When I think of publicizing the presence and work of a parish, what I have in mind is that its members and clergy are going to be so excited by what they experience in the Church that they will go out and spontaneously talk to some of their neighbors, colleagues, and friends about what they have seen and heard. They won’t be able to help themselves. Some have called this “The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church.”Believe it or not, this is exactly how the early Church spread the Gospel throughout the Mediterranean region. It did not happen because of any organized missionary outreach and not because of programs, advertising campaigns, websites, concerts, lectures, and the like, but quite simply because every day Christians talked about their faith in the market place, at school, and at work. Along those lines, Michael Green claims that early evangelism was not “formal preaching, but the informal chattering to friends and chance acquaintances, in homes and wine shops, on walks, and around market stalls. They went everywhere gossiping the gospel; they did it naturally, enthusiastically, and with the conviction of those who are not paid to say that sort of thing. Consequently, they were taken seriously, and the movement spread, notably among the lower classes.” “All of this makes it abundantly clear that in contrast to the present day, when Christianity is highly intellectualized and dispensed by a professional clergy to a constituency increasingly confined to the middle class, in the early days the faith was spontaneously spread by informal evangelists and had its greatest appeal among the working classes.”As Paul Little put it, “Witnessing is that deep-seated conviction that the greatest favor I can do for others is to introduce them to Jesus Christ.” So, in order for you to spontaneously shine the light of Christ through your life out into the world, you will have to be in the world, that is, have face-to-face contact with and access to other human beings.
However, today’s social context makes this personal and spontaneous expansion of the Church rather difficult for two reasons. First, there is the trend “toward giving up face-to-face for virtual contact—and, in some cases, a preference for the latter.” It seems that our “desire to sustain and develop on-line friendships” may come
“at the cost of our availability to engage with our families, our neighbors and those we meet in the daily reality of our places of work, education and recreation. If the desire for virtual connectedness becomes obsessive, it may in fact function to isolate individuals from real social interaction while also disrupting the patterns of rest, silence and reflection that are necessary for healthy human development.”
Moreover, our more recent “preference for texting over email and phone calls creates a higher quantity of interactions, but it decreases their quality, harming our relationships.” We appear to have lost the art of direct personal interaction, but in our effort to find an alternative we come under pressure to make use of the very tools that have robbed us of that ability in the first place.
The second difficulty in communicating our faith has to do with the way in which the operating principle, individual freedom, has evolved in our culture. The basic Enlightenment insistence on the freedom to choose is no longer the simple impulse to freely fulfill desires. It has become a demand for unlimited choices in every area of life, as if the reality of our own freedom to choose depended on the proliferation of options. This rage for choice has, in turn led to an extreme personalization. It is not just a matter of having unlimited choices, but a kind of macro-choice, choosing which choices I am exposed to. According to Sunstein, “emerging technologies” are providing consumers with striking power to “‘filter what they see.’” They can now not only choose to visit some new outlets and avoid others, they can personalize their own personal news feed, avoiding anything that irritates them, limiting what they see exclusively to items of American, International, or sports news. With the digital tools of cyberspace,
“You need not come across topics and views that you have not sought out. Without any difficulty, you are able to see exactly what you want to see, no more, no less. You can easily find out what “people like you” tend to like and dislike. You can avoid what they dislike. You can take a close look at what they like.”
This is a kind of filtering along the lines of “I get to choose what I choose” is the ultimate expression of consumer sovereignty. The consumers apply multiple filters based on personality, geography, political orientation, etc., and define in advance what they choose to be exposed to. This consumer sovereignty forces businesses to target their advertising so that it corresponds with those filters. Again, we observe that the digital tools of the modern cyberscape render this easily done. Since these firms know or can find out where you live and work, what you buy, the measure of your finances, your political orientation and your gender, email address, and so on, it is a small thing for them to target their messages in such a way as to match your filters. They know what you want to see and they show it to you. For example, the “sponsored” sections of a news outlet’s web page is now able to include advertising geared to the viewer’s city and state because they know where she lives. This kind of targeted advertising played a significant role in the outside efforts to swing voter opinion during the 2016 election. A company called “Cambridge Analytica” developed a technique called “microtargeting.”
“They collect data from Facebook and Twitter (which is perfectly legal) and have purchased an array of other data — about television preferences, airline travel, shopping habits, church attendance, what books you buy, what magazines you subscribe to — from third-party organizations and so-called data brokers So, “they take all this information and use it for what Nix calls “behavioral microtargeting” — basically individualized advertising.”
