Do you want to halt climate change? Find cures for diseases so people no longer get sick? Modernize democracy so everyone can vote online—or personalize education so everyone can learn? Do you want to explore ideas like a universal basic income so everyone has the financial cushion to try new things?

“These achievements,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says, “are all within our reach.”

Path Forward?

Proclamations like these—vague and optimistic and unapplied—are easy enough to make. We all love to dwell on untapped potential. But specific policies about what to do with that potential are boring, and work is hard. Jeremiads warning of a quickly-coming apocalypse fasten bodies to chairs, but predicting the Day of the Lord only moves a congregation’s eyes from the sky to the calendar.

To his credit, Zuckerberg tries to chart a path forward. At a recent event in Chicago, he lamented the widespread decline of group membership, à la Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. This decline, in his estimation, has left a hole in our societal experience. He said:

We all get meaning from our communities. Whether they’re churches, sports teams, or neighborhood groups, they give us the strength to expand our horizons and care about broader issues. Studies have proven the more connected we are, the happier we feel and the healthier we are.

For a moment, let’s forgive Zuckerberg for lumping churches in with sports teams and neighborhood groups. He nonetheless identifies a problem: As the world has grown more and more connected, it seems to have grown more and more fractious, isolating, insurmountable.

At first glance, this prognosis seems preposterous, especially coming from the guy who, in barely a decade, created a so-called social network that connects more than 2 billion people. Who among us hasn’t “reconnected” with an old friend on Facebook by clicking through their profile pics without ever actually saying anything to them, without ever even typing out a simple “hey, how r u doing?”

All of us know this isn’t really reconnection. It can easily be curiosity-satiating fact-finding, or pride-swelling life-comparing. Who’s to say?

Only 5 Percent

Zuckerberg doesn’t seem to care anymore about that impressive “2 billion users” figure. He’s fixated on another: 100 million. This represents Facebook users who have been connected into what he calls “meaningful communities.”

This number keeps him up at night: Why have we only connected 100 million people—a meager 5 percent? After all, according to Zuckerberg’s anthropology, everyone wants to feel supported and help others. So what gives?

Zuckerberg’s mission is both simple and ludicrous. In his own words:

[There are] a lot of people who now need to find a sense of purpose and support somewhere else. This is our challenge: we have to build a world where every single person has a sense of purpose and community. That’s how we’re gonna bring the world closer together. We need to build a world where we care just as much about anyone—a person in India or China or Mexico or Nigeria—just as much as we care about a person here in Chicago. That’s how we’re going to . . . build the world we all want for generations to come. I know we can do this. We can reverse this decline.

As the crowd applauds, he asks the key question: “So, how are we going to do this? Today, I want to focus on two parts of our product roadmap that are focused on building meaningful communities.”

If you’ve been listening closely, that last sentence should sound like the stylus on a record player skipped. Say what? All this talk of self-giving globalism and cultivating the world for future next generations led to—screech—a “product roadmap”? 

At this point, the stump speech yields to a metrics-driven analysis of user activity; the rousing illustration yields to concrete application. “Online communities,” he says, “make our physical communities stronger.” He then praises his development team’s ability to create artificial intelligence that smartly recommends certain groups to certain users and therefore overrides our predisposed resistance to seeking out communities.

The early returns on this updated AI have made Zuckerberg & Co. optimistic, so they’ve set a lofty goal: helping 1 billion people join meaningful communities, and thereby reversing the decline in community membership, strengthening our social fabric, and bringing the world closer together.

As he ends his speech, the crowd—full of “community leaders” who, according to Zuckerberg, must spur on this groundswell—applauds, glad to receive marching orders from their general, exhortations from their priest.

The ‘Church’ of Facebook

This is Zuckerberg’s vision—a curious blend of common-grace humanitarianism, technological infatuation, and basic capitalism. It’s about helping people live better and more fulfilling lives; it’s about the promises of artificial intelligence; it’s about growing a user base, which grows ad revenue, which improves the bottom line—all reasonable goals for a CEO. This is the vision of a man who thinks he can replace church attendance with Facebook activity.

And can we blame him?

Perhaps Zuckerberg sincerely thinks our Facebook accounts can become our church because humanitarian do-goodery, technological pizazz, and church-growth gobbledygook resonate with many of American evangelicalism’s major chords; or because too many churches comprise enclaves of affinity groups; or because he’s driven past “Cowboy Churches” or “Biker Churches” or churches that advertise two gatherings, one for those who love “traditional” music and another for those who love “contemporary”; or because he’s heard of churches who devote entire services to America the Beautiful. Perhaps he sincerely thinks our Facebook friends can become our fellow church members because the notion of an embodied, all-in-one-place, face-to-face gathering has long been untethered from what it means to be a church. Perhaps he sincerely thinks the leaders of Facebook’s “meaningful communities” can become our pastors because, in his mind, to be a “pastor” is to be something of a “thought leader,” and nothing of a “shepherd.”

Again, can we blame him?

Bodies and Hands, Songs and Prayers

I’m deeply thankful for Zuckerberg’s desire to leave the world better than he found it. I’m even more thankful he sees the need for humans to connect to communities and even institutions in order to do so. His intuition about our need for relationships is exactly right.

And yet, of what use is a precise diagnosis without a prescription?

In many ways, Zuckerberg’s desire to churchify Facebook is passé. Facebook Church, as it were, already exists. It’s ever-growing, and in so many ways it meets the felt needs of our world: for community, for purpose, for fighting for good amid all the bad.

But with all its grandiose plans to change the world, this kind of community sets a remarkably low bar for us as humans in relationship; it’s strictly opt-in, strictly self-directed, strictly un-real, and available only for a few. After all, even 2 billion is less than a third of the human race.

Real churches on the other hand—they’re hard. Their buildings consist of boring bricks and grey cement. They’re filled with creaky pews and leaky air conditioners and stopped-up toilets and difficult people who have your phone number. They’re also tough to quantify and resistant to metric-driven analysis, because pastoring in particular and the Christian life in general is often terribly inefficient.

And though it sounds quaint, these real churches are also actually here. They exist in space and time, and they’re filled not just with second-hand stories but with open-armed bodies that we’ve collapsed into after yet another miscarriage, yet another “no” after a job interview, yet another unexpected death. What’s more, these churches are open to all—no email address or internet connection required—and they make known their beliefs to the world through sounds more magnetic than the dull whir of a modem or the clickety clack of a keyboard. These real churches simply sing and preach and pray—and in it all we find something far grander than even man’s most optimistic hope to change the world. We find the manifold wisdom of God (Eph. 3:10).

Can you believe such a thing is within our reach?