Three decades of data have revealed near systemic evangelical ignorance of the Scriptures, ignorance of theology, church history, Christian art, architecture, and iconography and, correspondingly, ignorance of Christian deportment, both social and practical. (1) Ignorance abounds with the information superhighway literally at our fingertips and Kindles glutted with books.
This ignorance, however, has little to do with intelligence or ability, and everything to do with literacy—the kind of literacy that results from catechesis, interpersonal catechesis. Our evangelical churches are illiterate because catechesis rarely takes place, and when it does it is usually unremarkable and undemanding, thanks to our seeker-sensitivity complex. And it is only interpersonal, challenging catechesis—face-to-face discipleship between the catechist and catechumen—that can dispel such illiteracy, so that the baptized may not only recognize the story in its various manifestations (the contents of the Bible, confessional articles, liturgical appointments and rites, and so forth), but also own it as their integrated worldview and lifestyle. It was this kind of discipling that Jesus expected from his ministerium (Matt. 28:19; John 21:15-18). Interpersonal discipleship fortifies the church against flaccid nominalism. Modern technologies, for all their usefulness and genius, have not and cannot fill the gap between Christian initiation and catechetical confirmation; only face-to-face discipleship can.
After decades of unbridled optimism, catechists were beginning to make a U-turn on the necessity of employing modern technologies as the principal means of discipling. To be sure, cautionary statements have been issued since the 1980s by the likes of Neil Postman, C. John Sommerville, D. G. Hart, and Neal Gabler, that modern technology was not all it was cracked up to be, particularly in connection with religious learning. (2) Biblical literacy rates are down, learning is increasingly a passive activity, the line of demarcation between educating and entertaining has been blurred, and—for all the time spent in front of electronic media devices (averaging nine hours a day for high school students)—American pupils are scoring lower than their Eastern and Sub-Continent counterparts in the fields of mathematics, science, language acquisition and proficiency, to say nothing of catechetical retention. (3) As one Sudanese pastor said, "I'll take any one of my catechumens over a dozen of yours in America." This Anglican priest was making the point that discipleship is about quality, not quantity. It is baptism that gives us quantity. Face-to-face discipleship gives us quality. But then came Facebook as the latest Christian-consumer expectation within the church. Face-to-face discipleship now competes with Facebook discipleship.
Biblical models of discipleship entail corporate settings (cf. Acts 2:42; Heb. 10:25) and more intimate contexts for mentoring (cf. Acts 8:26ff; 10:27-48; the Pastoral Epistles). Jesus' ministry to the assembled masses and pedagogical retreats with his disciples provide paradigmatic case studies for intentional catechetical ministry that has been replicated by the apostles and succeeding generations within the church. Indeed, when Jesus commissioned his disciples as apostles (hoi apostoloi) in John 20:21-23, he intended a personal, intimate, and present ministry. The Father "sent" (apestalken) the Son in human flesh to "be with us" (John 1:14), to minister grace and truth. In the same way (kathos) the Son sends his personal representatives—the apostoloi—to minister the grace and truth of God. Anything otherwise would yield Docetism, impinging upon God's incarnational purposes and presence. (4) Personal, present representation is therefore the essence of Christian ministry—the ministry of disciple-making through holy baptism and the formation of the disciple through catechetical instruction (Matt. 28:19-20).
Given this biblical precedence and two millennia of ecclesial emulation of the discipling process, is it possible to take a digital approach to, say, the Lenten form of Christian discipleship? I don't think so. Cyber-social networks such as Facebook facilitate neither the corporate setting nor the context for mentoring as intended by the Father and the Son.
The tradition of Lent is the liturgical calendar season of forty weekdays before Easter, observed by many Reformation traditions and consisting of penitence and fasting. It stretches from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday. Despite attempts to spin the significance of the biblical number "40" into something wonderfully transformative (à la Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life), forty-day periods in the Bible always are associated with trials of temptation, affliction, fasting, repentance, and suffering while entreating God for grace. One thinks of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus himself fasting in the wilderness. One also thinks of global judgment for forty days in Noah's lifetime, as well as the first generation of Hebrews that experienced the Exodus, who also spent forty years wandering and never entering the Promised Land. Lenten seasons, be it with Moses and the Hebrews, Elijah and the Israelites, or Jesus and his "last Adam" representation of humanity, were never exclusively about individual self-discovery. They have always been far more corporate in the disciplines of repentance and entreaty. These experiences necessitated challenging encounters with familial (head of household) and communal spiritual shepherds (prophets and priests).
