One Millennial’s Thoughts on Technology and the Church

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Recently I had an opportunity to check out the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibit “Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age,” which examined the art of the Assyrian empire as well as the art of other ancient Mesopotamian cultures. I was struck most by the degree to which other cultures, particularly those on the receiving end of Assyrian oppression, adapted and emulated Assyrian artistic forms and styles. This does not mean, however, that neighboring cultures appreciated the Assyrian influence in their lives (one has only to look at the prophesy of Nahum to get a sense of how deeply the Assyrians were loathed). So, given the animosity, why would other cultures intentionally imitate Assyrian styles in their own artistic expression? I think the answer has something to do with the nature of power dynamics; specifically that there is a tendency amongst those with less power to emulate those with greater power in the hopes that their own glory might be increased.

All of this got me thinking about the relationship between technology and the Church. I don’t think it is news to anyone that the previous couple decades have witnessed an explosion in the presence and importance of technology in our lives. Moreover, I’m sure you are also all aware that, in this time, membership in the PCUSA has decreased dramatically (from 2,698,262 in 1994 to 1,849,496 in 2014, a 31% decrease). Most analysis I have seen rightly attributes this decline to the failure of the Church to attract new and, more particularly, younger members. Again, I don’t think this is news to anyone. Indeed, the issue is so much the focus of concentration that the May 2014 issue of Presbyterians Today was a special issue written “about millennials by millennials.” In this issue, and in the conversation at large, I see people pointing to the use of technology, or lack thereof, as one of the principal reasons why millennials are not attracted to the church. Moreover, integration of Church and technology is posited as a surefire way to reach younger generations who have grown up in an age of ubiquitous technology.

Take, for example, Kendra Buckwalter Smith’s article “From Singles to Playlists”, where she discusses the new Glory to God hymnal as “the church’s new playlist.” Smith says a lot of things I agree with: she identifies, for example, that “what young adults want is not a change in style but a change in substance,” and she characterizes my generation as one “known for seeking authenticity.” Indeed, there is much to like in her article but, when I finished, it left a bad taste in my mouth. The issue I have is not so much the specifics of her argument but rather with her broader analogy of the hymnal as “the church’s new playlist.” Put simply, it’s not. Playlists are transient; they represent a particular impulse or mood at a given point in time. I create playlists for when I go running. Eventually I get bored, so I make a new one. My Ipod, a couple years old, is home to no less than 47 playlists. If this is what the new hymnal is, we’re in trouble. Hymnals are not playlists. Playlists are individual, narrow in focus, and temporary. Hymnals are communal, broad in scope, and enduring. By comparing a hymnal to a playlist we cheapen the value of what a hymnal is and what it stands for. In this analogy, and in similar attempts to make the church “relatable” to young people, in capitulating to a digital age marked by its obsession with the “now” we cheapen what the Church really has to offer.

The reason I am drawn to the Church, to God, to spirituality in general is not because it is cool. It’s not because the Church is up-to-date on whatever the latest-breaking social media trend is. The reason the Church means so much to me is that, at its best, it stands as a reminder that, in a world that increasingly feels transient and momentary, we are part of a larger story. We are part of something deeper. In pursuing the mystery of God and faith we are tied together in community with others, past and present, with ties far deeper than social media can ever achieve. It is this depth of meaning and connection that is the Church’s greatest asset. So often in our haste to use technology we forget this very real and important difference between the Church and the digital world. Social media is good for many things, but it is not a format that naturally fosters depth and complexity. Just as ancient Mesopotamian cultures oppressed by the Assyrians adopted their style in hopes that they might attain similar power, we use the trappings of a digital age in a hope to bring God and the Church to the same place of centrality in the lives of young adults that social media often occupies. This is not inherently bad, but if we are not careful, churches can adopt more than just a digital format. If we are not careful we risk losing the Church’s soul in our haste to appear relevant.

I don’t want to come off as completely against technology, either. The fact that I am writing this post for the Hudson River Presbytery blog, and my continued enjoyment of the quality of the writing here, evidences the contrary. I simply think we need to be intentional about why we use technology. Do we use technology because it allows us to communicate our message more effectively? If so, great. This blog allows us to interact and communicate far more efficiently than an analog platform ever could. The form of the blog, therefore, improves its function. I think we need to be very cautious, though, of using technology simply to use technology. If, when we think about why we are using a given technological format, our answer is “it’s really popular,” or “I know a lot of young people who are using this,” I think we should think again. Kendra Buckwalter Smith got it right when she said that the millennial generation is obsessed with authenticity; there is nothing that feels less authentic than when I see a church communicating on Facebook, Twitter, or anything else and get the sense that the reason they are using that platform is to show they can, to show that they are a “cool” church.

Young adults don’t need the Church to be cool. We have plenty of other things to fill that niche. I know many young adults though, myself included, who are growing tired of the comparatively shallow connections that can be formed over social media. If the Church can emphasize the deep connections it fosters, both with people and with God, we set ourselves up as an attractive alternative to a digital culture that feels increasingly shallow. Technology offers many ways to better communicate this deep message, but presents pitfalls as well. As we continue to navigate a world increasingly bifurcated into the digital and the real, we must be vigilant and mindful of when and why we use technology. Are we using it because it strengthens and deepens our connections, or are we using it because we envy the power and prominence of the digital Assyrians? The devil, as they say, is in the details.

