The Liturgy of Social Media

Imagine you are sitting in church on a Sunday morning, this church happens to be a liturgical church and the minister gets up and says, “the Lord be with you” and all of the congregation answer “and also with you.” This is a liturgy of call and response to prepare the hearts and minds of those who worship together. This liturgy of call and response is the display and example of how we are formed by the habits that we do. It is formed by the theology “that we love because he first loved us.” This example of the minister saying “the Lord be with you” and the congregation answering “and also with you” forms the mind to know that one, they are part of one larger body and two, that we are to respond to Christ’s calling to us, and three that we are to care for and bless one another in our faith. This is just one simple example of how the liturgies that we do form our desires, imagination, and beliefs. James K. A. Smith said, “Liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love” (Desiring, 25). The modern age that we live in is typified by consumerism, in this age of advertisements, sponsorships, promotions, and marketing the incentive to stoke desire within the hearts of possible consumers has been more profitable than ever. Social media has now become a massive marketing tool for companies to promote their goods and drive profit margins. Facebook began as a platform for college students to find each other and connect and has within two decades become a multi-media empire that somehow still costs 0$ for the user to use. This is significant, especially for generation z, who has grown up in their developmental years with social media. In the current age of deconstruction and evangelicals, we often ponder and wonder why gen z is struggling to be in the church and seems to have a strong affinity against institutionalized religion. Christianity Today reports that the portion of religious ‘nones’ has reached an all-time high of 42%.

Now the causes for this are multi-faceted, and this paper is not designed to be a red herring to distract readers from the pain that the church has inflicted upon victims of abuse within the church. I believe that social media and most of the top news organizations have already done their fair share of revealing many of the morally bankrupt ministries and ministers that exist in America. But I am proposing a theory that has not had its fair time in the limelight in this discussion. I believe that the primary reason for this increase in religious disaffiliation within generation z, and particularly the attack on American evangelicalism, is two fold’ one, social media’s liturgical formation has caused algorithms to determine the sociological, physical, and ideological of gen z, and two, the lack of liturgical theology within evangelicalism has resulted in a generation that has been formed in a shallow tradition of communicating the gospel.

Why Liturgy Matters

What Even is Liturgy?

When you say the word “Liturgy” to an evangelical Christian, what kind of feelings do you think this would provoke? For those in the evangelical tradition, the word “Liturgy” often invokes a proclivity against the traditions and practices of the Roman Catholic church. However, when one observes the Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word, it says, “A form of public worship, esp. in the Christian Church; a collection of formularies for the conduct of Divine service” (Oxford). In reality, every Christian church has a liturgy that they conduct every week.

Evangelicalism Liturgy Paradox

Fast-forwarding to modern-day evangelicalism, the liturgy that has formed within modern-day evangelicalism oftentimes has very little theological reasoning to its architecture. The sing three songs, then hear a 45-minute long message, then finish with two songs model can be found within many modern-day evangelical churches. This model is typically designed so as to be more friendly to those who are not friendly with Christianity. Much of the design and architecture of evangelical churches have become highly utilitarian and pragmatic, often borrowing from the design principles of local concert halls and clubs to design their stage and sets. This is emblematic of evangelicalism’s hyper-utilitarian methodology of ecclesiology. Instead of designing their churches and liturgies out of a theological understanding of who God is and who Christians are in Christ, the sets and stages that are developed have very little reasoning aside from the pragmatic purposes they serve. Oftentimes the design of churches is an attempt to recreate the success of mega-churches like Hillsong, Bethel, or Elevation church. Despite the necessary critique of Protestantism’s overarching goal to return to a Biblical ecclesiology, many evangelical churches have succumbed to a mindless acceptance of liturgies and architecture because other “successful” churches have also utilized these practices. This is the paradox of evangelicalism: despite wanting to cultivate liturgies and churches that are organic to scripture, they have resorted to conformity to other church models, which are often based on the best practices in secular “houses of worship.”

