Tech, the Church, and the Death of Community


Everybody’s talking at me.
I don’t hear a word they’re saying,
Only the echoes of my mind.

— Harry Nilsson, “Everybody’s Talking At Me”

I now sit behind a Plexiglas wall.

It’s about five feet high and surrounds most of my drum kit. To drown out the deafening wall of sound reflected off the barrier from my drumming, I wear in-ear monitors that seal off everything but the mix (which I’m not in).

When the rest of the worship team talks to each other, I don’t hear them. Or I get a strange, far away echo picked up from the stage mics. Disembodied voices that seem to come from nowhere, yet everywhere, the words mingling into murk.

There’s a vibe you get as a musician playing in a band. When everyone’s doing their thing right, you gain a sixth sense of where the music is going. You can riff off what others do. You feel a part of something bigger than yourself and your contribution to the music. It’s almost a rapturous thing.

Unless you sit cut off in your own little room.

As of the start of the year, I now sit behind a Plexiglas wall. And jammed in my head are tiny, sophisticated speakers supposedly keeping me connected to the outer world.

It’s a perfect metaphor.

I’ve been on Facebook about a year. I think it has replaced my normal community, not because I wanted it to, but because it’s what others I know have rushed to embrace.

I think everyone is rushing. Not a single small group I’m a part of meets regularly anymore. No one can find a place on the schedule. Which is why Facebook is appealing. You and I can maintain the semblance of a relationship to other humans by texting from a Blackberry all the fun things we’re doing by ourselves.

I long ago gave up scheduling parties. Trying get three couples together face-to-face to do anything is akin to mounting an expedition to Everest.

So we text. And the Facebook walls fill up with graffiti.

I read fewer blogs anymore. It’s a lot of text from people who increasingly seem like the imaginary friends of my childhood. I find it a bit disturbing. That line in Ecclelsiastes that reads that the making of books has no end was long before the profusion of text bombarding us from every direction, most of it utterly throwaway.

We have all these high tech devices to help us communicate, but as I see it, there’s never been less genuine, lasting communication than there is today.

Below is just a sampling of news stories I’ve seen recently (and yes, I understand the circular nature of that statement):

‘Internet Addiction’ Linked to Depression, Says Study

Could it be that something about our society today causes depression, and those most affected by it are the ones seeking a respite in the “approved” source of modern comfort, the Internet?

Computers Can’t Replace Us
Tech pundit Jaron Lanier laments the dumbing down of interaction and the lost sense of identity that the Internet fosters.

The Teens Who Can Barely Talk
What happens when a person’s vocabulary reflects only words found in the most commonly texted phrases?

In Praise of Online Obscurity
When Wired magazine wonders if all this social media is only robbing our relational bank accounts and diluting effective communication, well…

The Facebook Myth
Plenty of cause-joining, quiz-taking, and online activity, but does it amount to so much self-pleasuring and sloth?

I look at what is happening to communication and connection and wonder why we need this tech middleman to work as a go-between that links you and me to real life. I wonder if the depressed person is the one caught in the move away from the kind of face-to-face community cachet that used to fill our relational bank accounts. I read the above articles and I’m chilled by them.

And now I want to make one of the most bold statements I think I’ve ever made on Cerulean Sanctum:

In all my years of watching the Church, I’ve never seen an individual church improved by technology, only diminished by it.

I want to add that there is a difference between lifeblood and convenience. Tech can make things more convenient. Having a computer and color laserpinter to design and print the church bulletins is great for convenience. But no computer or laserprinter can build the core functions of the Church. And when we confuse convenience with lifeblood, look out.

Yet how is it that churches are spending collective billions to become more tech savvy? How is it that upgrading the sound system in the church can become more important than helping a member fix her car or pay a bill he cannot pay due to job loss?

And how is it that we think we can insert tech into the basics of the faith and make them better? We had hymnals, then overhead projectors, then Powerpoint slide shows, and now we have the words of the music we sing to God backed by a full-blown media presentation complete with a 24-fps YouTube video of other people worshiping and capped by a Blue Angels flyover.

