This summer I’m taking Wycliffe’s Ministry and Technology course online. Every two weeks we’re to write a 1000-word response to a given prompt that we have first worked through in discussion forums, and submit that response for grading. There is no requirement to share these papers online, but I thought I’d post my thoughts anyways. (“Course notes” refers to Dr. Power’s online required reading. “Class discussion forum” was the text discussion, and “zoom discussion” was the video conversation.)
Paper #4: Online Dating and the End of Christendom
Prompt: The rise of online dating is an indictment of the church for its failure to act as a meeting place for fellowship and relationship.
The church’s failure to act as a meeting place for fellowship and relationship, as it pertains to online dating, is part of our post-Christendom reality. The overwhelming majority of online daters are young adults, the very age group for whom church is rarely a relevant meeting place for the sort of fellowship that either leads to romantic attachments or otherwise satisfies their general relational needs. This lack of relevance is precisely the post-Christendom shift experienced by mainline churches: joining a church community is no longer the “thing to do” for young people, as opposed to previous generations of folks who are likely either married or are otherwise accustomed to more traditional means of dating. (zoom conversation) This occurs on at least three fronts:
1. Generally, mainline church communities have not adapted well to the needs and desires of young people. Part of this is a slow engagement with the physical-digital integration of self discussed previously. Also, many mainline churches hold events that used to attract people and sustain relationships, but no longer do so: bake sales, sub-par talent shows and corn roasts are nice, but they are not the pub, movie theatre or sports stadium. A classic case of “always-done-it-that-way-ism.” It takes multiple single young people to meet for them to date or fulfill their general need for friendship, and this no longer occurs in mainline churches very much.
2. Specifically, mainline churches have not responded well to the lack of “romantic literacy” among younger people. This “illiteracy” is a difficulty with the early phases of a romantic relationship: getting to know someone more deeply, developing mutual attraction, the first few dates before things “get serious.” Likely, online community and dating apps have fostered this illiteracy: if a romantic connection can now happen instantaneously, privately and impersonally, then we do not learn the patient and stressful work of developing a relationship in person. (class discussion forum, zoom discussion)
But church communities have not recognized a need to teach healthy romantic literacy. Often, the only public expression and discussion of romance that we see in church are weddings, and those are more likely nominal folks who want a nice church wedding, rather than active parishioners. Church socials, private dinners and discipleship programs opt to segregate rather than integrate couples and singles. (zoom discussion) Dating and romance are privatized, a topic that goes undiscussed: I have yet to hear a sermon on it in a mainline context. A primary reason for this is that church leaders and members are largely older and married. Understandably, they do not know what dating is like right now, nor does the need to know press upon them. They come from a time when romantic literacy was assumed, as was marrying younger, and marrying at all. (Ibid)
This exclusive focus on weddings, insufficient social integration between couples and singles and privatization and silence about romantic literacy rooted in the assumption that it is still naturally learned all communicate a few problematic things:
- The only thing a church community cares about regarding sexuality is marriage, and that it is a fixed “end-point” or “beginning-point” rather than an event within the long history of a relationship.
- Singleness is a fixed state, more akin to celibacy, that cannot be changed.
- The casual and early phases of dating, the move away from a “fixed state” of singleness, is immature, possibly even shameful, and not a topic for mature, adult conversation.
These can put a lot of pressure on the few unmarried young adults in the congregation, possibly alienating them and discouraging them from seeing church community as a place to meet a potential partner. The result is that young adults compartmentalize: religious/spiritual and some relational needs can be found in church, but romantic interests are pursued increasingly online.
3. Church communities and society at-large have been less safe for young women: the #metoo and #timesup movement have exposed how this has been and continues to be the case. Women especially may wish to compartmentalize romantic pursuits into the ease, individuality and anonymity of dating apps, since many of their negative experiences have entailed a violation of the trust, authority, friendship and communal belonging found in in-person communities. Harassment certainly exists online, but it is far easier to dismiss and block an online contact than someone who will be encountered at church on a regular basis. This is especially so if he is a prominent member of the community. Also, dating apps such as Bumble have adapted very quickly to weed out predators: part of this adaptation is surely profit motive (course notes 7.2, zoom discussion) and to avoid lawsuits.
However, apps have adapted to the toxicity problem much faster than church communities have, for at least two reasons: 1) changing an individualist, anonymous app requires rewriting a bit of code, while changing an in-person community requires an institutional transformation of cultural norms and expectations, and 2) that transformation of cultural norms is often met with justifications and peer pressure in an attempt to “save face” with the institution’s status quo. But the rise of dating apps and the ease of the #metoo hashtag on social media, as part of our contemporary post-Christendom world, means that church institutions and communities are now publicly accountable for the norms and expectations that have fostered this toxic treatment of women.
I can neither lament nor celebrate the rise of online dating writ large. It creates its own challenges and opportunities for human connection going forward; exploring those in detail lies outside the scope of this paper. My focus here has examined the way online dating entails a response to the relative vacuum of in-person communities, and a response to the way church communities specifically are inadequate to the task of fostering romantic connections. The pertinent pastoral question is this: if mature Christians are taking intentional steps toward building romantic connections—online and in-person—how can we support their discernment and emotional well-being?