Every church has a liturgy, yet most evangelical churches can’t seem to articulate or cultivate reasons for why their liturgy is designed the way it is and why their churches are designed the way they are, aside from the reasons of modeling other “successful” churches and other utilitarian reasons. Mark Noll in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind said, “the evangelical ethos is activistic, populist, pragmatic, and utilitarian. It allows little space for broader or deeper intellectual effort because it is dominated by the urges of the moment.” Much of the practices of the evangelical movement have become abstracted from a theology rooted in Christ and can find its origins in reactionary practices instead of theological up working. Brian Kammerzelt said, “your model of church reveals your view of communication (or communication bias)” (Kammerzelt, 22). Evangelicalism’s view of how communication is done is rooted out of a utilitarian model adopted from secular writings and practices. It has adopted the transmission model of communication and its lack of effectiveness is clear in seeing how many youths are leaving evangelical churches today. As George Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Not only has evangelicalism not thought deeply about how communication should be done within the church, it has also assumed a model that is severely lacking in its effectiveness. As Smith said, “Because the church buys into a cognitivist anthropology, it adopts a stunted pedagogy that is fixated on the mind” (43). It has adopted a model that assumes that merely hammering doctrine into the minds of the church will result in Christians who are formed into Christ. According to Brian Kammerzelt “Liturgy is the language of the church, the bonding agent, and the cellular root of all ministry communication” (Ministry, 159). In its essence what evangelicalism has missed is a holistic form of communicating the essence of who Christ is. It has not thought holistically about how man is a liturgical creature.

Homo-Liturgicus: The Innate Nature of Liturgy

We are What We Love

James K.A. Smith said in his book Desiring the Kingdom, “liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love.” It is important to remember that human beings are not in their entirety rational beings who can make perfect deductions based on formulas. The human experience is not formatted by an emotionless experience, but rather human beings are designed to be emotive creatures. Human beings are driven by their desires and intuitions, this is a fact that modern-day marketing understands. When one goes to a mall they first approach the building looking up at the architecture and seeing the magnitude of the structure. This preps the mind to be in awe of what may be inside, entering into the building usually some of the first things that one sees is advertisements with models displaying the clothing of the stores within the mall. These are in a sense “the Saints” of the mall, where one is reminded of those they should aspire to be, and the desire to be like such Saints is instilled within the loyal patron of the mall. Walking throughout the mall one sees others with bags that have the names of various brands and a desire to see oneself self possessing merchandise from such a brand if often invoked. Walking past and through various stores, one sees, smells, hears, touches the various products. Music is playing to draw customers in to see the value of their products. The clergymen of retail associates are there to help the customers in their ritual of buying products, which the chief sacrament of the mall. It is in the engagement of every one of the five senses in this experience where the fire of desire is stoked to lead to believe that one “needs” such a product or experience, which in turn leads to the end purpose of malls, the purchasing of products. This ritual is an example of how one’s actions and beliefs are not rationally constructed as one would believe, but rather human beings are liturgical creatures whose actions are formed by what they desire and what they love. When one loves a football team they are more likely to spend time watching their games, buying tickets, buying merchandise, evangelizing to their peers about why their tribe is superior to their peer’s tribe. When one loves a certain brand, Apple for example, also have a religious affinity towards their products. Their Messiah is Steve Jobs, Tim Cook is their Pope, the Genius Bar is their clergymen, their house of worship is their local Apple store, their sacrament is buying a new Apple product, devotion to the religion is shown by how much one is immersed in the “eco-system,” their evangelism is composed of debates with their peers about the superiority of Apple, and their liturgy is the customer journey of consideration to purchase.

Practice Leads to Worldview

From these examples, it is clear that the actions and beliefs of mankind are determined by their liturgies. The formation of one’s desires, beliefs, worldview, and actions are highly contingent upon the liturgies that form one’s desires. When one repeatedly encounters one of the liturgies as noted before, their desires are stoked, which leads to belief that one needs to live out such desire, which leads to actions. It is an important realization to have that your actions are tellers of your beliefs. As the pithy saying goes “actions speak louder than words.” Jordan Peterson also echoes this, he says, “You can only find out what you actually believe (rather than what you think you believe) by watching how you act. You simply don’t know what you believe, before that. You are too complex to understand yourself” (12 Rules, 101). What we truly believe is a complex notion, many men may say that they believe pornography is wrong with their lips but will struggle to live out this belief. For those who still act in this indulgence, it is clear that the notion that viewing pornography is wrong has not been truly believed in their hearts. It is when one truly abstains from viewing pornography do they truly live their beliefs. As Matt. 7:16 says, “You will know them by their fruits.” It is in the action and outworking of the belief that one comes to live out their true belief. In the actions and liturgy of the church, what the church must do is communicate the reality of the gospel and who Christ is through holistic communication, holistic installation of desire through holistic liturgies. True communication requires not only the communication of beliefs, but also need liturgies to form the desires, beliefs, and worldview for wholistic anthropological formation.