How can we not understand what we’re losing?

We can plaster our church lobbies with costly flat-panel displays showing stock photo slideshows of smiling, fair-haired people with nice teeth telling visitors to our church just how much we love them, Monkey in a cageyet those very same visitors can walk out without a handshake and a genuine human being who says, “Hey! Come join my wife and me for lunch after the service.”

We can pour line after line of text into Facebook and still not understand that our “friends” are desperate to truly connect with other people, yet no longer know how.

We can grow jealous of the person who has the tech device we don’t, which allows him or her to communicate in a way we can’t afford.

We can continue to buy into the marketing that we must surround ourselves with yet one more tech gizmo we didn’t know we truly needed—and then miss the reality that none of us seem to get together anymore.

And we can fill our churches with millions of bucks worth of tech, only to find each of us behind a Plexiglas wall, our in-the-ear monitors failing to pick up the full conversation, as we wonder what happened to that freeing vibe we used to feel in the music of real community.

I can’t help but think that technology is turning our human conversations into white noise, even as it isolates us and leads us to a place of asking if anyone really, truly cares.

43 thoughts on “Tech, the Church, and the Death of Community

  1. David

    Facebook and other social networking sites have the unparalleled ability to bring people together. But nothing will hold people together except personal devotion.

    The problem is that we are mistaking noise for devotion. No amount of social networking can take the place of personal devotion. We have become so blinded by the convenience of social networking that we don’t even know what devotion is, and even become irritated when it occurs in our life. It gets in the way of our monitor.

    If any doubt that we are to be devoted to one another, then we doubt the prayer of Jesus: “I pray that they will all be one, just as You and I are one.” I don’t believe that God and Jesus share tweets.

    I know that there are those who will defend Facebook and e-mail and texting and all the other electronic forms of communication that have arisen in the last decade. I’m sure that there are those who believe that they are deeply committed to their AIM buddies and claim a greater level of devotion because of the constant communication.

    I just don’t believe it.

    The reason? “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son.” God wants a personal relationship with us. He wants to show His love for others through the personal relationship we have with one another.

    God didn’t send a letter. He sent Himself.

        • Poet,

          There’s truth to this. I wrote a few months ago that people who church hop constantly have a social maturity problem, in that they are like indigestible bits of gristle in the church stew. So rather than changing their gristly-ness, they punt and leave, often with much wailing and finger-pointing. A year or two later, they’re doing the same thing at another church.

          Something is wrong with our culture in America to the point that we lack societal flexibility. We don’t have enough humility to recognize that some ability to “give in” and adapt makes for much smoother relationships with people. We tend to stay prickly and then react harshly to other prickly people.

          A healthy culture learns to get along. We so lack the ability to do this anymore that we take the extreme route and withdraw altogether, using technology to give us an appearance of connectedness without any of the messiness of genuine interaction.

  2. Very much agreed. I recently wrote an anti media-in-church post and the reactions were pretty negative from fellow pastors. There’s an underlying assumption that technology is probably inherently good and, at worst, neutral. But the fact is, even if it is neutral mas communication replaces the commerce of kinship that church depends on.

    • Jason,

      The contemporary American Church, as Francis Schaefer noted, is always seven years behind the trends. However, I don’t think that’s the case with tech. Some churches seem to pushing it. I know one church in Tennessee that supposedly put in what is considered the world’s most sophisticated sound system. That doesn’t sound like being behind. I think there’s this fear of looking irrelevant if Christians don’t look hip in the tech circle.

  3. This is a timely one! I don’t think there is anything I could add other than “Amen.” Thank you for the thoughts and for articulating, as you so often do, what for me is often an inarticulate suspicion. Thank you also for the list of pointers to other relevant stuff that I will check out as I have been asked to do a talk/seminar on entertainment, media and discipleship at our evening service in a couple of months – as usual, brimming with stuff to say very much in the vein you have expressed here 🙂

    Marva J. Dawn’s book “Unfettered Hope: A Call to Faithful Living in an Affluent Society” very much awakened my thinking on this topic and also pointed me to the terrifying Jacques Ellul whose “The Technological Society” (published in the early 1970s) prophesied the loss and emptiness so much technology and “technique” has brought us.

