The Troubling New Church of Facebook

Painting: The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Not long ago Mark Zuckerberg described Facebook as the new church, an institution that will replace traditional churches as a source of community and support. This is a somewhat troubling assertion.

First, considering churches to be relics of the past requires a great leap of faithlessness. Struggling in some regions and thriving in others, churches everywhere continue to serve communities and provide hope and relief to people in dire need of physical and spiritual help.

Second, church members attend to those physical and spiritual needs by doing things, not by punching keys on a keyboard, which is really all one can do on Facebook. Digital chatter is a poor substitute for food drives that feed the hungry, fundraisers that clothe the poor, and home visits that console the lonely and bereaved.

Communities Human and Divine

Third and most important, Zuckerberg sees the walls and windows of churches but fails to notice their divine dimension. Churches serve others because God commands the faithful to do so. True, pagans can serve others on the basis of philosophy just as easily as the faithful can serve out of obedience, but there is a problem. Without God, how specifically do we go about serving others? Who decides what specifically constitutes support or charity? Who defines the specific, shared values of community members? It is disagreements about these very questions that make social media the antisocial slugfest it often is. I doubt even a man as talented and accomplished as Mark Zuckerberg can serve as an effective referee.

Yes, church members are flawed and sinful — all humans are. Nevertheless, divinely inspired and divinely directed institutions at least have a divine hand pointing members in a consistent, virtuous direction.* Does Facebook fit this institutional description in any way, shape or form?

No, it does not. Facebook more closely resembles the Tower of Babel than a church. Conversations are friendly and hostile, loud and soft, grave and funny all at once with a constant barrage of ads in the background. Noise. Confusion. Love, hatred, sympathy, cruelty. Genuinely helpful user groups and malevolent pedophiles. Consolation and bullying. Real information that’s hard to come by and fake news you can’t get away from, with no good way to discern which is which.

These are not the solid, uniform building blocks of community, but rather the irregular, wobbly building blocks of humans left to their own devices, blocks without pattern or purpose that in the end always come crashing down.

Holy Moses

Engraving of Moses holding the Ten Commandments.

In those places where churches are faltering and leaving a void where community once existed, perhaps the answer is not to search for something new, but to retrieve something old — humility.

Everywhere we turn, we see pride causing problems that shatter community. Arrogance, unbridled ambition, lust for power, greed and avarice are outgrowths of pride. We are constantly being told to take pride in our country, our company, our children, our college, our career, our car, our home, our home team, our life choices. Whether we’ve earned it or not, whether we deserve it or not, whether it’s good or not, whether we stumbled into it, stole it or planned it, we should be proud of it.

Man says pride is good. God says pride is bad.

Think of Moses, the great leader of the Old Testament, the man chosen by God to lead his chosen people to physical and spiritual freedom. Big job, with all the power and perks (such as they were) a man could ask for. How does the Bible describe Moses? In Numbers 12:3, we read,

“As for Moses, whom they attacked, never was a man more patient on the whole face of the earth.”

“Patient” is often translated as “meek” or “humble.” The point is, it is humility, not pride, that in the eyes of God makes a great community leader.

There is no way to reconcile the human and Godly visions of leadership and community. When church leaders succumb to pride and its attendant vices, they inevitably fail, usually bringing their communities down with them. It has happened all too often, God knows, but not nearly as often as in institutions that have closed the door to God.

Imagine what a man in Mark Zuckerberg’s position could accomplish armed with the humility of Moses. Such a man might ponder, deeply ponder, what it was that made churches such a strong glue for holding communities together generation after generation. He might even conclude that it would be wiser to put his communication platform more effectively in the service of churches, rather than marginalize and replace them.

“I do believe in Christianity, and my impression is that a system must be divine which has survived so much insane mismanagement.” — G.K. Chesterton

(Image credits – Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Commons)

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