Traditional Worship in a Digitally Dependent World?: Part I

by Lauren Smelser White Rachel Held Evans recently wrote a thought-provoking opinion piece for the Washington Post that many of you probably saw as it made its way through online networks.[1] I want to reflect a bit more on what she says, thinking further about why it might be that millennials crave something other than “cool” worship. One of the primary reasons she is onto something is because, I believe, 20- and 30-somethings[2] experience uprootedness in ways that previous generations may not (though, undoubtedly, younger generations already experience it more intensely). This is in no small way due to our dependence upon digital technology for much of our interpersonal interaction. My main suggestion is that, in a highly mobile, digitally dependent society where uprootedness is commonplace, when it comes to corporate worship we may need more of tradition than of an atmosphere that simulates the rapid changes and virtual reality of the environment we inhabit all week. In fact, mindfully retaining some of our traditional forms of worship may be a vital aspect of the church living out its mission in this particular time and place.

For the sake of keeping my thoughts on this topic manageable, I write my reflections in two separate posts, with hope that each makes some sense on its own.

For starters, what do I mean by rootedness? It’s a notion that I find in a statement from William Faulkner, the literary master who created an entire fictional world out of one small county in his home state of Mississippi. He explained why: “I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it.”[3]

If you’ve lived anywhere long enough to feel like a local, I bet you know what he means. You’ve experienced rootedness. Rootedness depends upon prolonged physical presence in a place, but it’s not enough just to exist there—to be rooted you must live there as a contributing ingredient to its flavor. Its seasons and landscape have to be part of your own inner geography. Its people have to be your people (even if they drive you crazy at times)—you know how to talk to them; you know what foods they like; you’d defend them if an outsider cut them down. Like Faulkner, you feel that there is something worth knowing about your place and its long-time inhabitants, and you know that the further you press into it the more you can learn about it. This is rootedness.

In North American, rootedness is a phenomenon that we are less and less acquainted with. Cohesive local communities are slowly becoming a thing of the past. Consider the fact that these days, on average, Americans move more but vacation less than just about anyone else on earth (or so I recently heard on NPR). I wonder what that says about us? If nothing else, it says that we are itching to pick up and move on. We don’t care much about living in one spot long enough to root down into it, to learn its geography and seasons, to get to know our quirky neighbors and to leave something of our quirky selves there. On the other hand, we rarely vacation (even cheaply). The real pleasure of leisurely traveling, even a few hours away, comes from witnessing how plants and animals and people display rootedness in new places. But we are largely missing out on this too—not only because those sorts of communities are disintegrating, but also because we simply aren’t vacationing. We don’t have time and money for travel; we have to pay the note on our bigger barns.

These are generalizations, of course. There are plenty of holdouts. But the point is that more and more we are becoming an uprooted sort of people. I’m not qualified to identify all of the causes for our uprootedness. However, I’d wager that the list includes our cultural addiction to consumption. Deep in our cultural psyche we assume that new things bring joy. Perhaps this is why we church hop so often, and why infidelity is as commonplace among Christians as it is anyone. With every change, we lose most of what we’ve built with the people we leave behind. We are not only geographically uprooted; we are interpersonally uprooted as well.

20- and 30-somethings are experiencing an extra dose of uprootedness in the interpersonal domain, as I see it, largely due to our dependence on online social media for our interaction with each other. According to neurologists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, “an ironic revelation of the television-computer age is that what people want from machines is humanity: stories, contact, and interaction” (198).[4] But digital machines only deliver “imprecise simulations” of these sorts of connections. “Small wonder,” they say, “that Internet use in adults actually causes depression and loneliness” (199).

Some may protest these statements, pointing out that the online world actually facilitates innumerable, valuable human interactions. And there is truth in this—ask anyone who has been able to raise awareness for a good cause on Facebook, or who keeps up with a loved one across continents via Instagram, or who finds a way out of isolation on the blogosphere. Most of us find real enjoyment in keeping up with our friends and family by way of these mediums, and many of us have also uncovered unique opportunities there to communicate what we value—that is, we’ve found voices that may otherwise go unheard.