    I like what the other commenter said, too, “God didn’t send a letter. He sent Himself.”

    Keep it real 😉

    • Seymour,

      John Locke’s 1999 book Why We Don’t Talk to Each Other Anymore : The De-Voicing of Society was also prescient in this regard, especially with regard to young people who lack basic face-to-face communication skills. He saw the Facebook era perfectly.

      I will look for the Ellul.

  4. Jude

    Technology is always there, pushing us…so, instead of lamenting it, how about pushing back? The more ubiquitous Facebook becomes, the more I’m convinced that I’m better off not being part of it. “Friends” are the people who visit you in the hospital…

    • Jude,

      Your last sentence says it all.

      But you can’t pull out of Facebook because the entire conversation has moved there. When I realized I was hearing from my friends less and less, I realized it was because they had moved the conversation onto Facebook. If you weren’t there, you didn’t know what was going on. I got tired of hearing stuff like “Oh, didn’t you know Bob had a heart attack yesterday” or “We’re getting together for games tonight.”

      I thought email was impersonal, but when people started leaving it for Facebook, well…

      • Jude

        It won’t change until you start to build momentum in the other direction. And SOMEONE has to start. We can all lament these things, sigh and then get back on Facebook again. Or we can say “no”. It’s really simple; not easy, just simple. It’s the pioneers who take the arrows. We’ve created this whole virtual world that keeps getting bigger, but will go away overnight if the power goes out. And if the power does go out, wouldn’t it be nice to not be as devastated as many will be?

    • bobby weaver

      …and you know what, even as I sit here responding to this blog, i would better serve God if I was out helping the homeless…they don’t use Facebook, they use Pocketbook. Check out my new book hopefully to be released soon…”If It Weren’t For Us Christians, There’d Be A Lot More Christians.”


  5. Donna

    Great thoughts. Thanks, Dan.
    Our church actually still keeps an “open worship” time and, it’s often quiet with a blessed spirit of prayer. What a breathe of fresh air!

  6. I don’t know what was more disturbing when snowstorms cancelled most local church services: (a) that I am on two church mailing lists, and both emailed out that weekend’s prepared sermon; (b) that I am part of a Facebook fan page or group or whatever it is of a church up the street, and I was messaged detailed suggestions about how I could worship at home; (c) that the Baptist megachurch televised a scaled-back service with a skeleton worship team and choir; or (d) that my house church pastor, two weekends in a row, when I suppose services were cancelled, never bothered to tell us that or contact us. Not that I bothered to contact him! Heh.

    Whaddya gonna do, Dan? Eh? Whaddya gonna do when your church invites you to Twitter-poll real-time reactions to the sermon, which will be displayed on the projection screen? Whaddya gonna do when they invite you to text your offering, billable to your cell plan, to the five-digit code tastefully displayed in an emergent way with white numbers on a wooden hymn signboard? Whaddya gonna do when your small group no longer meets in person, but joins a Bible study social networking site with local, regional, national, and international members, who study the Thomas Nelson Wiki-Study Bible, where all may upload individual commentary?