Maintaining continuity with the Old Testament and holding Jesus' wilderness trial as the paragon, the church enters the season of Lent. Since the third century, entire congregations have embraced and participated in the drama of Lent that reaches its apogee on Good Friday when the Messiah was crucified "for us and for our salvation," only to give way to corporate relief on Easter morning. Lent was a church affair, and it was bound up with the formation of disciples by way of catechetical preaching, instructing baptismal candidates and confirmands, and shaping Christian character through the rigors of spiritual disciplines—praying, fasting, meditating, self-denying, serving, and studying. It was all very corporate, all quite interpersonal. We repented together, we mourned together, we celebrated together. Moreover, it was decidedly low tech: personal presence, Word, sacraments, brotherly consolation, encouragement. Christians touched and ate together in 3-D.
Today, Lent seems to have suffered from the encroachment of our Facebook society. I say this because, like so much else in American evangelicalism, even Lent seems to have been reduced to an exercise in isolation, militating against biblical categories of discipleship. What was once a parish exercise is now more frequently referred to as an individual experience enjoyed from the comforts of home or wherever one can WiFi a 4G network. Evidencing this trend are not only sparsely attended Lenten services (in the ever-shrinking sphere in which it remains), but the way we as evangelicals think about the world. A Facebook instant message (IM) exchange shared by a friend may be typical:
A: Doing lent?
B: You mean giving up something?
A: No u know the whole lent thing—church and all.
B: Not really. How about you?
A: Me neither tho I was thinking I'd renew my new years resolutions.
B: Cool. I'll pray for you.
This exchange came from a West Coast evangelical church's Facebook forum titled, "The Fellowship Wall." For this and other churches, posting, texting, and blogging sometimes constitutes Christian fellowship and the substance of discipleship. Where once catechisms were employed and midweek Lenten services pocked calendars, now it is good enough simply to have connected electronically. Clip, paste, send. And we all say "Amen."
There can be no doubt that Facebook and social networks such as Myspace and Twitter are displacing interpersonal mediums of discipling. In a broader sense, they are filling a socialization vacuum about which Robert D. Putnam so ably wrote in his groundbreaking book, Bowling Alone. (5) Putnam's data showed how Americans have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, our democratic structures, and church. He concluded that radical individualism, narcissism, consumerism, moral relativism, and a profound sense of entitlement fragment communities and organizations that, by their very nature and existence, operate on a fundamentally different principle than autonomy. With the loss of this social capital through civil engagement new, more convenient, and personally defined civic forms have arisen, but have done so by accommodating an America that is radically individualistic, narcissistic, consumerist, morally relative, and entitled. Facebook is the most successful new civil forum, and it is finding a welcome home in the church—the very entity designed by God to provide a totally different solution to communal disengagement from docetic enterprises like Facebook.
The gravitation toward employing cyber-social networks for activities once understood to require personal presence is seen in every corner of evangeli- calism. Church Facebook pages abound. A decade ago a common query was, "Does this church have a website?" Now the question is, "Is this church on Facebook?" That is because Facebook provides unique features, carries a certain status, and facilitates particular expectations for its nearly 650 million patrons. Facebook is an innovative cultural force shaping societal expectations about identity and a sense of belonging, which is why churches are enlisting its novel methodology. Per usual, evangelicalism is eager to give people what they want (convenience and low commitment) instead of what disciples need (challenging and engaging discipleship).
The contents on church Facebook pages range from posting intimations to sermon podcasting to forums for discipleship. Subscribers say that the need to employ Facebook-type interfaces is natural and fitting: It's just another tool for marketing, conveniently connecting believers, evangelistic endeavors, and Christian education. After all, the church has a history of technological employments—the printing press, Christian radio, television, theater. Evangelicals expect that the utilization of technology will terminate in enriching humanity with the Word of God or, synonymously, increasing catechetical literacy. At the same time, we would do well to remember the observations of Marshall McLuhan: "We become what we behold. We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us." (6) If the ideas of McLuhan have any traction, and the medium of social networking is really a message about virtuosity or unreality (corresponding to McLuhan's aphorism: "The medium is the message"), then church-via-Facebook will have the opposite effect upon discipleship and enriching Christian communities because it is not, by design, a conducive forum for the biblical discipleship of believers. It promotes tweets not tomes. It is not demanding but user friendly. It does not foster spiritual disciplines as there's no accountability. How, then, can we expect a tool that truncates our sensory engagement with reality (limiting it to an LCD panel) to play a role in reversing catechetical illiteracy?