The Liturgical Formation of Social Media

The Magnitude of Social Media’s Formation on Gen Z

For generation z, one of the key developing liturgies in their lives has been their usage of social media. Generation z is typically defined as those who have been born between the years of 1997 and 2012. Most of generation z first encountered social media during one of their developmental periods. Erik Erickson’s 8 psychological ages of man pinpoint the years of 12–18 years as the key developmental years of personal identity formation. The societal adoption of social media can be pinpointed to the years during which generation z was in their developmental years of personal identity formation. Yet, the adoption of social media for this generation was encouraged and permitted by a society that was not yet fully aware of the detrimental affects that social media would have on mental, physical, and spiritual health of generation z. Social media usage amongst generation z has now averaged around 3–4 hours a day. Now to translate this figure across a longer scale this translates into about 25 hours a week, 4 full days in a month, and almost 1.5 months out of the year. Across an average lifespan of 80 years, this comes out to 11 years of one’s individual life that is spent on social media. Now to put this into perspective, 26 years of one’s life is spent asleep which leaves 52 years for waking life, now a normal full-time job and education takes up about another 17 years of one’s life, including regular life maintenance (transportation, chores, cooking, and eating) this takes up another 11 years in one’s life leaving 25 years left for one to pursue one’s personal pursuits whether that be involving entertainment, volunteering, religious involvement, recreation, hobbies, more work, socializing, etc. Spending 11 years of 25 years means that our next generation will spend nearly 50% of their free time on social media. This should be a daunting number for those who desire to understand the nature of the next generation and how this will form our future. The free time that the average person has is precious time to use for not only one’s productive usage in meaningful activities but is also paramount for personal formation as well. According to a liturgical understanding of human anthropology, the repetitive liturgy of checking and scrolling through social media is to also be understood as a liturgy of formation. The impact that social media has had on the development of generation z can be divided into 3 basic categories of formation; sociological, physical, and ideological.

Sociological: Social Media as Liturgy of Platonic Idealism

There have been many sociological studies that have documented the rise in loneliness, isolation, and mental health issues amongst generation z. Western Governors University has said that “generation Z is considered the loneliest generation”, that “gen Z feels more stress about these issues than other generations,” and that “only 45% of Generation Z individuals say their mental health is good, or very good. That’s 11% less than the next closest generation” (Stress). Psychological studies have also been conducted and have shown that there is a strong correlation between time spent online and a decrease in mental health. A study said, “Being online for three or more hours per day has shown decreases in social skills, attention, focus, and mental health” (Beattie). There is another strongly documented trend amongst teenage girls and suicide with the rise in social media use amongst generation z. A decade long study from the Brigham Young University reported that “girls who started using social media at two to three hours a day or more at age 13, and then increased [that use] over time, had the highest levels of suicide risk in emerging adulthood,” This rise in mental health issues amongst generation z is a highly publicized issue that has grappled many minds as people look to what the future of the world will look like. In the liturgy of scrolling onto social media whenever one is bored, in need of distraction, avoiding feelings of loneliness, or because of a regular habit, one develops a liturgy of running to social media as a coping mechanism for loneliness and boredom. This liturgy has trained their minds to believe that social media can be a substitute for real connection with their peers and has primed their minds to constantly compare their lives with their peers. This is evidence that the social identity of gen z has been infatuated by a new platonic idealism that has been reinstituted in the minds of generation z. Socially gen z has been developing a platonic ideal of what “real life” is on social media. One can understand what is meant by the “platonic ideal” by recalling the feelings that are aroused when one observes their peers on vacation, or a photo from a professional photoshoot, an engagement post, or the attainment of a dream job. The feeling of disconnect and yet longing for a life that looks like a constant highlight real of success is the desire to achieve the “platonic ideal.” It is a fake and constructed vision of what one’s life is composed of, it is abstracted from the daily tasks and rhythms of life. Comparison with this platonic ideal has caused levels of anxiety and depression to a spike in astronomically high rates amongst generation z. In its essence according to a liturgical understanding of the world we see that what gen z has come to love is the platonic ideal that has developed from a constant observing of the highlight reel from their peers. It is from this liturgy of scrolling on social media and having their desires geared towards the platonic ideal that has formed them to have believe that their lives must be in accordance with such a lifestyle. It is in this liturgy that generation z has been sedated to believe that their lives are in a sense a failure because they cannot achieve the “platonic ideal.” In Short, gen z has developed a liturgy of digital escapism which has caused them to love the platonic ideal over Christ the Savior.