  7. Jim D

    Almost sounds like you attend a “seeker friendly” church. What you describe is the church that is trying to market itself to the community at large to “reach the non-believers”. Problem is, the church starts to mold itself to act like the community.
    When I was an Elder with our church, we had a lengthy discussion about “marketing our church”. Some wanted to change the worship, ask the pastor to simplify and shorten his message, provide childrens and youth services during the core worship service, etc. My opinion in the discussions was in the middle, our pastor resisted strongly. Taht was in the mid-90’s, and we had had around 50 member families.
    Today we have between 60 and 70 member families. We haven’t grown significantly. We struggle with meeting budget, but God provides. We have made some technological changes: we have a part time worship leader and a youth pastor now (who also sells insurance to make ends meet). We tape the pastor’s sermons and post them on the church website in mp3 format. We used to do cassette tapes in the 90’s, but now the office will make a CD if requested (although they aren’t because everyone gets mp3’s). We’ve just added a projection screen in our sanctuary so that we can project the lyrics to worship songs in Powerpoint. Yet, our worship is still a combination of Delirious, Matthew West, Chris Tomlin, and many of the old hymns (some with a slight contemporary twist). Our drummer does not have a plastic barrier, and once in a while we have a bass guitar and synth along with the guitar and piano. We are certainly not seeker-friendly.

    • Jim,

      As for the current church I am a member of, it is far less seeker sensitive than my previous church.

      I think the problem is one of marketing. Marketing in tech, which I used to do myself, creates needs that did not exist and then markets to them. Much of modern marketing is this way.

      In this way, it is almost impossible to resist techno-creep.

      I see no reason to own a cell phone. Yet techno-creep has made such phones essential. And if you are a neo-Luddite who refuses to be swept along in that tide, you become a massive problem for other people, often in ways that affect you professionally.

      The Church is not immune to this problem because the church is made up of people who are affected by techno-creep. So technology creeps into church silently. One day you wake up, and everything is different, and usually not quite as good at its core as it used to be. You caught up with everyone else, but is where they are a place worth visiting?

      I find it easy to imagine that techno-creep ends up creating opportunities that in the long run have unforeseen detrimental effects. For instance, what if technology makes it possible for a church to grow beyond a size that makes it possible for everyone to know everyone else? (Which is a very common issue.) What ends up getting lost when the technology keeps a larger church “together” but at the expense of genuinely knowing people in the seats? Is discipline lost because the social fabric is stretched so thinly? What might someone get away with who exists only as a shadowy presence on Sundays, an opportunity created by technology itself, and not something standard social limits would tolerate?

  8. Jim D

    comment continued:
    We also have a Fathers ministry that meets weekly on Fridays. Some in the Fathers ministry have started to reach out to new dads from the Pregnancy Care Center with a group meeting on Saturdays. We have another mens Bible Study that I attend on Saturday mornings. We have “Grace groups” that most in our church attend. My wife and I attend one on Sunday evenings. Our men have helped a widow by re-roofing her house, our youth helped a member install drain tile around his house, and a member with cystic fibrosis died in the hospital with many of us visiting him during his last days. His widow is in our “Grace group”. As a whole our church does minister to itself more than the community, but our Elders are working on developing more evangelistic opportunities. If a new person walks into our church, they willusually be greeted by no less than 5 people.
    My point in all this is stating that there are churches like ours that have not let technology and, more importantly, desire for growth by adding technology, interfere with the ministry of the church.

  9. Jim D

    comment continued:
    Overall, I am basically saying that some technology can be embraced without losing face contact. Many of my friends on Facebook are church friends, but I also see them at church or during the week. Even more importantly, many of my kids’ friends are in my friends list on Facebook, and I am able to keep up with their friends. Technology is not bad, we just need to keep it in balance.

  10. Jim D

    Sorry Dan, one final commentary:
    Facebook has been an excellent tool for me to re-connect with old friends with whom I have lost touch since high school. I have been able to re-connect with you, Darla, and Mike B., and IU have learned that we have all matured and developed beleif systems that are very similar. Mike and I got a chance to meet again at our sons’ mutual basketball game on Monday night. We never would have recognized the connection without Facebook. I’ve also learned that a couple of my old chums and classmates have become “gay”, and one both claims Christianity and homosexuality. He has become a leader in the Lutheran church nationally as an advocate for homosexuals in the ministry and same-sex marriage (which I am obviously against). I’ve also learned that some I have known have passed away such as Rich Maret and Mike Gramann.
    I also lost contact with the best man in my wedding. Facebook has brought us back together. None of these connections would have happened without Facebook. The only drawback is distance and similarity. For example, based on all that I’ve read from your posts, if you were closer to Cinti and attended my church, I am sure that we would be good friends, seeing each other weekly. We have very similar beliefs. Facebook has been a wonderful tool for learning these new things about others that have been some part of my overall life. We just need to make the effort to keep personal contact a part of our lives along with the electronic contacts.

