departure our nation’s infancy, when social ties stoked our bid for independence and ensured our survival in the pioneering West. In the 1830s, French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville observed:
Americans are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types—religious, moral, serious, futile, very general, very limited, immensely large and very minute. In every case, at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government … in the United States you are sure to find an association.
In other words, in America, we got things done through relationships and group identities.
Zuckerberg sees what sociologists, pastors, and many of the rest of us have noticed: People are looking outside of the typical affiliations—and outside of the church—for meaning, purpose, and community.
In a nation where “joiners” are leaving the typical social spaces, they’re continuing to log into Facebook (8 in 10 Internet users in the US have an account) and, thanks to fellow meaning-minded entrepreneurs, forming communities in new places IRL (“in real life”).
Harvard researchers argued that religion is not dying, but merely changing. In a 2015 study called “How We Gather,” they found that religious nones, especially millennials, have not evolved out of their spiritual or religious longings; they are simply seeking to fill them in other places. Over a third of millennials, significantly more than any other age group, have no religious affiliation.
Corporations from social startups to fitness crazes have taken notice. In addition to the solidarity found in sweating out it at yoga boutiques, Crossfit, and SoulCycle, there’s the communal draw of eating together with the Dinner Party, a network that connects 20-something and 30-somethings in major cities to discuss loss and grief over a meal.
Harvard’s Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston discovered six common themes corporations use to tap in on this new search for meaning: community, personal transformation, social transformation, purpose-finding, creativity, and accountability.
Fellow CEOs may not be as forthright as Zuckerberg, but the way they are forming their corporations—or the way they envision the future of their enterprises—mimic much of the inspiration and structure people used to get from church.
Longing for guidance and accountability, many nones pursue wisdom not from pastors but from peers and yogis. They meet every day not at the morning Bible study but at the local Crossfit box. At my local Crossfit, I’ve noticed they borrow many practices from the church. They have their own “liturgy”—a workout of the day followed by boxes around the country; “saints” in the many of the workouts named after individuals who lost their life in the military, police, or firefighting; and “discipleship,” as coaches guide you to the right form. They offer accountability; you have to reserve a spot in class, pay if you don’t show up, and record your progress online for all to see.
A Christian who teaches yoga in Vancouver recently wrote about a similar trend: “Churches and other formal religions struggle getting people to commit to regular attendance. Yoga studios don’t have this problem.” People don’t realize that the spiritual experiences and communities they are searching for can actually be found in churches themselves, she said.
Zuckerberg is right that Facebook has provided meaningful connections that the local church sometimes struggles to build among its disparate and busy members. While our newsfeeds may be filled with the highly polished versions of our friends’ lives, groups from neighborhood networks to personality type groups, provide the opportunity to take the mask off and divulge our weaknesses and innermost thoughts. In the best cases, we rally around one another, support one another, pray for one another, and provide respect and space for various viewpoints.
Among reasons young people leave the church, up to 20 percent cite a “lack of connection” with other believers, which suggests that learning how to build community—real relationships—is one of the most important tasks a church can undertake. Church leaders recognize this, and now emphasize the need for organic and authentic communities in their congregations, to the point that they’ve become missional buzzwords.
But for all that Zuckerberg gets right, there’s one thing he gets wrong: Facebook, nor any other form of social media or any other form of organization, can replace the church.
As faithful Christians know, church is not the local building on street corners around the world. The word church comes from the Greek word ekklesia, literally defined as “a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, an assembly.” In the Christian sense of the word, ekkelsia simply means “the people of God,” the people who profess belief in the Lord Jesus Christ and who are therefore the visible representation of God on earth. The church is not the building; it is the people who populate it.
The church is not a community organizer. “People who go to church,” stated Zuckerberg, “are more likely to volunteer and give to charity—not just because they're religious, but because they're part of a community.”
Many institutions of public good, including public education, hospitals, and orphan care, not to mention many of the hallowed Ivy League schools that pepper the Eastern seaboard, were founded out of a specifically Christian desire for social reform. These reforms were carried out by the Christian community, but the motivations for these reforms were born out of the ethical considerations of the teachings of Jesus.
The church is not dying. No one knows, for sure, what the rise of the nones will mean. At best, our quantitative studies are mere snapshots of the moving picture of history. Perhaps, among other factors, the church is paying a heavy toll for its human shortcomings (incidents of abuse, hypocrisy, and fallen leadership, now more publicized than ever before); perhaps many are now more willing, in an increasingly secular society, to throw off labels that never truly applied to them in the first place.
But whatever the rise of the nones mean, it does not mean that the church can be replaced, no matter how ubiquitous and connective a social network proves to be.
The essence of the church is too far beyond us for any algorithm or business to recreate; it lies in the Holy Spirit, which resides in all those who believe in Jesus Christ.
As theologian Karl Barth said, “The mortal church cannot die … the gates of hell cannot swallow it up. It stands or falls with him. But he does not fall, so the church cannot fall. It can only stand. It can and must and will rise again even though it falls.”