Physical: Social Media as Liturgy of Bowing to the Black Mirror

The physical habits that social media has brought to the physical nature of the habits of generation z are also important to note as well. The physical habits that social media has cultivated are not necessarily a direct result of social media but many of the habits that will be mentioned here are problems with the wired world that we live in today in general. Generation z has instilled into their minds and bodies the habit of drawing out their phone from their pocket whenever they are isolated, bored, or because of a notification. It has been well documented how our brains receive a shot of dopamine whenever we get a notification on our phones. This activity has caused us to in a sense become like Pavlov’s dog, salivating dopamine and anticipation with every new notification. The way this has rewired our brains to become addicted to the little buzz and ding that we feel or hear. The former Vice President of User Growth at Facebook said in an interview, “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.” According to an article from Harvard University that the social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram use the “very same neural circuitry used by slot machines and cocaine to keep us using their products as much as possible” (Haynes). Generation z has become a generation that will in a sense “bow down” to their phones in submission to the neural circuitry that has developed in their brains from their regular 3 hour daily liturgies of social media. This also creates a feedback loop wherein public situations like riding a train, waiting in line, or riding an elevator are typically taken up by taking out of one’s phone, bowing to the black mirror, and scrolling through their social media. These practices inhibit social development and the ability for one to connect with strangers and in turn with other people. This creates further dependency for one to go onto their phones during social situations to distract themselves and take away from feelings of loneliness or isolation. It is no wonder why generation z has become the most stress, anxious, and lonely generation ever recorded. In short, the liturgy of social media has formed a neuro-chemical feedback loop of bowing down to the black mirror rather than sitting up to encounter the physical world.

Ideological: Social Media as Liturgy of Confirmation Bias

A notable component of the social media phenomenon has become the development of “the algorithm.” It has been well documented how Facebook’s algorithms have not been a pure feed of what your peers and liked pages post, but rather it is a feed that has been curated by an algorithm that has been constantly observing your interaction with the posts on your feed. A quick summary is that the more you interact with a certain type of post the more your feed will show you such content. On Facebook, if you lean politically conservative, you will typically interact more with posts that align with conservative ideals, Facebook will track such interaction and show you more content that aligns with such views. As you interact more with your feed it will tend to show more extreme content since the algorithm recognizes that such content yields more time, which in turn leads to more profit as Facebook will share your data of interaction with said posts to other companies who will gear your digital advertisements in accordance with your data. What this produces is a feedback loop of confirmation bias, where one’s feed is curated towards one ideological beliefs. Ideologically this becomes an echo chamber where one’s views are constantly confirmed and not challenged. For generation z this has led to a generation that has assumed many political positions prior to or without critical education in philosophy, history, psychology, sociology, political science, or theology. The pew research center reports that generation z contains the highest percentage of those who say that same-sex marriage is good for society. This position has had a high influence from their social media feeds and entertainment that has presented a reality that presumes same-sex marriage is good for society. When one sees the correlation between the rise of usage of social media amongst youth who are in their developmental years and an assumption of a highly contentious political issue without critical philosophical, historical, sociological, psychological, or theological study one can see that a generation has had their ideological beliefs formed by an algorithm that is driven by confirmation bias rather than critical deliberation. In short, the liturgy of social media has formed a generation’s ideological beliefs through algorithms of confirmation bias.

Ideological: Social Media as Liturgy of Abstraction

Ideologically, social media is training gen z not only to be engaged in confirmation bias but also to be abstracted from long-form narrative thinking. With the demand to satisfy a generation that has grown up in a culture of instant gratification, gen z is becoming accustomed to the coverage of complex issues in 30-second snippets instead of long-form sources like books and news articles. Gen z ‘s transformation in their epistemology is exemplified by the “Tweet”, where one is to express the nuances of large topics that could take up a whole book to unpack within the space of 280 characters. Philosophically we can see that this is a result of the overall project of post-modernism which can be characterized as the “incredulity towards metanarratives.” No longer are complex topics explored in their proper context, but rather they are opinionated in short polemical statements. In short, the ideological identity of gen z is being determined by ever-changing abstracted algorithms instead of metanarratives that are grounded in eternal truths.

