Online “Church”: Are the Kids Really Fine?

Note: This post is an excursus within a series, “Technologizing of Worship Before, During, and After COVID: Epistemology, Eschatology, and Presence, part of a larger project suggesting a pastoral response to COVID and lockdowns in the church. Read more and subscribe here.

In the most recent piece in my ongoing series, I included this statement:

…Reliance on “online presence” may distract us as church leaders from modeling embodied fellowship practices for a younger generation of believers growing up with experiences of friendship that are highly “technologized.” 

Online “Church”: United, or Merely Simultaneous?

In this post, not originally part of my October–November 2020 essay, I would like to develop this point further, because I find that this issue comes up repeatedly in my conversations with parents, fellow professors, and church leaders. Folks who fall into these categories are mostly older than I am (I was born in 1984). In my view, many of these older folks have not adequately reckoned with the differences that exist between their own experiences with digital technology in their adulthood, and the experiences of generations who have grown up with digital technology always being a part of their lives.

The older generations, having come of age in cultures of society, church and education that are formed by reading physical books and encountering peers and authority figures in physical space and time, are better equipped to transfer those educational, spiritual, and social habits into the digital realm and to cope with the shortcomings of digital media, than are younger generations. Put succinctly, we think the kids are fine (even perhaps doing better than we are with all this Zooming!), but they’re not.

Ten Years Makes a Difference

I am not a sociologist, or a scholar of media ecology or technology—so many of the insights I offer here are impressions and accounts of personal experience. I have been teaching at the university level since 2010, and thus have by now taught a half-generation of 18- to 22-year olds. Even before COVID pushed teaching online, I taught remotely for LCC in 2016 and 2017. During my 10-year career in pharma, I was successful in a department that eventually spanned three continents (Northeast US, Poland, and India). I’m not a tech expert, but I have some experience navigating these practicalities.

I grew up with personal computers in the home, for work and for play. As part of our homeschool education, Dad insisted that we learn typing. I also learned some simple programming in BASIC and C languages, which actually turned out to be of use in two of my eventual jobs. I got my first email address when I was 11 or 12, and was active in chat rooms and other fun online activities (mainly sports chat rooms) from that age onward. I built a Geocities (RIP) page by editing the HTML code in Notepad. I was not naïve to digital technology, though my parents did limit the amount of time we spent in front of TV and computer screens.

However, all of this was on dial-up, which meant that the experience was limited to certain times of day (because it tied up the phone line) and also to an essentially text-only experience. We didn’t get high-speed (DSL, still glacial by today’s standards) until 2003, late in my senior year of high school. In college from 2003-2006, there was DSL or something comparable in the dorms and apartments I lived in, and the internet was starting to become more interesting with images loading faster (though sometimes still line-by-line). Smart phones, social media and streaming video didn’t exist. I emailed friends and chatted in real time on AIM (remember that?), but mainly it was calls and hanging out in person. I got my first cell phone when I went to college, but it could only do calls and texting (I should have hung onto it!).

Throughout my primary, secondary, and university education, the main form of content delivery was physical books, including great works of history and literature, textbooks, workbooks, and reference books like encyclopedias and commentaries. My parents did explain things to us orally (“lecture” and discussion), and we did attend group classes with other homeschoolers. My university experience was a typical mix of reading, lectures, discussion, and writing. I used the card catalog to find books in the library. Online resources were still not that helpful; we mainly used internet to email professors and (eventually) to search the library catalog.

By comparison, my brother, who is 10 years younger than I, grew up with a very different experience of digital technology. He was 8 years old when we got DSL in the home, and got an iPod Touch with wifi internet and some streaming video capability when he was about 12. By then, Facebook was starting to be a thing. He had a texting app and messaged his friends all the time—whereas when I was in middle and high school, I had to call my friend’s home landline (only at certain times) to speak with her. When I was a teen, I had to work, save up, and purchase CDs in order to have new music; by the time my brother was 18, all music and movies were basically free on YouTube or streaming sites (of varying degrees of legality).

Sexualization

Older readers can probably think of myriad ways that your own educational, social and spiritual formation might have been affected by having unlimited and constant access to information, audio, video, and friends during the ages of 12 to 22. To point out one that is crucial for young men especially (but also for young women), I can vaguely remember the first time I saw nude images on the internet, my senior year of high school after we got DSL. I had previously seen images I found titillating only in catalogs or circulars (clothing ads), and on magazine covers in the store. Even the nude images I saw (no videos at that time) would be considered hopelessly tame compared to what is easily available on the internet today.

And so, I went off to university with a problem of secretly looking at inappropriate images on the internet. Thankfully, there was a culture in the dorm of other Christian young men who were similarly struggling, and who would support one another and keep each other accountable. Many of us kept our computers out in the common room so that we didn’t have private access. I cannot say that I have been completely above reproach in this area since college. But I am grateful that I at least had the tools from my spiritual formation in church community up to that point, and the community of believers around me in college, to recognize and to fight the sin of lust—and I’m grateful that my first real struggle with this sin was not until I was 17.

Fast forward to the present: we have abundant research showing that children as young as 7 are exposed to pornography, the majority by age 13, and that this has consequences for their sexuality (and their spiritual formation!). I cannot imagine how my experience with temptation would have been different had I had internet access when I was 8 or 12. Suffice to say: absent parental supervision, boys and girls today are being trained to view bodies (mostly girls’ and women’s bodies) as objects, public property for consumption, evaluation, approval, ridicule, and private enjoyment. This is clearly linked not only to the availability of pictures and videos, but to social media, which allows real-time sharing of one’s own images and videos for evaluation by peers (and anyone else!).