A related conversation emerged in my University of San Diego class, "Protestantism in the USA." My students confirmed a suspicion I held. They believe that old "brick and mortar" churches are becoming increasingly redundant because evangelicalism is leading the way toward a fully personalized spirituality—done at home online. They reasoned, "You choose your friends online. Why not choose your church?" By this they did not mean utilizing a search engine to ascertain which church you would like to attend, but rather choosing whom you would like to have in your self-determined cyber-congregation, something quite different from the Body of Christ where those you might otherwise decline an invitation to view your page sit down next to you, hold your hand during the Lord's Prayer, and may even share the chalice with you during Holy Communion. They were saying that there will be no need to attend church because there is even now the possibility of forming your own virtu-church in the same way one customizes an iTunes collection. And in good keeping with the evangelical accommodation of individualism through self-application Bibles and a flattened ecclesiological topography, virtu-church provides the ideal setting for self-feeding where, when, how, and with whom you like. It's the next logical step in consumerist Christianity. They reported that this was not only a possibility, but a present reality: "I hardly ever go to church," confessed one student, "I stay connected through Facebook and I can do it from anywhere." The class nodded in universal agreement—assembling with believers is superfluous when Facebook is omnipresent. There was no perceived need to improve their catechetical literacy: they knew how to navigate the site.
After class, however, a student told me how her Emergent church went belly-up through Facebook, confirming another suspicion I held. This particular fellowship did all of its intimations, connecting, and correspondence through the online social network. Before long, the homilies and prayers were simply posted, and assembling took place online, with the discipling of new believers being facilitated by way of the IM tool. "It was so exciting," she said. The Facebook app on your phone allowed you to carry the church in your pocket and contribute through PayPal.
Then, of course, the social networking within the church became more exclusive. Facebook is, after all, a gateway or filter. Consequently, undesirables were precluded or excluded. (So much for evangelism.) The IM walls became forums for gossip. (So much for fellowship.) Mentors and neophytes never actually met for discipleship because the gateway fixed a buffer between catechist and catechumen. The church emerged and disbanded within four years. Facebook's exclusivity principle cut them off from the wider Christian world and, in fact, one another. The medium mangled the message. In the end, they were still "bowling alone." Facebook changed their church dynamics because there was no need to leave the house for the lanes of corporate or catechetical discipleship. They were taught that it was enough that they were bowling on Wii.
The cyber-solution to civic engagement resulted, in this case, in greater exclusion and isolation, proving once again that disciples cannot be made or discipled online: there's no water, no bread and wine, no living thing transmitted through 1s and 0s. It was never intended to be so in a church that requires its catechumens to "take, eat" (Matt. 26:26). Facebook's methodology cannot establish a mentoring context where interpersonal engagement entails the entire person in the discipling process, addressing issues of character, disposition, emotions, and body language. This only happens when someone is there, really there. To give one's time writing an e-mail is one thing, but to give of the self through personal presence sets discipleship on an entirely different and elevated plane. Personal presence is the essence of gift giving (John 3:16).
For all the "friendships" being made online, there are still no hugs, handshakes, or looking in the eye. And that's the irony of online social networks. The medium of Facebook is the message of the unreal; Myspace is no place; "friends" are files; chat is voiceless; templates establish individuation. What is more, when the whole world is denying that God is real, for churches or catechists to resort to the domain of virtuosity sends the wrong theological message. If the sheep are suspended in the Ethernet, then what of the Shepherd?
The domain of virtuosity cannot convert ecclesial settings where catechist/catechumen relationships envelop the totality of our humanity—mind, will, emotions, and physicality. Discipleship therefore must take place face to face since the church curates the substance of Christian faith and practice through embodied transmission. Stated differently, authentic discipleship requires personal presence because the living medium remanates the living message to living recipients.
As an ordained minister, it is one thing for me to text, e-mail, or phone a parishioner, and another thing for me to be present. Pastoral visitations hold significantly different weight from electronic communications, and the effect they have is likewise dissimilar. That's because disciples who have cut their teeth on old school catechesis expect their pastor to be there instead of stockpiling e-messages. The Son of God showed up to take away the sins of the world. In like manner, the pastor needs to show up to baptize, absolve, commune, commiserate, counsel, and catechize if Christ's apostolic commissioning is to be accomplished. Being a disciple of Jesus (whether catechist or catechumen) means that loving others comes at the price of sacrifice. There is something real, urgent, and authenticating for our humanity about having to be there in person. The physics of voice and sound, the force of human emotion and passions, and indeed, touching are effective tools in the ministry of the Holy Spirit through earthen vessels. This is the high expectation of Christ and discipleship in the real world. Conversely, the expectations of Christians who live in a Facebook world are low. The pastor is a flat screen image, like a celebrity pastor whose multicampus sermon broadcasts are streamed to smartphones. You may never meet your pastor in person let alone receive catechesis or a hospital visit from him: hence, discipleship happens on your time, when you want to log in. The convenience of cyber-socializing in a risk-free domain devoid of self-giving love perpetuates evangelical ignorance precisely because one is not being a disciple, a learner of Christ, which takes place in the context of where two or more are gathered—really gathered.
