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.