Ben Perry is a third year seminarian at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He is a member of Bedford Presbyterian Church and under the care of Hudson River Presbytery.

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7 Responses to One Millennial’s Thoughts on Technology and the Church

  1. John Nelson says:

    Well done, Ben. (BTW, I found this through your mother’s FB feed – we were college classmates, and I’m a 1991 grad of UTS.) Your piece reminded me of something I learned while visiting Florence: the Duomo has a number of niches in its facade, built so that the church could keep changing out the sculptures to show the new forms that were most powerfully and effectively telling the story. The medievals still have something to teach us about the uses of technology in service of the living Word!

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  2. Rob Trawick says:

    So much of what you say here resonates so deeply with me Ben. So often institutions, including the church, rush to be relevant without truly examining what the content of relevancy might be. We do need to be open to those places where we can deliver a more faithful message and deliver it in more effective ways. But too often, like a student who thinks that a pretty cover will distract from a sloppy paper, we assume that an attractive medium will somehow create its own content.

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    • Ben Perry says:

      Exactly, Rob. I think that your analogy of a student and a paper is spot on, and I think that part of the reason why we’re drawn to this kind of logic is for precisely the same reason. It is far easier to simply try to put a pretty cover on a paper than it is to do the work of critically examining what is being said. It is easy for us inside the Church to convince ourselves that it is simply the means of communication that needs to change because that absolves us of having to do the tough work of critically evaluating how the Church needs to change in substance, not just in format.

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  3. Vickie Smith says:

    Great post, Ben! I think you are spot-on with your technology argument. But I actually think it can be carried even further, to explain why the PCUSA has experienced a 31% decrease in membership in the last 20 years. As someone whose family left the church after the General Assembly’s actions in June, I think your line “If we are not careful we risk losing the Church’s soul in our haste to appear relevant” applies to the entire direction in which the PCUSA is moving today. In an effort to embrace popular culture, the Presbyterian Church has moved so far to the left of basic Biblical truths that it leaves many of its members uncomfortable. For every one family that leaves the PCUSA, at least 10 who remain rationalize that the national body “doesn’t speak for my local church!” Turning against Israel, endorsing same-sex marriage, refusing to even allow conversation about abortion, promoting gun control to the point of actually distributing “toolkits” to churches to fight against the 2nd amendment, and jumping so quickly to condemn the officer’s actions in Ferguson, MO, that it claimed Michael Brown was shot in the BACK has made the PCUSA look like its focus is somewhere other than Jesus Christ. And these are all actions that have occurred just since JUNE!! It’s not just young adults who don’t need their church to be “cool.” It’s all of us who seriously study God’s word and sincerely hope to interpret it the right way who want to be authentic in our worship. The PCUSA used to leave room for its members to agree to disagree on a number of subjects. But its insistence on forcing doctrine that is inconsistent with God’s word upon its members is a major reason it is losing so many people!!

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    • Ben Perry says:

      Hey Vickie,
      Thank you for reading and responding to my article. I have to disagree, though, with your interpretation of my quote “If we are not careful we risk losing the Church’s soul in our haste to appear relevant.” Specifically, I think we disagree about what constitutes the soul of the Church. I see the soul of the Church as a place that welcomes and embraces all people, a Church that loves them for exactly who they are. I think that radical welcome to all is far closer to the soul of the Church than the handful of verses frequently used to oppose same-sex marriage. I believe that the Church has, on this issue, historically been misrepresenting the gospel by claiming that God does not embrace and bless the unity and love of all couples, regardless of who they love. I believe that the soul of the Church advocates the fundamental right for all people to feel safe in their homes and communities; for this reason I believe the Church’s soul requires the Church to take an active stance to ending gun violence by decreasing the prevalence of weapons in our communities, weapons responsible for so much bloodshed and so many tears.
      Likewise, that call to strive for a world in which all feel safe demands that the Church speak prophetically when the lives and rights of black citizens in our country are disregarded by police. The Church’s soul demands the Church speak out against this systemic racism, against this injustice that occurs against people of color every 28 hours in America. By focusing on righting these injustices, the Church shows it’s focus on Jesus Christ who always stood against oppression. I could go on, but I think you get a sense of where my disagreement comes from. I believe that the Church risks losing our soul when we remain silence in the face of injustice, not when we choose to act contrary to the injustices our Church has been guilty of in the past. This is the very soul of a reformed Church seeking to always be reforming. As for whether or not this course of action is linked to declined Church attendance, this may very well be. What I know, however, is that it is far more important for the Church to act prophetically and in alignment with Christ’s call to love our neighbor, with all that entails, than for the Church pews to be filled every week.
      Again, I thank you for reading my article and for your thoughtful response, but my conscience demands that I register my disagreement when I see what I believe to be such a radical misrepresentation of what is at the heart of the PC-USA and, more generally, the good news itself.

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  4. Susan Andrews says:

    Thank you, Ben, for this blog – and for teasing out the strengths and the weaknesses of a technology component n our faith journey. You write what I believe – and your response to hymnal as playlist is priceless!

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    • Ben Perry says:

      Thanks Susan, it’s a topic I’ve been interested in for a while. I’ve become very interested in what our use of technology says about who we are, and increasingly conscious of trying to use technology instead of letting it use me. I’m glad that some of my thoughts resonated with you!

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