As far as discipleship is concerned, Facebook must be placed in the same category of brilliant technologies that, when misappropriated, "bite back." Edward Tenner has convincingly argued in his well-documented Why Things Bite Back: New Technology and the Revenge Effect that technologies in fact do have their appropriate sphere of utility that, when transgressed, results in unforeseen and unintended consequences. (7) Christian discipleship and fellowship are at least two planes that, when transected with Facebook, have the opposite effect; that's because, as far as compatibility with Christian community building and discipleship is concerned, the fundamental premises upon which Facebook rests (viz., exclusivity, self-identification, and convenience) are antithetical to the kingdom Christ created. Just ask the Galatians to whom Paul wrote.
The fundamental premises behind Facebook are the concepts of adolescent clique, exclusivity, and reliving (in a virtual way) high school and college popularity and posturing. Individually and collectively, these principles are ill-suited for Christian discipleship.
"Clique" is antithetical to the building of Christian communities, expanding conversation, and communion in both its vertical and horizontal dimensions. Jesus, Paul explains, broke down walls of separation (Eph. 2:16), and so the revolutionary social network of the church was sexless, ageless, raceless, and without socioeconomic status (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11). The Facebook principle of clique erects walls of separation by way of "friendship" segregation. It dissolves fellowshipping into Facebooking among those we discriminate as worthy brethren. While biblical discipleship advances maturation, America's prevailing social network promotes a return to adolescence—the period of life where our self-identity is most confused and unfounded, indeed, self-referential. No wonder we're attracted to Facebook and Myspace: they facilitate opportunities to go back and remake ourselves in an ideally self-determined fashion. You can upload your independent spiritual profile by tweeting the new you. This attraction will persist so long as no event-oriented, identity-making fixtures such as holy baptism, Holy Communion, holy confirmation, and holy matrimony (the things of face-to-face discipleship) persevere with us. And since God-given means of disciple making and discipling cannot be experienced in the two-dimensional realm, then identity makers default to pop culture rites of passage such as driving age, drinking age, launching your Facebook profile, and sexual encounters. Don't believe me? Ask a teen or collegian or, better yet, any "real housewife."
British author A. S. Byatt, an avowed atheist who openly describes herself as "anti-Christian," has seen this quite clearly. (8) In a recent interview, Byatt laments the loss of the Christian metanarrative that once provided her Western culture with its existential orientation manifested through conversation, communi- ties, and communion. (9) Now, she says, with the grand biblical story effectively purged from public discourse, all we have are autobiographies, anonymity, and autonomy.
It was this Christian metanarrative—passed on through the catechetical process—she explains, that told us who we are, where we are going, and what it all means. (10) Without that picture of reality, observes Byatt, we Facebook. Facebook is synonymous with "Selfbook" (my term) where living takes place before the cyber-mirror through which the virtual self legitimates the spatiotemporal self (if the spatiotemporal matters anymore). "It is a mirror," she explains, "because there's no picture." By "picture" Byatt means an objective world about which we live and move and have our being, the external referent to the real. To sustain that picture requires work: storytelling, rituals, contextualizing, the discipline of self-sacrifice, and deference to the governing story. To sustain existence in a Facebook world, however, one must blog, upload, or tweet. I tweet, therefore I am. One's identity is forged and altered and altered again to sustain self-actualization.
It doesn't matter that no one is listening, because you are engaging a mirror—the projection of your ideal self, however conceived (regardless, none of it happens in real time in a real community anyway). This, I believe, is why Byatt says that Facebook and Twitter are gods. Life lived not only through but literally in front of the digital portal to the unreal world is life lived coram Deo, before the face of God or, which is to say the same thing, yourself. In this sense, Byatt intimates that we confirm McLuhan's prophecy: "We become what we behold."
Without a comprehensive picture of reality to either embrace or discuss in dispute, all we are left with is ourselves or, more accurately, the ideal of ourselves. It naturally follows that we are self-obsessed, but now it is an obsession not with our incarnational existence but a dehumanized virtual one. Plato would be proud. But that's a scary prospect: detachment from reality to retreat into the pseudo-self, where one projects a hologram to those deemed worthy of "friendship." No wonder Byatt worries about the loss of conversation, communities, and communion. Discipleship is impossible when the catechist and catechumen are the same person.
