In the Bible, young David taught us that Goliaths are vulnerable. It only took that small, brave boy, a stone, and a slingshot to bring mighty Goliath down.
Recently, David Leonhardt wrote an insightful article in The Morning email newsletter from the New York Times about some interesting problems facing the tech giant Facebook. Leonhardt cited his colleague David Roose’s article “Facebook Is Weaker Than We Knew,” which revealed the damage that a failure to stop certain content has had on the behemoth social media company.
In Too Big to Fail, Andrew Ross Sorkin’s 2009 book, he addressed the economic theory that certain companies (banks) were so large and so interconnected that their failure would produce catastrophic results that could cripple the economy. The phrase became iconic during the economic downturn of that era.
Giants take heed.
Facebook’s four main problems
Leonhardt delineated Facebook’s four biggest problems, in his opinion.
1. The age problem
It is now widely regarded that Facebook is for older people, e.g., Boomers. Most younger users of social media—think Millennials and Gen Z—prefer other social platforms. As Leonhardt writes, “Yes, many teenagers and younger adults use Instagram, which Facebook bought a decade ago. But even Instagram has been struggling to keep up” with the likes of TikTok.
2. The innovation problem
Leonhardt reports that since Facebook went public in 2012, it has been much less innovative than in its earlier years, when it transformed social media. He quotes Farhad Manjoo of Times Opinion: “The company just doesn’t appear to know how to invent successful new stuff.”
3. The metaverse problem
Leonhardt notes that “Zuckerberg feels so strongly that the metaverse—based around [the] world of virtual-reality, or VR—represents the future of the internet that he renamed the company after it.” Facebook is no longer a company name; Facebook is now a product of Meta Platforms, Inc. Leonhardt stated that, a year after its renaming, Meta doesn’t have many wins to show.
4. The antitrust problem
Recent federal administrations have cracked down on mergers that could lead to monopolies. Roose noted, “Facebook became so dominant, in part by acting in anticompetitive ways for so many years, that Meta is losing its dominance as a result.” While Facebook remains a powerful force, it has vulnerabilities that could prove critical, even fatal if not remedied.
The danger for Facebook is real.
Is the church too big to fail?
Who would have believed only a few years ago that giant companies like Sears, Enron, JC Penny’s, RadioShack, Blockbuster, K-Mart, Chrysler, and Texaco were vulnerable and would go bankrupt and/or fail?
Perhaps the church embraces a version of the “too big to fail” theory.
I vigorously affirm that God established his church on the rock of his word and has sustained it (and will continue to do so) through inquisitions, plagues, and governmental banishment across millennia. But the modern-day church has evolved into an entity, particularly in the West, that would be almost unrecognizable to early converts.
Every week, I recite the Nicene Creed in worship and acknowledge that I believe in “one holy, catholic and apostolic church.” That is not a reference to the Roman Catholic church but a reference to the church universal.
Is the church (as we know it) too big to fail?
Ultimately, I must say yes. But its “bigness” is not rooted in its resources, number of adherents, or impressive buildings.
God’s word promises us in Matthew 16:18, “On this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” That passage addresses the advancement of the church against the forces, strongholds, and “gates” of hell. The Bible teaches that the church ultimately wins.
But hell is not merely taking a defensive, reactionary stance. It, too, is marching and watching for every vulnerability of the church. We may ultimately win the war, granted, but some of the battles, not so much.
Perhaps the same (or at least similar) issues Leonhardt notes as problems for Facebook could be applied to the church.
The church’s four main problems
In 2020, Barna published “The State of the Church,” which reveals similar problems among us.
1. The age problem
While the report states that just one in four Americans is currently a practicing Christian, perhaps most significant is that practicing Christians are now a much smaller segment of the entire population, especially among the youngest adults, Generation Z.
In 2000, 45 percent of all sampled qualified as practicing Christians. The report reveals, “In essence, the share of practicing Christians has nearly dropped in half since 2000.”
It has been said that no church is ever more than one generation from becoming a museum.
2. The innovation problem
Let’s take technology, for instance. Barna’s research indicates that “the rise of digital life, including social media, the economic crisis, changing attitudes about social issues and the emergence of younger generations on the scene are some of the factors that are likely to form undercurrents recalibrating Americans’ connection to faith and to Christianity.”
Change, for many, is often first experienced as loss. For many churches, it has taken a pandemic to incorporate technology into their concept of church. Technology can’t fully replicate the onsite experience of worship. Few advocate abandoning the traditional aspects of church/worship.
But as microwave ovens found their place in the kitchen without discarding stoves and ovens, technology must find its place in the church without discarding valued aspects of traditional approaches.
3. The megachurch problem
It’s unlikely that the metaverse will become a major factor in church life. So, let’s substitute “the megachurch problem” here.
Megachurches have undoubtedly been an influential, powerful force in western Christianity. But, of the estimated three hundred thousand churches in the US, approximately 1,750 (.5 percent) have more than two thousand members/attendees according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research’s publication, “Megachurch 2020: The Changing Reality in America’s Largest Churches.”
And that number may be declining.
Unfortunately, the rate of moral failures, material excesses, and nonbiblical practices is not. The rate of such may not be any higher in megachurches than in smaller churches, but the visibility of megachurches and their leaders makes their missteps more visible and newsworthy.
And, too often the public generalizes those problems across the entirety of Christendom. The state of large churches is not necessarily a bellwether for the church universal. If you visit the cathedrals in Europe, many are now primarily museums and tourist stops.
No church, even mega ones, is more than one generation away from being a museum.
4. The distrust problem
For churches and pastors, this issue isn’t an antitrust problem; it’s better termed the distrust problem. In a January 2020 article in Newsweek by Heather Thompson Day, she wrote: “Over at Gallup, Frank Newport says that in 1975, 68 percent of Americans believed that organized religion could be trusted. ‘As recently as 1985, organized religion was the most revered institution among the list of institutions Gallup tracks’ (Newport, 2019, P. 1). By 2019, the church had reached a new low, with only 36 percent having confidence in its leadership. 36 percent. Pastors should be concerned.”
It’s unlikely that the trend has reversed in the shadow of recent cultural shifts, moral failures among church leaders, and the general uncertainty of our day.
Where do we go from here?
Leonhardt concludes about Facebook, “Its struggles are real, and they don’t show any sign of disappearing.” The ultimate trajectory of Facebook and Christianity are markedly different, of course.
But, to weather (perhaps even thrive) under the shifting cultural tides of our day, the church might be wise to glean lessons from the experience and problems of other “giants.”
David Kinnaman, president of Barna, summarized the implications of their research this way: “More than two and half decades’ worth of tracking research shows that Americans are softening in their practice of Christianity. These stunning changes raise questions and suggest urgent implications.”
Like Facebook, perhaps we, too, need to address the problems.