    • Jim.

      No doubt, Facebook does a good job in reuniting people who have fallen from the status of active friendship to that weird place of “Yeah, we used to hang out a long time ago, didn’t we.” In that regard, it is peerless. It reconnects people who once had a relationship. I think it is ideal for men, especially, who might not connect any other way.

      While Facebook is great at bring at least some level of interactivity into those kinds of relationships, I believe it comes at the expense of the deeper relationships. At least that has been my experience. I hear others saying the same thing. Rather than joining a consistently active friend for a beer at the local pub, the relationship ends up shunted aside in favor of checking in on Facebook.

      When I was a kid, my house was a source of parties, as my mother entertained quite often. Our neighborhood had block parties. People formed a 500 league and got together in the neighborhood every weekend for cards. In my house, there were always other people around. And it wasn’t just my house.

      Today, it seems people don’t have the time to entertain like that. Some of it can be blamed on our shift as a culture to the dual-income household, but that can’t bear all the blame. We have let technology stand in as a pale substitute. Rather than getting the full high, we settle for the light buzz, that while not as trippy, at least gives us some experience.

      The problem is the very paleness of that experience.

  11. Sulan

    I hate that now we have the Scriptures up on a big flat screen, and hardly anyone opens a Bible. In fact, as I perused the folks on Sunday morning, I saw only one elder couple besides myself, who had even brought a Bible. That is so sad to me.

    I don’t do facebook, or twitter. I still believe a card or note works wonders, through snail mail. Of course, I am approaching my 70th year, so that is all deeply ingrained in me.

    Yes, I do computers, but I like face to face conversation, or at least on a phone, where you get voice inflections and such. On line, the words ‘I hurt’ are lifeless, to me. On the phone, they have depths of emotion and pain carried in the very speaking of them.

    I sometimes think we have lost touch with what is real, and that is reflected in all areas of our lives — and so very sad.

    • Sulan,

      I used to write handwritten letters to people. Someone once told me I had a ministry of letters. But I found that people did not respond well to letters, though they did to emails. Then they did not respond in emails but on Facebook. Now we have 140 characters in Twitter.

      I can’t help but think that we are losing and not gaining.

  12. I want to believe there is a way, even with the proliferation of social media, to value people most of all. To have person to person interaction, real involvement in the dirt and beauty of one another’s lives, and to have social media be a tool to the end. Rather than valuing electronic connectedness instead of the people we’re “connected” with. I want to believe that’s possible. If that means limiting our time uselessly meandering about Facebook(which I am profoundly guilty of) in favor of calling a friend, or taking a walk, or just living in expectation of seeing people and becoming interested in them, valuing them, knowing them.

    Yet the temptation is strong. here I sit on the blogosphere while they’re in the other room talking about the death in the family I live with…

  13. connie

    I posted your article on….wait for it…Facebook.

    There is truth in what you say. And yet, as part of a dual income family (necessary right now if we plan on continuing to eat and pay bills) the bald truth is most of the time I am frankly too exhausted to even think of getting together with someone in person unless it is an event at church. I remember when I was a child (back in the 60’s…yep, when dinosaurs roamed the earth) people did socialize, a lot.

    But the truth is, times change, for good or ill. I’m not fond of many of the changes, but we have to adapt to them because, well, change is going to happen whether or not we agree with it.

    So, I thank God for facebook. Which has allowed my friends to pray for me when I needed it (as they keep up with my statuses), which has allowed me to be notified of church meetings I’d have otherwise missed, which has allowed me to stay connected with people in a way that would not have been possible twenty years ago. My life would have been immeasurably better those twenty years ago if we’d had things like Facebook then.