Greater availability of sexualized images, combined with technologized (i.e., skewed) sense of friendship and community, is a toxic mix for children and teens. To put it mildly (I’d scream it from the rooftops): parents should be aware and attentive to these dangers, and strongly consider taking those tablets and smart phones away from their kids.

More Benign Stimulation

The development of sexual awareness and its relation to personal holiness is just one minefield that has become even more complicated in the age of digital technology. Even when we consider more benign digital content than pornography and sexting, it’s clear that consumption of videos and images, and of words via screens rather than printed text, is affecting attention spans—particularly, those whose media consumption habits were formed in the digital age.

Even though Americans (though I assume this applies in other countries as well) have watched a lot of television for a long time, at least those who went to school before the 2000s were forced to read books in school, so that they have at least the mental muscle memory of reading texts, in those formative stages of brain development. Nowadays, much content that could be communicated in digital text is presented in video, which is a qualitatively different medium, and immensely stimulating–perhaps too stimulating to think critically about. And the visual content today is just objectively more pleasant and stimulating to watch than the TV and movies of 25 years ago, as Dean Pelton admits.

Moreover, reading digital text is simply different from reading text on a page. Again, this is not my area of expertise, but there’s a lot written about this in academic and journalistic literature, and I have observed it in my own reading experience, and with students. Certainly since I started teaching in 2010, I think that the ability of 19-year-olds to read and critically assess texts has declined.

I observe an even sharper decline in the students’ comprehension when they read articles digitally. A few years ago I began providing them with spiral-bound printed packets of the readings (articles and chapters) for the semester (still much cheaper than buying books), and that helped tremendously, especially if I required them to bring the packets to class and read aloud from them for the purpose of discussion. I also typically forbid the use of electronics in my classes for note-taking or reading, so the physical packets and Bibles (required) make discussion possible. Several students have remarked on how much easier it is to read the texts without distraction, and they like being able to mark up the articles on printed packets.

By comparison, in this lockdown-plagued academic year I was unable to provide printed packets and to forbid electronics when instruction was via Teams and the students were scattered all over the world–and the engagement with the texts and in the classroom definitely suffered.

Digital Natives in the Ecosystem of “Online Church”

What does this all mean for church? Coming back around to the generational gap: at the risk of solipsism, I really do believe that I and those who graduated from high school in the early 2000s (some might call us older millennials) straddle this digital divide. When it comes to online engagement with “church” content and activities, those who are older than us still conceive of online engagement essentially in terms of watching [a sermon], listening [to a song], and reading [biblical text] as if these were in-person experiences, merely replicated digitally—somewhat more conveniently, a little less satisfying, but still OK.

Even we who are “digital immigrants” (defined here) are being changed by visual and social media, and not for the better. Our attention spans, our ability to read, and our psychological health are detrimentally affected. But the difference is that we have a sense of what we used to be able to do, and some ability to push back a bit in reshaping our habits. Digital natives don’t even have a sense of what is possible for them. It is easier for us (digital immigrants) to engage an online sermon as we would an in-person sermon, because we have years and years of experience having to focus while listening to live speakers (teachers, professors, pastors). For digital natives, watching a video on Youtube is a fundamentally different experience than attending a lecture or music performance, partly because of the myriad distractions that they are used to being offered alongside this video (as I mentioned in an earlier post).

I have spoken to many pastors and lay people in the last year-and-a-half about the new phenomenon of nearly all churches broadcasting services online, and asked their sense of the pluses and minuses, and their own personal engagement with it. Invariably, those who express some sort of excitement about the new technologized broadcast bringing people into the church (or connecting with younger people) are older than I am. Those who are younger, or older friends who are speaking about their own kids’ engagement with online services, are much more pessimistic about this, and I think they are correct.

It sure is possible that some people will search for truth and encouragement in these difficult times–and may eventually end up coming to church. We should pray that this will happen. But I doubt it it will be nearly as many as those who get bored with online “church” and just stop watching altogether–without ever coming back. Time will tell.

The reason is simple: there is an ocean of better content elsewhere on the internet. There is always a better preacher, a better choir, a better worship band out there. Why watch a crappy livestream from the back of the sanctuary, or even a polished recorded presentation, when one can curate one’s own combination of liturgy, music and teaching? What’s the use of local church online, when you can listen to Bethel Church music (or the Gettys) and watch Steven Furtick (or Tim Keller)? The mediocre livestream may be acceptable for a time, provided there are existing relationships and commitment that can be maintained through a period of crisis. Building church relationships and commitment in this way is impossible.

A Radical Proposal

I’ll close with a proposition that feels questionable even to me as I write it. Once church is meeting again in person, why not shut down the livestream? While a livestream provides a small benefit to a handful of people, for others it will be a less-satisfying experience that prevents them from fully hungering for church fellowship. In the “old days,” those who missed a Sunday but really wanted to hear the sermon could request a recording (I remember when this was a cassette tape ministry!). Those people who are shut-in can still listen, but what if instead of putting energies into livestreaming, we dispatched people from the church to actually visit shut-ins, bring them recordings (or show them how to download them), along with a greeting, a meal, a scripture, a prayer, a song, communion?

It seems to me that every person who could potentially benefit from a livestream, would stand to benefit more from getting rid of the livestream and replacing it with embodied presence—either worshiping in church, or with regular visitation. I know visits are complicated with COVID, but we can get creative, and all the things I’ve mentioned can be done outside or through a large open window. 

What do you think? Share your thoughts in comments below, or email me.

For more in this series, click here.

About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, living and learning in Eastern Europe…Old Testament professor, ordained minister, occasional liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth.
This entry was posted in Culture-Economics-Society and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Online “Church”: Are the Kids Really Fine?

  1. Pingback: Guest Post: Why Go Back to Church? | think hard, think well

  2. Pingback: “Ancient” Re-Post: Screens, Fatherhood and Distractions | think hard, think well

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