Liturgical Theology as Christ-ological Formation

A Call to the Metanarrative of the Incarnation

My call to a return to liturgical theology is a call to return our proclamation the metanarrative of the incarnation, this truth must not only be understood but lived as well. As Smith said, “Liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love.” What generation z needs are liturgies that will form them to the true metanarrative of the gospel. However, what evangelicalism often misses in their attempt to communicate the gospel is an outworking of the incarnation of Christ in their communication. The reason why generation z needs the metanarrative of the incarnation is because the abstracted and mediated world that we live in has formed a generation who is deprived of meaning in their physical lives. So much of generation z’s life is spent online and the church should not resort to playing the world’s game of producing more content on social media so as to fight a “culture war.” But rather what must be communicated to generation z is the incarnation of Christ through embodied worship. Generation z is craving physical connection, in-person events, fully embodied experiences, and real connection with other people. The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the severe limitations that technology has in mediating relationships and interactions between people.

“What Generation Z needs is not an abstracted metaverse but an embodied metanarrative.”

This meta-narrative must be embodied as Christ himself was embodied, so also must the worship of the church be embodied and incarnational.

A Call to Liturgical Formation

Gen z needs the forms of worship that will transform their hearts to desire Christ in an embodied and lived way. Evangelicalism has thrown out the baby with the bathwater in neglecting liturgical worship and in so doing has developed a disembodied anthropology. Liturgical practices ground the mind and baptize the mind in Christ through practices that are grounded in an embodied understanding. It is an understanding that the identity of the individual must be baptized in Christ, and that the Christian is to “feast on Christ.” It is an understanding that our hearts are “deceitful above all things” and that our minds are “prone to wander.” Liturgical theology forms the mind to know their social identity and ideological identity in the incarnate Christ. That the Christian life is not a mere mental assent but is an embodied life that is lived in the Church, in community, in person, in embodied worship, where the mind is formed by the practices of the church that are composed of kneeling, singing, reciting, proclaiming, reading, tasting, eating, smelling, seeing and hearing are theologically orchestrated in light of the incarnation.

How Should the Evangelical Relate to Social Media?

This brings up the question of how should the evangelical church today respond in light of the clearly detrimental effects that social media has in the formation of generation z’s identity and beliefs? Neal Postman in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death makes the call at the end of his book that the solution is not to remove oneself from the wired world, but rather the most important step is to be aware of the effects that our mediums have on our formation. So also, my call is not for Christians to become an isolated people who retreat from society to form their own convents. Rather it is to require the social conscience of the evangelical church to not succumb to the formation of the liturgy of social media. It is a call to break the habit of checking your social media whenever boredom or isolation strikes, to seek social liturgies over social media, to send postcards over post updates, to have coffee over zoom call, and to seek incarnational communion over mediated “social” media. I personally have terminated my usage of Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube due to the negative effects that these sites have had on my mental and spiritual health (I still use LinkedIn and Facebook very occasionally with caution and awareness of how these mediums can easily suck my desires and form my mind). I believe that we as a society as a whole can live more productive and meaningful lives by severing our dependency and usage of social media as a whole.

Conclusion

My overall call is this; Christians must be educated and aware of the detrimental effects that the liturgy of social media has in the formation of identity and must return to a liturgical understanding of identity formation in the church.

Exemplification:

My exemplification is composed of a morning liturgy that is to be done with a group of people that you live with. In a sense, this is taking back that which has been thrown out of the Protestant tradition from the Catholic tradition. This morning liturgy is based on the morning and evening offices which are done with Catholic monasteries as liturgies to prepare one for the day and to close the day before going to bed. These liturgies will interact with the 5 senses so as to have one be engaged in an embodied liturgy that will form the mind and body to desire Christ and his kingdom.

Link: Comm Theory Creative Project (mml.media)

Sources

Haynes, Trevor, and Rebecca Clements. “Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A Battle for Your Time.” Harvard University: The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University, 4 Feb. 2021, https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2018/dopamine-smartphones-battle-time/.

Kammerzelt Brian, Ministry Media Matters: An Exploration of a Theological Framework for Ministry Media & Culture, Moody Bible Institute, 2021.

Noll, Mark A. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. W.B. Eerdmans, 1994.

Peterson, Jordan B., et al. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Vintage Canada, 2020.

Smith James K. A., Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Baker Academic, 2011.

“Stress, Mental Health, and Generation Z.” Western Governors University, 23 Sept. 2021, https://www.wgu.edu/blog/stress-mental-health-generation-z1906.html#close. Smith James K. A., Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Baker Academic, 2011.

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Undergraduate Communications Student at the Moody Bible Institute

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Undergraduate Communications Student at the Moody Bible Institute

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