From the late 1980s, many churches made the decision to run like businesses and now, in a surprising twist, businesses in 2017 are running like churches.
At Facebook’s inaugural Communities Summit earlier this summer, CEO Mark Zuckerberg lauded the role churches historically played in society, from providing support in community to stoking charitable volunteerism. In the face of declining church membership, he suggested that Facebook could now fill the void left behind.
“It’s so striking,” he stated, “that for decades, membership in all kinds of groups has declined as much as one quarter. That’s a lot of people who need to find a sense of purpose and support somewhere else.”
At Facebook, he continued, “we started a project to see if we could get better at suggesting groups that will be meaningful to you. We started building artificial intelligence to do this. And it works. In the first six months, we helped 50 percent more people join meaningful communities.”
There’s much that Zuckerberg gets right.
The much-discussed “nones”—those unaffiliated with any particular religion—have indeed been on the rise for decades, and their growth isn’t just obvious in emptying churches.
Instead of Catholics or white evangelicals, it was religious nones that represented the largest religious voting bloc in the 2016 election. Another set of affiliations, major political parties, also saw allegiances drop with the rise of the independent voter, who refuses to align with either party.
In 2000, Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam first noted the collapse of civic engagement in American society. Since the 1960s, fewer Americans had been investing in “social capital”—that is, the rich communal connections made by going to church, having family dinners, hosting friends at parties, and participating in organizations or political activities.
This trend is a grave departure our nation’s infancy, when social ties stoked our bid for independence and ensured our survival in the pioneering West. In the 1830s, French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville observed:
Americans are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types—religious, moral, serious, futile, very general, very limited, immensely large and very minute. In every case, at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government … in the United States you are sure to find an association.
In other words, in America, we got things done through relationships and group identities.
Zuckerberg sees what sociologists, pastors, and many of the rest of us have noticed: People are looking outside of the typical affiliations—and outside of the church—for meaning, purpose, and community.
In a nation where “joiners” are leaving the typical social spaces, they’re continuing to log into Facebook (8 in 10 Internet users in the US have an account) and, thanks to fellow meaning-minded entrepreneurs, forming communities in new places IRL (“in real life”).
Harvard researchers argued that religion is not dying, but merely changing. In a 2015 study called “How We Gather,” they found that religious nones, especially millennials, have not evolved out of their spiritual or religious longings; they are simply seeking to fill them in other places. Over a third of millennials, significantly more than any other age group, have no religious affiliation.