The Weapons of Our Warfare
Are not Facebook
An article that appeared in a December edition of the Wall Street Journal profiled a company called Gloo. Gloo takes the same data used by the marketing departments of large corporations and breaks it down in a way intended to help churches better target their advertising.
People facing a personal crisis are most likely to be open to outreach efforts, churches say—and Gloo crunches data to try to identify them. The company has said in marketing materials that it can predict the characteristics of people who might have a marriage in trouble, be suffering from depression or anxiety, or have a propensity for a drug addiction, based on data analysis.1
Churches using Gloo’s resources can plan, for example, a marriage seminar and target social media ads at the exact persons whom the data suggest will be interested. The motives behind using Gloo’s services are noble. One pastor said
“There are a lot of people who are in pain and isolated. If you don’t come to church, the church will come to you.”
I’m sure it works, and I expect that Gloo’s clients will argue that if one person gets saved it’s all worth it.
But is it?
If something works, is it therefore wise? We must never forget that the technology we access and the motive that drives it will change us. Always.2
When churches found themselves in a pandemic, they discovered live streaming. It worked, marvelously. But was it wise? It has clearly changed how many now think about worship. If the technology we adopt works, but also alters the fundamental nature of who we are as a church, is it wise to use it?
The question of wisdom is never an easy one to ask. It’s not informed by a single Bible verse. It touches upon heady matters of motive and unintended consequences. And for a church to resist a technology because it’s not wise raises the fearful specter for some that their church may not grow while the church down the street does. It may be this dominating motive of growth that moves churches to uncritically embrace every new technology. Desperation leads to unnatural alliances.
E. F. Schumacher, a radical, new-age economist who came to prominence in the 1970s with his book Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, observed then what is true now.
“Today, we suffer from an almost universal idolatry of giantism. It is therefore necessary to insist on the virtues of smallness—where this applies.”3
In a time when everything was moving toward largeness, he challenged governments and businesses (and I would add churches) to ask the questions of wisdom. To ask “how big is too big” is a question churches rarely if ever ask. Schumacher’s invitation to “insist on the virtues of smallness” was mostly ignored, and so we have a landscape littered with big box stores and mega-churches. We accept impersonal service if it comes with great prices and upscale programs. But such steps change us.
Silas Marner was not just a book we had to read in high school. It is a potent illustration of how the pursuit of a thing invariably and unwittingly changes the pursuer. Marner’s pursuit of gold turned his heart as stony and as cold and as cut off from his neighbors as the object of his obsession. Similarly, the unrelenting pursuit of size has transformed churches from communities into factories. The uncritical adoption of technologies to get there may as well have changed the very heart of how we understand ministry. Richard Baxter championed face to face pastoral care. We read Baxter these days and think, “That’s great! I’ll write a blog!”
To pursue wisdom and to “insist on the virtues of smallness” may require us to gaze beneath and beyond our technologies. There used to be another way besides Gloo that churches could identify families facing marital struggles or persons overwhelmed with loneliness. Neighbors took meals to neighbors. Neighborhood gossip was shared across the back fence. People took interest in one another. The things we previously learned through conversation, Big Data now crunches for us. As I was writing this, a family moved into a house down the street. I didn’t stop to introduce myself and offer to help. I was in a hurry and simply cursed the moving van blocking the street. Clearly this is my own failure, and yet I, too, am a product of the modern church.
Neighborliness has been outsourced.
Growth is not unimportant. Our hearts resonate with the longing of Isaac Watts’ 18th Century hymn.4
We long to see thy churches full,
That all the chosen race
May, with one voice and heart and soul,
Sing thy redeeming grace.
To long to see the church grow is a worthy thing. A healthy thing. Our hearts break for those apart from Christ. But to pursue this longing and to pursue wisdom will mean resisting the “idolatry of giantism” and insisting “on the virtues of smallness” in a world that understands neither.
Our prayer is that of Watts’.
Pity the nations, O our God,
Constrain the earth to come;
Send thy victorious Word abroad,
And bring the strangers home.
The weapons of our warfare, however, are not the growth methods of Facebook.
Even if they work.
Thanks for reading Greatheart’s Table. Your contributions to my tip jar help me keep this going. Thanks!
I’m grateful to L. M. Sacasas for referring me to this article.
This is the constant and insightful theme of L. M. (Mike) Sacasas’ newsletter The Convivial Society. I encourage you to subscribe.
E. F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (United States: HarperPerennial, 1973), p. 70. It is fascinating to me that this non-Christian author links suffering with idolatry.