One of the primary difficulties facing local churches right now is the emergence of large online networks which shape and disciple church members in ways that are conducive to the growth of the network but not conducive to the health of the church.
Online Networks and Discipleship
The problem is something like this: Visible, tangible ecclesial institutions with an on-the-ground presence in a place will attract a somewhat diverse range of people. At minimum, the members will not be that similar simply because cities and neighborhoods are not often large enough to include a huge number of people with basically identical tastes, desires, anxieties, etc. Simple realities of geography mean that every church is going to have some amount of diversity.
When you have diverse institutions, the way a person stands out in the community and helps improve it is by being the sort of person able to speak across the various divisions within the group and direct people toward common purpose.
On the other hand, online networks tend to be far more homogeneous. This is because online networks are not geographically constrained and so the possible pool of people they can draw from is anyone with internet access. This makes for narrower, more niche online networks that lack the inevitable diversity you’ll find in on-the-ground, geographically constrained institutions.
Significantly, as communities narrow and become more homogeneous, the need for bridge builders and unifiers tends to disappear because there simply aren’t that many divides (or at least that many known, relevant divides) to bridge. So in networks, the way a person stands out is not through being a unifier, but through being more extreme. Online networks are, effectively, silos and in silos the incentive structures run toward extremism.
What this means is that our local churches, those on-the-ground, visible institutions in geographically constrained places, are now filled with people whose day-to-day life is increasingly influenced by their more homogeneous online networks, but not the same online networks. The person sitting in one corner of the room spends hours every day on TikTok and Instagram and is neck deep in therapeutic culture. Meanwhile, across the room is someone who watches Tucker Carlson every night, regularly reads Rod Dreher, and follows a number of anti-woke social media influences on Twitter.
So these congregants are being shaped day-to-day in communities where extremism is incentivized and more conciliatory behavior is viewed with suspicion. Then they come into churches. Now imagine being a pastor. How do you preach to people being shaped by such networks? How do you shepherd them? And how do you shepherd all these different people at once?
Do you understand why our pastors are exhausted, why so many are eying the exit?
The Virtual Universal Church
A second point: Within Protestantism, we have the idea of “the universal church,” by which we have traditionally meant “the body of Christian believers stretched across time and place.” The other way we talk about church is “the local church” by which we mean local manifestations of God’s people united around the preaching of the Word, administering the sacraments, and practice of Christian discipline.
Traditionally in Protestant thought the theological work this division does for us is two-fold: First, it allows us to name people who are church members without necessarily commenting on the state of their soul before God. I cannot know a person’s heart and so cannot know ultimately whether someone is regenerate. I can know if a person is baptized. I can know if they are a member in good standing in their church. So the invisible v local distinction allows me to talk carefully about these kind of questions. This same distinction helps explain why we baptize our children: It’s not a statement that our children are members of the universal church because we can’t know if they are or not. Only God knows that. But our children can be part of local church communities. So the distinction allows us to retain an appropriate degree of modesty about our own knowledge and ecclesial tradition while also recognizing and highlighting the importance of local church communities.
The challenge is that in our contemporary context the idea of the universal church can map onto the above description of networks fairly neatly, particularly when our conception of local church community has already been badly watered down by things like multi-campus churches, video preaching, and online church. (This is an insight I got from Mark Sayers.) All of these things have had the effect of marginalizing the idea of “the local church” and encouraging people to imagine themselves as part of some vague, amorphous “universal church” even if they aren’t actually part of any one particular local church. And, as Tish Warren observed many years ago back when the primary expression of this virtual universal church was still the blogosphere, this creates many problems.
For example, local church membership becomes more complicated and is perhaps even seen as unnecessary because one has one’s online church. Likewise, accountability to pastoral authorities who are actually involved in your day to day life becomes less significant as those authorities are seen as both being unnecessary and potentially abusive. The natural gravity of our technology seems to lead us toward silos and because of this perverted notion of the universal church we have theological language that can legitimize those silos and further marginalize our local on-the-ground ecclesial communities.
The Power(lessness) of Local Institutions
Third: One of the responses to my first post was that I had the causality backwards when I suggested that authors chronicling stories of abusive churches or taking a therapeutic lens to problems of church are creating scripts that cause parishioners to misinterpret actions and, generally, treat their pastors with suspicion. This is wrong, some suggested, because the people I named are not creating scripts so much as they are describing something that is already happening.
While I understand the concern, I don’t think that’s actually true. I also can’t help wondering if the people raising this critique would extend the same defense to Megan Basham’s work. I think it’s all bad and rotten. But if Fox News and right-wing Twitter ideologues can shape church members in ways that undermine Christian community, surely TikTok and Instagram influencers can do the same?
Sure, one of the reasons these online networks have arisen is the failure of local churches. And yet I think it dramatically misunderstands the flow of power in our cultural moment to suggest that online networks are merely naming things happening in the offline world and do not directly influence and shape what happens in the offline world through their near-constant presence in the minds of their network members and their near-constant access to those members.
Indeed, I think one of the defining stories of our moment is the power of digital technology to form people and cultivate certain traits and characteristics in members of online networks. Certainly that is one of the themes that stands out in the recent New York Times podcast about pastors and Trumpism: Pastors get their people 30 minutes a week. Tucker and Fox News and the Twittersphere get it for hours on end. That’s the defining narrative problem the Times podcast is addressing. And it is obviously and undeniably a problem. I live in a red state. I’m in the PCA. You don’t have to convince me about this.
My only contribution to the discourse has been to observe that TikTok and Instagram influencers as well as a suite of books and podcasts overly dependent on therapeutic categories (and often seemingly indifferent to older formally Christian categories of moral analysis) exert a similar influence on congregants of a different sort—which is something I often see in my blue hometown and, again, in the PCA. Perhaps “progressive” was the wrong word to describe the members of these networks. But the thing I’m describing is real, even if we haven’t found the right word for it yet.