The Internet’s Creative Destruction of Church

The Internet is the most destructive force of our time. That’s because inventions that create the most…also destroy the most, according to Schumpeter’s theory of Creative Destruction. To see what is being destroyed, look toward what the Internet provides. It delivers information. For communication, entertainment, learning, or anything else. Any institution in our society that provides information is at risk of being edged out.

That’s the postal service, newspapers, Blockbuster Video, libraries, schools…and church. For these institutions to survive, they must either find a new niche that is not filled by the Internet or fulfill their existing purpose on the Internet. Beat the Internet or join it. The postal service shifted from delivering information to delivering packages. Blockbuster dissolved and was replaced by Netflix. Libraries have focused on becoming physical spaces in which to learn.

Churches also need to recognize the roles they have lost and which roles they can fill.

Some traditional roles of churches are now performed online. The long-term drift toward online religion, of course, stepped up abruptly during the Covid-19 pandemic. While the aims of church have not changed—like teaching and worshipping—different types of churches now thrive at performing those services. The winner-take-all dynamics of the Internet that make TikTok videos go viral also apply to finding religious content online. A few churches and preachers capture most of the attention, while the great majority of online preaching goes virtually unnoticed. Note that the winner-take-all dynamic is created by how the content is found, not just that it is online. Viewers affiliated to a brick-and-mortar church might still watch their own pastor’s online preaching since they are already aware of it, even if search algorithms do not introduce it to new viewers.

For these reasons, the Internet probably makes it harder for churches to use insightful teaching as their basis for attracting in-person attendees. The world’s most brilliant teachers’ sermons are freely available on YouTube. This blow may be softened if listeners recognize the value of an in-person pastor guiding their learning. That contrasts to being taught by a pastor who does not know the listener personally or choosing online teachings based on personal whims and a computer algorithm. Attendees might also prefer hearing in-person sermons because they have built trust over time in the orator through real-world interaction (and because live speaking is a form of performance art). Altogether, in-person pastors should focus on building trusting relationships to attract an in-person audience to their sermons.

Social networking is another area that is now contested by the internet. Online life is an excellent forum for forming shallow friendships, keeping old friendships on life support, and transmitting gossip – all (unintentional) functions of our grandparents’ churches. On the other hand, in-person church still wins at introducing new people from different circles in the local community and at forming deep, meaningful relationships.

An instructive pre-Internet example is the difference between churches where members are expected to attend a local parish based on their address (like some Catholics or Mormons) versus those that compete for members regardless of residence (like Evangelicals). Neighborhood-based parishes more frequently force unlike people to get along, whereas address-agnostic parishes allow more self-sorting by income, lifestyle, race, etc. Online church takes that latter dynamic to a new extreme. Even if better technologies enable us to form meaningful relationships over the Internet in the future, online churches will become more specialized and targeted than before since attendees can come from anywhere. They are competing in a larger market.

All is not lost for in-person church. The internet offers no alternative to what churches provide at their best. Personal interactions over the internet are only a facsimile of the real thing. Meaningful, loving, enduring interactions in community still require physical presence. Our very-online population’s gnawing loneliness proves physical churches have something to offer. Churches should press their advantage in forming community. To the extent that churches balance focus on the assembly vs catering to the individual, the pendulum should now swing to the assembly. It’s a place people can be together to worship, learn, and practice.

As population growth slows, the social norm of religious participation fades, and more Americans fade away into the Internet, physical churches are likely to endure as smaller, quieter places than they once were. This moment is both a challenge and an opportunity. By recognizing their new position in the context of technology—as well as in culture—offline churches can thrive by playing to their strengths. Information is now cheap, but authentic community is more precious than ever.

Written on September 30, 2022