Book Announcement: The Problem with Church in Digital Culture
As a Lutheran and a former Google employee, I find it interesting that as fewer people show up at church on Sunday morning, increasingly more are searching for God on Google's search engine.
Most Christian denominations lost 3-4% of their membership between 2007 and 2014, a slide that has accelerated every year since. Based on these trends, some forecast that entire mainline denominations, the ELCA included, may fold entirely by 2041.
Yet the Google search engine saw three times as much search volume for the query “who is Jesus” in 2017 than it did in 2007. It’s a question that grows in interest every single year in every state in the Union. It is among the most frequently “Googled” religious queries, second only to “what is the Bible?” The “Googlification” of Christ’s identity and the significance of the Bible points to an accelerating trend: people are developing their faith through questions, asked outside of the church.
They are developing their spiritual selves not through listening to a preacher, but through self-guided exploration. They are, in every sense, searching for God with Google.
Starting with Millennials, the generations that grew up in digital culture are just as spiritually engaged as previous cohorts.
Younger generations believe in God at a rate that is nearly identical to Generation X, the Baby Boomers, and both the Silent and Greatest generations.
Millennials’ willingness to believe in God carries over to a commitment to individual spiritual practices. Millennial Nones (those who check the "None" box on surveys about religion) exhibit the same rates of engagement with daily prayer as church-going Christians. In 2010, 45 percent of Millennial adults prayed daily. Every week, twenty-seven percent read scripture and 26 percent meditated weekly—all rates of participation equal to more church-affiliated generations.
I am reminded of my generation’s spiritual inclinations each time I walk past office meditation rooms, a fixture at tech offices across the country. The chief difference between those who came of age in the digital era age and those who came of age before is truly a difference in institutional affiliation—not a difference in faith. The United States is verifiably becoming a “spiritual but not religious” country.
Especially among younger generations, the country is not turning its back on God. The country is turning its back on the church, an institution that has failed to innovate and reinvent itself amid great cultural change. The church of today, with its emphasis on individualized and intellectualized faith, is not viable nor is it sustainable in a digital age.
Yet still, I show up, each and every week. As a true church nerd, I continue to teach Confirmation, to assist with worship, to preach the occasional sermon. I even completed a four-year master's degree in theology to try to understand why the institutional church seems so out of touch with digital culture.
And as I have studied, read, reflected, and written about this topic, I have come up with a hypothesis. The church of today doesn't engage younger generations because it shuts out that which digital culture has come to value.
With its insistence on doctrine, the church suppresses questions.
With its obsession over institutional survival, it resists forming new connections.
Due to the professionalization of the ministry, the church turns down opportunities to collaborate.
And as church membership declines, it loses the ability to bring creativity to the life of faith. The church of today exists without questions, connections, collaboration, and creativity, four core values of our shared digital culture.
I want to understand how that could change. I want to determine how church leaders could take the best of the Christian tradition and align it with the values of digital culture. The Christian tradition offers a message the world so desperately needs to hear—a message of hope for an age of cynicism, a story of restoration for an age of climate change, a word of unity for a time of political and social division. But that story is going unheard and is often misunderstood.
Today, I am pleased to announce that I have started writing a (still untitled) book with Fortress Press. The book will analyze what ministry means in a spiritual but not religious society. Ultimately, the book will present the thoughtful church leader with a blueprint for effective ministry in digital culture.
So stay tuned! I've launched a new website (www.ryanpanzer.com), and started a newsletter. Follow both for updates on the project. Whether you identify as spiritual or not so much, Christian or None, Millennial or Baby Boomer, I hope you'll consider joining me for the conversations ahead!