Every week, in the front lobby, the secretary of the church I attended in kindergarten updated the archive of sermon recordings. This was in the early 1990s, so the archive was a spice rack of cassette tapes, with maybe two or three copies for each sermon, in case multiple homebound church members wanted to listen simultaneously.
That sort of care for those who can’t make it to church on Sunday—whether occasionally or long-term, due to old age, chronic illness, or disability—is uncontroversial. Most churches have long since moved past cassettes to a podcast format or YouTube or CDs, but the basic idea of using technology to bring at least the sermon to those who can’t worship in person is here to stay, and so it should be. Though not a sufficient fulfilment of our duties on its own, it’s easily defensible as an outworking of the Christian responsibility to care for the sick (Matt. 25:36), “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2), and “look after orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27).
But what about conducting church—or, at least, its group worship and teaching—on Facebook? Many congregations tried this or something similar for the first time during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Facebook reported that the week of Easter 2020, when pandemic shutdowns were just becoming widespread was, “the biggest for group video calls on Messenger and the most popular week of Facebook Live broadcasts from spiritual Pages, ever.” People seemed to take quickly to its ways of connecting when separated by COVID-19.
On Facebook, churches can form “groups” or “pages.” They can host chats and post memes that members and followers will see and respond to. With a good enough internet connection and small enough congregations, they can do Facebook Live sessions, which are like video calls. They can plan events and recommend books, videos, and media.
And Facebook, more than other major social networks, is deliberately courting religious use. The site is testing a prayer request feature, which seems only to differ from regular posts in groups in that you can respond by clicking an “I prayed” button instead of “liking” it. Facebook is also working directly with some denominations and megachurches, hoping to make faith a steady new source of traffic and ad revenue.
Reading up on Facebook’s religious outreach, I was surprised by how positive pastors and other faith leaders were when interviewed about this integration of worship, congregational community, and social media. Some added caveats about misuse of technology or privacy concerns, but they largely welcomed it as a valuable tool for everyday church life. Some even seem to think, as televangelist Pat Robertson once said of television, that it “would be folly for the church not to get involved with the most formative force in America,” that “the message is the same, [and] the delivery can change.”
That thinking is misguided. For all its practical uses in extraordinary circumstances like the pandemic or as a means of including and ministering to those who physically cannot come to services, social media as a space for ordinary group worship will do us more harm than good.
Facebook—and other social media sites—are not simply the next evolution of the cassette ministry or a convenient online centralization of logistics and worship. Their formative power isn’t neutral.
The medium will meaningfully reframe or outright change the message—chiefly, I suspect, by trivializing it and pulling our attention away.
Culture critic Neil Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death in 1985, when TV was the medium under scrutiny. Postman wasn’t a Christian, nor could he know about social media. Still, his chapter on televised church (containing the above quote from Pat Robertson) offers three prescient warnings Christians need as we consider a new medium for worship.
The first is the simplest: It is “gross technological naivete,” Postman wrote, to imagine the message of the church will be unchanged by television, because “not all forms of discourse can be converted from one medium to another.” We realize this in other contexts, recognizing, for example, that singing in your car alone is not the same as singing with a congregation.
This is also true of social media. The exact same worship service, if presented as a Facebook Live video, is substantively different than it would be if experienced in person. The words may be identical, but the message is transformed by its context. That brings me to the second warning:
Putting church services on social media is inherently disorienting, and we may forget that true worship of the triune God, maker of the universe, shouldn’t have to compete for our attention with the inane memes, political screeds, and endless scroll of frivolity we encounter at the same time and place on Facebook. We’d never decorate our sanctuaries with Amazon ads and crude cartoons, but that’s what worship services are surrounded with on Facebook.
If we proclaim “Jesus is Lord” on Facebook, rather than in person, the words won’t change, but the meaning will. The medium puts that declaration of faith on a level with “Vote for this candidate” and “Buy this shirt” and “Get likes for sharing this meme.”
None of that changes Jesus, of course. The difference has to do with us and how we process messages. Maintaining focus on Christ is already an enormous challenge of our time, both in the big sense of having undivided, ultimate loyalty to Jesus and also in the smaller sense of keeping our hands off our phones for two seconds to do something—anything—pertaining to God.
It’s not impossible, of course, for God to call people to himself through a deeply flawed medium, but neither is it wise to deliberately surround worship with distraction when we have more than enough distraction as it is.
“People will eat, talk, go to the bathroom, do push-ups or any of the things they are accustomed to doing in the presence of [a] screen,” Postman wrote of TV worship services. This rings embarrassingly true from my experience of pandemic-time Zoom church, which was better than nothing. But it was no substitute for meeting “face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 1:12).
Social media is designed for triviality and distraction, to help advertisers and platforms profit in the “attention economy,” and our behavior while consuming it reflects that fact.
My third warning is closely related to the freedom from good constraints that screen-bound worship brings: “The viewer is at all times aware that a flick of the switch will produce a different and secular event on the screen,” Postman noted. That constant choice is a powerful incentive for church to become less about what we need than what we want—whatever will keep us actively listening, whatever will prevent our scrolling onward.
I can slip away any time I like, unconstrained by even the mild awkwardness of walking out of the sanctuary while the preacher’s still speaking. The constraints we feel in person don’t negate our ability to choose what we do. But others’ presence can be a powerful pressure for our good. We need the peer pressure, frankly, to keep us engaged in worship.
I’m not saying that I think online church would be a perfect substitute for in-person church if someone were sitting quietly in a beautiful setting with the church service maximized and ad-free. Undoubtedly, we’ve all realized by now that a church service without face-to-face time or group singing isn’t enough. But we also need to hear about the medium of Facebook or other itself as a problem.
The temptations aren’t only for those watching, though. An online service tempts teachers to back off from take up your cross (Luke 9:23) and lean into “Please just keep Facebook open, and please don’t browse Twitter or email on your phone.” It makes Christianity less “demanding and serious,” Postman thought, and more “easy and amusing … another kind of religion altogether.”