With a title like this, you might think: “Nate’s gone off his rocker. All this rapture talk has turned him into a conspiracy theorist.” Judge for yourself, but I think you will find a compelling case below that we as the church, like the internet, are in danger of over-personalizing our user experience to the extent that we lose sight of both the gospel and the missio dei.

A recent article on GOOD begins:

In the spring of 2010, while the remains of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig were spewing crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, I asked two friends to google “BP.” They’re pretty similar—educated, white, left-leaning women who live in the Northeast. But the results they saw were quite different. One of my friends saw investment information about BP. The other saw news. For one, the first page of results contained links about the oil spill; for the other, there was nothing about it except for a promotional ad from BP. Even the number of results returned by Google differed—about 180 million results for one friend, and 139 million for the other.

The article goes on to explore the implications of how content is customized on news, search, and social networking sites throughout the internet and concludes (to paraphrase) that many of us are missing out on large swaths of content merely because we tend to click more or associate more with people with a different point of view.

Google, Facebook, Amazon, or whatever your content provider du jour knows from past experience what you are most likely to click on, and since they make money based on how many things you click on and how long you are on the site, they have a vested interest in showing you things more like that. All of this happens under the guise of personalization. Unfortunately, its side effects include impaired ability to be informed of all sides of an issue and even completely missing things you might should know merely because they’re dissimilar to what you already know.

Here’s the thing: Congregations have been doing this for decades, if not centuries, with just as little outcry, and we are all responsible, self included.

How often does this situation play out? A budget strapped church (and nearly every one feels like they are) starts looking at the budget for the next year and asking “Where can we save a little money so we can pay the mortgage and the pastor and still serve our members?” Council members over even the annual meeting quickly degrades into a finger-pointing debate about whose pet program is most expendable.

More often than not, in my experience at least, decisions are made in the exact same way Facebook picks what should be the “Top News” on your feed: What gets kept is what people in the pews or at the meetings like, things that have always been there, and things that help the membership. Instead, I would argue that we as the Church need to get beyond members to mission-oriented thinking first and foremost in all we do, most of all in financial matters.

You see, new testament theology runs directly counter to the adage that “God helps those who help themselves.” Paul’s missionary message to the churches he has evangelized (all of whom were by default very young by today’s standards) was instead that God sustains and protects us precisely when we are more concerned with helping others than ourselves. Try Acts 20:25-35 as one example if you’d like to see what I mean.

Google chooses to automatically tailor our search results to what they thing we’ll like. Congress becomes more polarized along party lines because of the support networks and social sanctions working against moderacy and compromise. Congregations neglect simple means to directly engage those in their neighborhoods and add more Bible studies for the middle-aged to elderly commuter members who already make up their ranks.

Every one of these situation has the same goals: simplifying or saving by focusing on what is most important to the end-user. But every one has the same flaw: end users do not necessarily benefit from being over-catered to. Facebook users end up losing track of friends because they didn’t click on any of their links months ago. People miss valuable perspectives on news that might enable them to make more informed decisions. Christians end up spending more and more time and energy in the holy huddle when they would have more fun, improve their ministry, and probably even improve the financial situation of their congregations if we invested even a portion of that connecting with people they encounter in their daily lives: at work, school, playgroups, coffee shops, family gatherings, and wherever we might end up.

There is a practical and theological imperative of diversity: in who we interact with, where we get our news, and what our churches look like. Not every church has to do everything, but every congregation and every Christian should be asking the question: What opportunities has God placed before us in this community, and how can we participate in what she is doing here and now? When we dumb down the church to the lowest common denominator, that becomes unlikely, because we become more concerned with what we are doing for ourselves.

So, who or what is being in your community, and what are you doing about it?

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