Monday, April 16, 2018

Facebook's Alt-Church Fail

In a speech last year Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he wanted the social network he founded to perform the role that once used to be played by churches. He suggested that with the decline of churchgoing, “people now need to find a sense of purpose and support somewhere else." Sounds very noble and high minded, doesn’t it? The Church of Facebook, presided over by the geeky gods of silicon valley. They monitor almost every activity of their flock and then sell the valuable data they have gathered to advertising companies so they can flog us more stuff. It’s about connecting people, you see. With retailers. Friendship has become a commodity. And then there’s the sinister manipulation of social media for political ends.

Facebook’s mission statement is to, “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” But the social network is no substitute for the church. Online you can keep your ‘friends’ at a safe distance. Interact with them on your own terms. You can make sure they only see your best side, ‘Here’s me having a happy life, doing fun stuff. Hope you like my holiday snaps.’ If someone gives you grief on Facebook, you can ‘unfriend’ them with a click of a mouse or quick jab at a screen. 

Church means committing yourself to forging a community with a group of people with whom you meet on a regular basis. Actual flesh and blood people who are just as flawed and imperfect as you. They’ll get to see you at your best and worst. The frictions that come into any relationship between people have to be managed by giving and receiving forgiveness. You can’t just ‘unfriend’ your brothers and sisters in the faith. Doesn’t work like that.

The Christian faith isn’t meant to be a solitary pilgrimage to heaven. Jesus said, ‘I will build by church’. And by ‘church’ he did not mean a building, but a gathering of people who believe in him and follow him together. When Christians meet their sense of purpose and support deepens. The worship of the gathered church includes seeking God in prayer, singing his praises, hearing the Bible read and its message proclaimed, and eating the Lord’s Supper together. That’s right, eating a simple meal of bread and wine in memory of Jesus’ death upon the cross for our sins, and in hope of his return in glory. You can’t livestream, or download the Lord’s Supper, or ‘like’ a photo of other people doing it. You have to be there. And so the bonds of community are strengthened.

The church that gathers also scatters, seeking to follow Jesus in every area of life. Churches serve the wider community, running parent and toddler groups, visiting the elderly, running food banks, and so on. However much ‘virtue signalling’ we do by ‘liking’ worthy causes on social media, there is no substitute for giving practical help to actual people.

Facebook no doubt has  its uses, but Mark Zuckerberg and the gods of silicon valley can’t claim to have built a world wide community with a sense of united purpose. Hardly. They’ve just found a way of monetising us and our mates. But God has  gathered a global family of people from all nations and backgrounds. He hasn’t created this community in order to exploit it. No, God so loved his people that he was willing to give his Son to die upon the cross that they might be forgiven and become his children. That’s the church. Believe, belong.

*For Trinity Parish Magazine, Dilton Marsh & News & Views, West Lavington 

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