    Facebook is not keeping people from meeting in person. I wager that without facebook we’d still have the isolation only it would be worse because people wouldn’t even be connecting THAT way.
    (And yes, maybe I am tired of the technology being the whipping boy for certain changes. Correlation is not causation.)

  14. Oengus

    Dan, the “social media” is not to blame and is a side issue.

    The “community” had already died back in the 90s.

    Today what we have is Church Inc..

    I heard it said that …
    The Greeks got a hold of Xnty and turned it into a philosophy.
    The Romans got a hold of Xnty and turned it into a government.
    The Europeans next got a hold of it and turned it into a culture.
    The Americans then came and turned Xnty into a business.

    People are just desperate to find something real.

  15. Very good discussion, not just interesting, but critically important. I have such a struggle with this myself. One part of me wants to shut down every social network I use and go work at a soup kitchen; another part of me relishes and refuses to relinquish the connections I’ve made through social networks. “Wretched man that I am!”

  16. Great article! I have been on Facebook for almost two months. I have loved that it’s gotten me into relationship with two women who are now emailing with me about spiritual things. I hate the superficiality of the conversations and the constant awareness of how few people really care.

    I am VERY grateful though for the internet. We live overseas and I can’t imagine being where we are without email to family and friends and the teaching we can get online–not to mention all the stuff I get for my kids schooling online for free.

    Technology is not evil. God’s using it to His glory. But the problem is the church (lowercase c) using it to glorify itself instead of to glorify God. The bigger problem is that the church is self-focused, not God-focused. The use of technology is just one symptom where the problem is showing itself.

  17. Bruce

    So your face-to-face gatherings have dwindled because of busy schedules. In a work around, people are trying to keep up with one another on Facebook and texting. This makes the technology that is helping to keep you connected bad and the busy schedules not bad?

    Busy schedules, hmmm, now there’s the rub. But it’s technology in question… not radio, tv, telephones or automobiles, but new technology. Still, I cannot agree that the local church has only been diminished by new technology. Perhaps some local churches have. Those who worship technology or those who just want to attract large followings. But biblical churches do not have to approach life as the Amish. Technology is simply a tool. Tools by nature are designed to aid. They can be convenient, but they can simultaneously be helpful. The printed word made it very convenient to read the Bible or spiritual books, but it also improved the ability of the church to disseminate the Gospel, encourage and be edified, teach and know God’s word, etc. The Good News and good teaching spread via 1s and 0s can be equally beneficial to the cause and work of the local church, just as I assume this article is intended to be.

    A few folks may be holing themselves up in their homes and living their lives out on Facebook. But countless others are simply using it to communicate when they are not face-to-face, to better keep up with those who live far away, and to reconnect with long lost friends

    One post to Facebook and a host of prayers warriors are notified of an emergency. One status update that proclaims God’s goodness blesses, encourages and testifies to a wide circle of contacts. What is carried along in digital format are words. Words crafted from the heart of someone who is thinking about another. And these words can speak life.

    I exchange quick text messages with my wife, and a buddy who moved 2 hours away. I tweet or chat with my worship pastor about practice. And ultimately we commune together on campus, in homes, and during spontaneous lunch meetings communicated with technology.

    It certainly has not supplanted any face-to-face opportunities for me and my family. Instead, it has enabled us to broadened our circle of friends. And like John, writing from the Isle of Patmos, or Paul sending his letters to churches throughout Asia, we keep up with missionary friends through blogs, email, Facebook and e-newsletters. I am meeting one this weekend who notified me via Facebook that she was returning home for a visit.

    • Bruce,

      If you are consistent reader of the blog, then you know that I have spoken negatively many times about our overt busyness. I believe that rather than forcing us to take a look at this busyness and fix it, tech has a tendency to only amplify the busyness by SEEMINGLY making it easier to manage.

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