At a recent Facebook rally in Chicago, Mark Zuckerberg suggested that the social network behemoth can effectively replace institutions like “churches and Little Leagues.” Through new breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, he aims to draw people together into Facebook Groups to serve similar functions, but in a more meaningful way. In this way, he envisions moving people away from actual gatherings of people, towards online groups governed by computers.
As the pastor of a church (and as a Little League baseball dad), I find this idea both repulsive and out of touch. Facebook technology can never provide the kind of coaching, personal development, and personal relationship building that Little League baseball provides for my son. And it can never provide the appropriate forum for church worship, ministry, and fellowship.
Can it serve as a useful way to disseminate information? Yes. Can it serve as a useful way to “stay in touch” with relationships you’ve already established in real life? Perhaps. Are there other helpful uses for Facebook and its cousins? Maybe. But can it replace the church? Definitely not. To support this sentiment, I propose a few biblical observations.
1. The physical gathering of believers enjoys the distinct presence of Christ.
That’s what Jesus taught in Matthew 18:20. Admittedly, Jesus may be addressing the special case of church discipline here. I say this based upon the focus of the immediate context in Matthew 18. If this is true, then he is not addressing the popular applications of group prayer meetings in a more general sense or church worship in the most general sense. But even so, this instruction indicates that church discipline and Christian accountability, at the very least, will suffer in a pixelated, Facebook world. “When two or three are linked together in a Facebook Group …” I’ll stop right there, because it just doesn’t work that way.
Christian accountability, at the very least, will suffer in a pixelated, Facebook world.
2. Scripture commands believers not only to gather physically, but to do so more not less.
The Christian audience of the New Testament letter (or sermons) called Hebrews endured intense pressure and persecution for their public testimony. If anyone had a good reason to stay at home and away from church, it was them. They faced far more than hectic schedules. To gather together as a church could mean either arrest, imprisonment, or death by gladiators and lions. But considering the death of Christ on their behalf, what does the writer warn them not to do? “Do not abandon gathering together with fellows believers” (Heb. 10:25).
Many are doing this very thing today, abandoning the gathered church; but that is an ancient problem, not a new one.
Many are doing this very thing today, abandoning the gathered church; but that is an ancient problem, not a new one, and Facebook Groups can neither rectify the situation nor provide an alternative. “Do not abandon logging in to your Facebook Group, and do so even more …” That’s not a parallel thought, is it? I kind of like the opposite of that. “Abandon logging in to your Facebook Group, and do so even more.”
3. Church polity excludes oversight by intermediaries like Facebook.
While Facebook may serve as a useful tool for spreading information related to church functions, it can never serve as an equal or primary venue for church activity. Proper church administration follows a biblical paradigm. Christ rules as the chief shepherd and head (Col. 1:18; 1 Pet. 5:4). Pastors serve as the under-shepherds (1 Pet. 5:2), accountable to the example of Christ, the Word of God and the congregation (Acts 17:11).
We are not at liberty to insert any other party into this functioning order. Governments attempt to insert themselves. The papacy and Roman Catholicism has sabotaged this order to a monstrous degree. And Facebook? Yes, Facebook is not the government, and it is certainly not the Vatican. But it is a secular institution nonetheless that operates according to its own rules and policies. These rules and policies, and its governing body, should never affect the administration of any church, or exercise authority over it.
Facebook rules and policies, and its governing body, should never affect the administration of any church, or exercise authority over it.
4. You cannot observe the ordinances online.
I know this is rather simplistic, but perhaps it is more profound than we realize. You cannot baptize a person on Facebook, and you cannot break bread and drink juice there either. The ordinances require a physical gathering of people. So, however frequently baptisms occur and the Lord’s Table occurs (1 Cor. 11:26), the ordinances compel us to assemble together in person as a church.
The ordinances require a physical gathering of people.
5. Pixels do not equal real face time and real hugs.
“Greet one another with a holy kiss.” That’s what Paul encouraged church members to do (Rom. 16:16). Though not every culture greets one another this way, we all greet one another somehow or another. For some it is a handshake, for some it is a hug, for others it is a pat on the back, and for others it is a, well, um, a holy kiss. But whatever the case, it is something, and that something is not a “thumbs up” on Facebook.
There is something significant about wholesome, appropriate physical contact with one another that strengthens the bonds of friendship and fellowship as the body of Christ.
There is something significant about wholesome, appropriate physical contact with one another that strengthens the bonds of friendship and fellowship as the body of Christ. An appropriate hug says a lot, and a face-to-face conversation about Christ, about Scripture, about a testimony from the week, or about the challenges of life is far more meaningful that anything Facebook or Skype can deliver.
- “Love this guy!”
- “If you are a real friend, please like this post in the next two hours.”
- “So thankful for this woman!”
Seriously, how much of this can we take? How many play-by-plays of everyone’s lives in carefully selected (and edited) photos, selfies, and cliched one-liners can we handle? Is it even honest? And how many do we need? Then what about all those awkward FaceTime videos looking up at people’s faces in reverse camera mode? Is that fellowship? Is that friendship? Is that what the church really needs? Is it even marginally effective? Are there real people in your life that could use some real face time with you instead? Think about that.
Are there real people in your life that could use some real face time with you instead?
What the church really needs is to function together as a church, to gather together on a regular basis, at church (esp. on the Lord’s Day), in homes, and in life, and Facebook doesn’t count.
They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. (Acts 2:42)
In fact, I’d suggest that you spend far less time posting and browsing Facebook and its cousins and spend far more time in one of three ways:
- Spend more time in personal fellowship with God,
- Spend more time fulfilling your God-given roles, goals, and priorities in life, and
- Spend more time gathering and serving together with the people of your church, in real time, not online, and not on Facebook.
Your Facebook posting and interaction will never provide meaningful Christian fellowship the way that gathering together with the people of your church in worship and service will do. And yet it is possible that you give far more attention to your Facebook activity than you do to your church activity.
It is possible that you give far more attention to your Facebook activity than you do to your church activity.
Such online behavior merely substitutes the real thing with a cheapened alternative, with limited benefits. We need more church and less Facebook, not the other way around. (And I’ll take Little League over Facebook, too.) So, Facebook cannot replace your church, but your church can replace Facebook!
Facebook cannot replace your church, but your church can replace Facebook!