So are Lewis, Amini, and Lannon simply wrong about Internet usage causing loneliness? If they could answer they may acknowledge that, yes, good things can come of our online access to one another; however, we should also consider the extent to which we need to have these sorts of interactions.

We’ve all noticed it: most of us generally keep our heads down in public spaces, checking our cell phones, much more than we tend to look around at the people in front of us. One problem with this, it so happens, is that the hypertext medium of communication doesn’t utilize the parts of our brain—the right temporal neocortex, to be exact—that deal in intercepting and producing the emotional content of speech. This is why, Lewis and company point out, we easily misunderstand each other on these mediums. “In our increasingly digitized world, [online interaction] is a convenient substitute for dialogue, but it does not convey the richness that humans unthinkingly transmit when they use emotionally tempered speech and facial expressions,” they say (60). Furthermore, “minus the perceptible cues of voice tone, eye contact, and expression,” online interaction makes it highly convenient for people to assume fabricated identities—“simply because they can” (59).

So, by being constantly plugged in to social media, we not only exclude the richness of more face-to-face interpersonal exchange (likely lowering our social IQs as a result[5]). We are also constantly tempted to present highly fabricated versions of ourselves for online audiences, especially if we’re any good at such fabrication. Sounds exhausting, huh?

From many conversations I’ve had, I can verify that plenty of 20- and 30-somethings do find it exhausting. I think it’s because there’s something extra on the line for us, something more than just socializing. Generally speaking, we’re the demographic of folks who feel most compelled to keep up with the Joneses via online social media. Most of my friends who own small businesses feel immense pressure to have dazzling Instagram accounts; many of my colleagues in academia trying to make a name for themselves feel they must wow the world via Twitter; all of us wonder if we should be blogging. If we join in at all—and it’s hard not to, because of course we also enjoy keeping up with each other in all of the ways these technologies afford—we must battle the compulsion to self-sell via social media. Even if we resist that compulsion (each in our own ways), it’s pretty hard NOT to feel like we’re marketing ourselves as a product commoditized by “likes.” It’s exhausting, but we keep participating—because it’s also fun; because we have to advertise our businesses; because it distracts us from the mundane responsibility of adulthood; because we don’t want to be irrelevant...

All of this is what I’m thinking of when I say that my generation experiences an added layer of uprootedness. And all of it said, I would argue that the last thing we need when we gather for worship on Sunday mornings is another venue for feeling plugged in, like consumers receiving a polished marketing bid. And even if we feel we need it, dare I go so far as to suggest that we do so out of habit rather than authentic spiritual necessity? What we do seem to need is access to rootedness. And when it comes to worship, rootedness goes hand in hand with tradition.

That final statement warrants some explaining, especially because “tradition” can signify all sorts of positive and negative things for Christian believers. Because it’s too much to tackle here, I’ll attempt it next month in my next post.

1. The piece is titled “Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool’.” It can be found here. 2. This is not exactly “Millennials,” a term that designates the generation born somewhere between the early 1980s and early 2000s. Because of my age (33) and part-time occupation (college instructor) I am in better touch with folks whose birthdays range from about 1975–1995. 3. William Faulkner, The Paris Review Interviews, vol. II (New York: Picador, 2007) 57. 4. Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, A General Theory of Love (New York: Random House, 2000). 5. See this article if you’re curious about how our digital interaction might negatively affect our interpersonal intelligence, not to mention that of those being raised in this environment.

Update (7/23/15): Part 2 of this post can be found here.

Lauren Smelser White is a Ph.D. student in Theological Studies at Vanderbilt University. Her doctoral work in Christian theology focuses on human participation in the trinitarian event of revelation. Lauren is a fellow in the Program for Theology and Practice, which seeks to form scholars who connect their academic work to the practice of ministry and will be outstanding teachers of people preparing for ministry.