In the 1980s and 90s one was remade or, better, renamed by way of consumption of phenomenological goods, be it clothing, cars, or house. Matter mattered, even if it was too much. Personal presentation and personality were inseparable from you. Today, however, one need only tweet the new you—personal presentation and personality edited and "photoshopped" before posting. Before, Madonna was the paragon of change, but that took time, even if it was only two years between album releases. Facebook has retired her "material girl" paradigm for an immediate ethereal one. We don't need her example of postmodern transformation that, one could argue, was tethered to her vocation, because one can be instantly born again by way of texting. Texting or blogging about yourself is the new revelation—a fresh word from you about you. Unlike God's real-world elocution, in a Facebook world the word is ours. We are the sovereign speakers, and therein lies our evangelical ignorance: news about me is never the good news. It has to come from outside of me to save me from me. We need God's Word to save us from the tools we've misappropriated that have us sinking deeper into ourselves. It is for the sake of the gospel that we need face-to-face discipleship in a Facebook world.
Virtual living reflects negatively upon the incarnation and our own "enfleshment." It must—just like the Roman Catholic Church's "Confession App" (where there is no real person, no real voice, behind that "Confession App"; no one is present in persona Christi), (11) so too with the imago Dei: there need not be a real person behind my Facebook page. There is no image of God in us when what we are is a digitized self-projection, a two-dimensional facade. We're right back to the First Commandment. It's just about the image of me, the idea of you. It is fantasy living, a kind of voyeurism, because through this nonreality we project ideas of idyllic perfection. Perhaps it is a way to deal with sin, a form of self-justification. But I suspect that we know better because our expectations for friendship are low on Facebook, and that tells me our expectations of God and ourselves are equally low. With no living encounters there can be no accountability or responsibility for oneself, let alone another. It should come as no surprise that Facebook is now the preferred forum for posting suicide notes.
We have to get in touch with reality again. When banking can be done online, filling the tank happens at the pump, self-checkout eliminates human interaction, and social networking is two dimensional (like the image of ourselves), then perhaps now more than ever the church must reestablish face-to-face discipleship to recover our humanity.
Perhaps an unimpressed utilitarian approach toward this Internet tool might be the church's best approach to the social networking phenomenon since, at least in this case, the adage, "We make the tools and then the tools make us," seems to obtain.
Don't get me wrong; I'm no Luddite. There's some usefulness to Facebook. It's just that I am still working on what that may be, since a good deal of my time is spent counseling couples whose marriages have been obliterated by affairs started on social networks. Still, when the premise of what is now a global institution divides, distorts, and dilutes, then at least within the church we have to recognize that this medium (in which the spatiotemporal self is suspended for the hologram life) is perfectly ill-suited for virtually everything that pertains to Christian life and faith, except for maybe the intimations.
The Facebook blog is no substitute for the fellowship hall, to say nothing of the Communion rail. For all of their admirable qualities, social network technologies simply cannot facilitate corporate repentance or the interpersonal bond between catechumen and catechist. Mind you, they were never intended to do so. Their genius has other applications; thank God for that. I never want to go back to the days without modern plumbing, dentistry, or computers. But given the way Christ built the church, we have to acknowledge that there is no "spiritual discipline" app.
The art of discipleship requires work with difficulty, which is why the church meets together. The catechist "sounds down" to where the catechumen is at so that in turn the catechumen may "sound again" the catechism. All of it presupposes being present with one another, having personal relationships in spatiotemporality. There is therefore no hiding or anonymity in biblical discipleship. It comes with risk—someone may see your secondhand couch, the dishes in the sink, or the pimple on your nose. But that is what God's household is like: all are called out of the blogosphere to their Father's table to break bread. We're not supposed to stay in our rooms texting or tweeting or Facebooking. The church is a social network with real beings, real warmth, real self-giving, real challenges—challenges to love the "other," the "different," the not-your-demographic, and to do so as an expression of our baptismal identity. The ethos of baptism leads the disciple to Communion—the "with union" meal. Jesus made us "friends" in the church; and as members of the Body of Christ, our lives are intertwined. We need the mutual support and encouragement we offer to one another as we reflect on our sin and seek God's mercy in Jesus the Son for relief, sounding again the catechism that dispels ignorance and liberates us from the bondage of contemporary Zeitgeists like dehumanizing social networks.
Rev. John J. Bombaro (Ph.D., King's College, University of London) is the parish minister at Grace Lutheran Church in San Diego, California and a lecturer in theology and religious studies at the University of San Diego.
Issue: "Word and Sacrament: Making Disciples of All Nations" July/August 2011 Vol. 20 No. 4 Page number(s): 17-23
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