Facebook wants to partner with your church. In some ways, Facebook wants to be your church.
Several weeks ago, Elizabeth Dias of the New York Times detailed the social media giant’s recent attempts to partner with faith groups (“Facebook’s Next Target: The Religious Experience”). In response to the pandemic forcing churches online last year, Facebook has intensified efforts toward embedding religious practice into its platform permanently. With or without pandemic lockdowns, Facebook wants the church to stick around.
One Facebook executive voiced excitement over the potential for such a partnership by saying, “I just want people to know that Facebook is a place where, when they do feel discouraged or depressed or isolated, that they could go to Facebook and they could immediately connect with a group of people that care about them.” Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, said, “Faith organizations and social media are a natural fit because fundamentally both are about connection.”
But are they really? Does Facebook offer the same kind of “connection” as the “fellowship” experienced by Christian brothers and sisters in communion with one another?
While the article points out one major problem with this partnership—”the goals of businesses and worshiping communities are different”—there are other major theological issues for both the church and individual Christians to consider.
We must recognize that not all forms of connection are equal. If I sent my wife a text message proclaiming my love for her on our anniversary and left my recognition of that significant milestone at that, I don’t think her response would be, “I feel so connected to you!” While this fact may seem obvious, it gets obscured by the way words like “connected” and “community” are carelessly thrown around by tech advocates.
Consider, for example, this quote from Bobby Gruenewald, pastor of Life.Church in Oklahoma: “From our vantage point, Facebook is a platform that allows us to build community and connect with our community and accomplish our mission. So it serves I think everybody well.”
How does Facebook allow the church to build community? I don’t think Facebook was around when the church in Jerusalem began meeting to “devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). They didn’t need Facebook’s newly developed tool for soliciting money when they had all things in common and sold their possessions so that they could provide for anyone among them who had need (Acts 2:44-45).
Believers in Christ share a connection that can only be cultivated through embodied presence. The earliest Christians greeted one another with a holy kiss (mentioned five times in the New Testament). They gathered around a table and shared the bread and the wine of Christ’s body and blood. They looked into one another’s eyes as they sang psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. They embraced as they prayed for one another.
We degrade “community” when we pretend that it can be attained cheaply by isolated people staring into the abyss of a computer screen. The apostles understood the limitations of certain forms of communication. Paul wrote letters to the church, but he longed eagerly to see them face to face (1 Thess. 2:17). John wrote, “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 12).
Did you catch that at the end? John wanted to see them face to face so that their joy would be complete. Discouraged, depressed, and isolated people don’t need to log on to Facebook. They need real embodied presence. They need the One who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). He is still present when two or three physically gather in his name (Matt. 18:20).
Facebook can benefit the church as a tool, but it must never be seen as its replacement. Letter writing was a tool utilized by the apostles when they needed to get an important message to the church from a different location, but the habit of meeting together with the believers in one’s town was always viewed as essential (Heb. 10:25). The tools will change, but the essentials never will. Facebook friends aren’t real friends. Facebook church isn’t real either.