Millennial Faith – Part 1: The Decline of Church and the Rise of Filter Bubbles

Journalism in the print dominated era was largely able to avoid having advertisers censor or otherwise interfere with news reporting, something known as “commercial capture,” because there were few, if any, advertising alternatives available. For example, GM would never challenge an unfavorable story by threatening to pull its advertising dollars largely because they had nowhere else to buy their media. Clay Shirky, NYU media professor, aptly noted this in a well-known blog posts in 2009.

Shirky As Shirky noted then, that deferential treatment of publishers changed in the digital era. In short, Internet companies such as Ebay, Craigslist, Monster and myriad social media upended the political economy of the newspaper business:

With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data. It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem. – Clay Shirky

There are some interesting parallels to draw between the organizational and economic models of newspapering in the industrial age, and the modernist evangelical church, especially as it concerns certain effects of mobile networked communication media on millennials.

In light of Shirky’s well-worn thesis on the plight of newspapers in the digital era, I thought I’d create a “find and replace” thought exercise to show how analogous this is with the exodus of millennials from evangelical churches. In reading the statements below, replace the underlined words with those in the parentheses that follow.

Find and Replace:

For years newspapers (churches) didn’t have to be beholden to advertisers’ (parishioners) concerns about content (theology and dogma) because publishers (clergy) controlled the only viable advertising medium (spiritual and social support system) available. Publishers (clergy) could avoid this commercial capture (church consumer capture) because, as Shirky puts it, “Where else you gonna go?”

Yes, people have been church hopping for decades — people have always been able to vote with their feet — but something is going on generationally that points to a new dynamic. After a spate of articles in the past few weeks laying blame for plummeting millennial engagement with the church on the usual suspects (pluralism, lack of critical thinking, the decline of apologetics, post modernism, consumerism), something just didn’t ring true with my experience of millennials as a college professor, and I began to pull on a thread that seems to connect some of the disparate sources I’ve been reading and listening to in the past few weeks.

All of the issues people have had with churches—the reasons millennials give for leaving the Evangelical churches behind noted in recent research—are largely the same as they have been for decades and even generations, as Richard Beck, professor and department chair of psychology at Abilene Christian University, points out.

…the church has always been this way. Is the church of 2010 much different from the church of the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, or ’90s? I don’t think so. So, yes, the church is screwed up. Always has been. The church has been a depressing constant over the generations. – Richard Beck

What has changed is the ability to mediate and even titrate our spiritual and social support structure.

In the silence of connection, people are comforted by being in touch with a lot of people — carefully kept at bay. We can’t get enough of one another if we can use technology to keep one another at distances we can control. – Sherry Turkle, psychologist and professor at MIT

Traditional church attendance, interacting with others in unmediated and uncontrollable context, for some millennials has become as unbearable as using their mobile device to make an actual phone call. Technology has given them a measure of control over their relationships, something the church cannot provide (nor should it). Yet, having been conditioned by an industrial-producer model of church programmed with the base code of consumer culture, they find it quite natural to leverage technology to “optimize” their experiences of faith and the church.

ShirkyThis leads to another analogous concept that seems pertinent here: Eli Pariser’s filter bubble. (You can access a full definition through the link. In short, it is how people become increasingly isolated in their own cultural or ideological bubbles by digital technology that can monetize their personal data). This individual bubble effect is further inflated by our ability to control our social interactions and information sources through social media.

Many Christians have spent their lives within the church “bubble,” a word most readily understood to be the protective insulation one gains from affiliation with their church subculture. A strong social contract has maintained the boundaries of this bubble over time: be likeminded and the medium of the church will filter out dissonance, deception, temptation, etc. In the digital era, individual filter bubbles have largely transcended the old borders.

As one is able to inflate and maintain their own filter bubble, he or she becomes less bound within the church bubble, as everything is more subject to their individual bubble. Even if one still subscribes to the dogma and practices of their original church subculture, all of that content and connection must now transcend the mediated membrane of the individual’s bubble. The church becomes subject to a person’s ability to control the input and mediation of social interactions and information. What was once a relational–social process is obsolesced and becomes an objectified input source — one among many.

In short, the existence of individual filter bubbles that propagate digitally makes the existence of larger bubbles propagated offline largely irrelevant (or a lot less relevant). The priesthood of all believers is now the oracle of each individual believer.

Percentage of people affiliating as white evangelical Protestants:

  • 27% of people age 65-plus
  • 22% of people age 50 to 64
  • 17% of people age 35 to 49
  • 11% of percent age 18 to 34

– Public Religion Research Institute, American Values Atlas, 2014.

The challenge posed by the phenomenon is that neither those in church leadership, nor millennials recognize this filtering process is occurring. The sharp decline in the religious affiliation of successive generations is largely attributed to immediately visible factors (styles of worship, service content, bad PR, etc.) — all with much hand-wringing. The presence of filter bubble millennials doesn’t negate the other factors, but we also shouldn’t expect solving those issues will change much in terms of the generations filling the church pews in the digital era. One bubble has popped as the other has inflated.

Next: Part 2 – Millennial faith: A church for makers

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