Today is a new day.
I don’t mean it’s early in the morning, I mean today is a new day than even just the recent past. Things are very different than they were not too long ago. The pace of our world has quickened to break-neck speeds, and the structure of how life is lived has evolved to something vastly different from the “good-ole days.” Chief among the causes would include the advancement of technology and the advent of the Internet.
And while advancement is good—be it in safety, health care, education, and the like—it does have its drawbacks.
And that’s our focus for today.
Now if you’re worried this is going to be another clash between “then and now” or “the good ole days vs. today” or even the tired cliché of “Boomer vs. Millennials with us Gen-Xer’s quietly waiting in the corner” story line—don’t be worried. This is actually about the church evolving with changing times, but still the church being church.
“Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” is a 2001 thesis by sociologist Robert Putnam, and is a focus on the decline of community engagement in America. Putnam addresses our culture’s withdrawal from traditional in-person social networks like civic groups, service clubs and even churches, with a movement toward the more isolating kinds of entertainment and interaction made possible by technology. (I found his term for his premise, “Bowling Alone” striking, which is why I stole it for my sermon title.)
Some seventeen years later, Putnam’s thesis has been proven true again and again as the online, virtual communities are widespread. We no longer ask strangers to take a picture for us, we take “selfies.” We no longer send hand written cards and notes; we send “memes”, “gifs” and “emoji’s.” And of course, phone calls are replaced by text messages.
The pace of Putnam’s theory was no doubt quickened by none other than Mr. Facebook himself, Mark Zuckerberg, founder of the social media platform Facebook.
While just a college sophomore at Harvard in 2004 Zuckerberg originally designed his platform for college students to check one another out. Now, Facebook is a worldwide network of some 2 billion users who interact with “friends,” some of whom they have never met in person.
Now in its second decade, Facebook is engaged in a new mission—which has no doubt been partly motivated by Zuckerberg’s recent Congressional hearings.
With an apparent nod to Robert Putnam, Zuckerberg noted in a June 2017 speech: “It’s striking that for decades; membership in all kinds of groups has declined by as much as one-quarter. That’s a lot of people who now need to find a sense of purpose and support somewhere else.”
For Zuckerberg, that somewhere else is Facebook, which he sees as a postmodern, post-traditional form of “church,” saying, “People who go to church are more likely to volunteer and give to charity, not just because they’re religious, but because they’re part of a community.”
Zuckerberg’s vision of Facebook as a kind of church seems thin to me, however it does lift up a kind of community for community’s sake.
But I have to wonder… In the Facebook “church”, who or what is being worshiped? What’s the community’s purpose? And, perhaps even more importantly, how is community fostered and deepened by all those cat videos?
Comparing a virtual church of billions of isolated individuals tapping on keyboards to the real thing should cause us to chortle if not scoff. No disrespect to social media—I think it is an important and vital resource for the church. But it’s no replacement.
So we have to ask: What is the church missing that would allow Zuckerberg and millions of others to want to substitute wading through political rants and vacation selfies for real interaction with a living, breathing, loving community?
And we have to ask…How has the Church allowed the “Bowling Alone” theory to become a reality?
For some answers, we need to reach back to the church’s roots, and there’s no better place to do that than by reading the book of Acts. Nobody worships, evangelizes or bowls alone in the book Acts.
Acts shows us what the church does—it connects with people not just faces.
While Facebook’s innovation has had an amazing impact in the world by bringing us faces right to our screen, the church allows us to experience the person—the lives of people in a community, a community in which we act, serve and work together for the glory of God.
From the very beginning of the book of Acts we learn that God, via the Holy Spirit, created this community called church not for the purpose of people merely checking one another out, but for introducing people to the good news of what God had done through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The very premise of the community was that God had come in person in Jesus and didn’t settle for sharing a meme or posting a manifesto.
Jesus formed a real community of disciples, complete with their own quirks and flaws, and showed them how to interact with others in order to bring them into God’s kingdom.
The Spirit empowered them for this work and the people began connecting in person, around tables in homes, in the temple and through sharing their goods with one another (2:42-47).
All of it shows the purpose of this community called “Church.” And it is a lot more about selfless service than selfies!
What we see in someone’s Facebook profile is precisely what they want us to see and no more. Those vacation photos, pics of new cars and beautiful selfies are all designed in some way to show everyone else that we’re doing quite well, thank you very much.
For some people, the goal is to attract more “friends” and receive more “likes,” which can make even the most mature adult begin acting like an insecure and self-obsessed seventh-grader.
The church, on the other hand, was designed as a community where people focus on others more than themselves. It was created as a group centered on belief in the God who had saved them because they were all in the same situation—they were all sinners in need of grace. They had no impression to manage because they were now “of one heart and soul,” completely focused on what God had done for them in Jesus (v. 32).
They modeled their lives after him by voluntarily and sacrificially caring for others to the point of seeing their own personal possessions as being available to everyone else in the community (v. 32).
Coupled with that deep sense of community was a central narrative that drove the church’s action and mission. The church was centered on the story of the apostles’ testimony that Jesus had risen from the dead, who had enabled them to receive God’s grace in its fullness and compelled them to share that Good News with the world (v. 33).
The story became the motivating and uniting factor in the church’s life and work— it’s what made them a “church” in the first place.
Facebook and social media users enjoy the ability to stay in touch with family members who are elsewhere in the country and around the world. It creates a unique opportunity to foster a unique type of community and connection. I am glad to have the ability to connect with a long lost friend instantly as it meets a need for the community and connection we all desire.
Like I said, social media is an important and vital resource for the church, and I want our church to “up our game” even more so with social media—so if anyone wants to help with that, let me know.
But our social media needs to be an invitation into community, not a replacement for community, because when it does become a replacement then we end up bowling alone.
As God had been generous with God’s grace in Jesus, so the Church must be generous with one another, believing our lives are part of something bigger than ourselves.
Luke says there was “not a needy person among them” and that members of the church community sold property and gave the proceeds to the apostles to distribute to those who were in need (v. 34).
That’s a lot different from the sort of “charity” envisioned by Zuckerberg’s Facebook Church, which usually involves nothing more than a supportive emoji on someone’s timeline.
The early church’s social platform was driven by generosity developed out of a sense of gratitude to God.
People of the church gave so that others could have enough, and feel valued and loved. Facebook and social media are driven by advertising.
But that’s our world today, isn’t it? Today is a new day after all.
Which is why we as the Church need to be prepared to meet this new day.
And we can do so by taking seriously the way of community in the early church that was intentional about its efforts to connect and be inclusive.
And we know there is this need because Mr. Facebook himself said there’s “a lot of people who now need to find a sense of purpose and support somewhere.”
Zuckerberg thinks Facebook is the place. But we know different. We know the Church can, and should be that place.
Which is why we as the Church need to be prepared to meet this new day, and we can do so by taking seriously the way of community in the early Church, which was successful when it was intentional about connecting with, and being inclusive of, others.
So how might our church reflect this kind of community? What are we doing to promote this kind of community? How are we helping people to move toward a real encounter with Jesus and his people instead of bowling alone?
It’s a new day. And those are the questions we, the Church, must ask, and answer. Amen.