In other words, by gathering information on the kinds of filters being used by the customers, they are able to “nuance” their message to “resonate more effectively with those key groups.” Hardly anyone can contest the convenience and effectiveness of these cyber-technologies. So, if a priest asks how it is to present his parish and the Gospel to a world almost devoid of personal relationships and dominated by the extremes of consumer sovereignty, he will quite naturally turn to tools that are readily available, which, ironically, the very same tools that have created the depersonalization and extreme filtering. That being the case, one has to wonder if the enthusiastic endorsement of their use is really justified. Are these tools as effective as they seem to be? Or are they actually doing damage to the Church and the parishes that use them uncritically? Let’s take a critical look at a couple of the tools mentioned in the previous quote (Google in this post, Facebook & Websites in the next post) and ask if their use in ministry settings raises any questions.
Google has been known primarily for its search engine and its free email service, Gmail. More recently it has evolved as a major marketing service. It uses a form of targeting to place adds and deliver them to all of the tools offered by Google. Many of these ads are generated automatically (targeted) based on ad creative elements from the advertiser and location extensions. Google automatically optimizes ad delivery across Search, YouTube, Maps, Calendar, and other apps in its ad network. In other words, anytime you use one of these tools, two things will be happening: Google will be mining data on you and you will be exposed to customized, targeted ads (YouTube videos interrupted by adverts, composing email amidst flashing adds, etc.). In any case, adds seem to be what is driving the whole thing. By using their “free” services you are making money for Google. In other words, we are being used, tricked into focusing on our own ministry, thinking that we are getting some useful service for free when we have actually become active and integral parts of a vast commercial enterprise that uses every participant to make money for itself. Do we not compromise our integrity, the very foundation of the Gospel, by mindlessly participating in the grand deception? Are we not in danger of losing our “freedom of mind,” our autonomy? Are we not quite literally becoming the pawns in the game of desire, servants of mammon? Have we not sold our souls to the devil of convenience?
In addition to this general question of endorsing-by-participating, we should also ask if what we are getting from Google is worth the “price”? How effective are these tools? In and of themselves they are indeed very effective in disseminating information. But, in light of the limits created by extreme customization and individual filtering, one has to wonder how many people will actually “google” an Orthodox Church? A traveling believer, perhaps? An occasional seeker? But there will certainly not be any cyber cascades, trending videos, associated with a parish.
This and several other concerns are highlighted by Google Search. If you sign up for this service, you are added to their network of business and advertisers. Actually, you don’t even have to sign up for it. Google is so sure that you will want this service that it creates, without your knowledge or permission, a window next to the search results list that is dedicated to your business. That window, usually at the right side of the screen will contain the name, address, phone numbers, etc., of your business, a few pictures, a link to Google maps. In addition, the searcher is provided with an opportunity to ask questions of the business and even leave a review of the business. The reviews are posted and translated into a score of so and so many stars out of five. For example, one local Orthodox Parish was given a 5-star rating while the local monastery was only given one star. This is coupled with the ability to “like” and “dislike” the business (this is a Facebook knock-off and provides a bit of ego stroking). Finally, there is a row of small spaces at the bottom of the window that show other businesses that have been searched for by the persons who have searched you. In the case of a search for an Orthodox Church, these windows showed pictures of and contained links to Baptist, Lutheran, Catholic, and Anglican churches. Here you can compare their respective ratings and see their geographic proximity to one another. These, then are your competitors and this service helps you choose which one to patronize. The fact that Google created the side-bar without being requested to do so clearly reveals the manipulative nature of this so-called service. Moreover, Google retains control over this service and grants the business depicted only minimal editorial ability to Google accountholders. For example, you can correct the name, address, phone number, and pictures. But you cannot turn off or control whether reviews, ratings, or competitors are displayed, or what the reviews say.
As already mentioned, the extreme fragmentation and polarization fostered by the internet in general renders this particular tool relatively ineffective. Anecdotal evidence supports the impression that, with rare exceptions, the only people who search for a Church online are people who are already believers (Orthodox, Baptists) or at least interested. My own experience and that of the priests that I have spoken with confirms the fact that very few people are coming to the Church as a result of a web search. So, no, in terms of the benefit to the parish, this tool is not very effective. However, Google Search is extraordinarily effective in shifting public perception of Church. By deliberately inserting Churches (with or without its consent) into the vast caldron of the North American marketplace, the parish is reduced to just one of thousands of competing enterprises. A business that can be rated like any commodity based on the whims of customers, liked and disliked according to individual taste, and selected from a list of competing companies. I am sure that in the mind of the average American citizen there is a distinction between a for-profit-business and a Church. But, as those individuals and millions like them continue to subject themselves to Google’s massive monopoly on information and its presentation, they (even Church members) will gradually and uncritically absorb the prevailing business model. Even if they eschew that specific description, they will eventually transfer the dominant cyber-mediated-conception onto the Church, altering their understanding of its nature and their expectations of it. Google is doing the Church a disservice by redefining it against our will. “This is particularly nefarious because social-media companies influence how people think and behave without them even being aware of it.” In my next post I will take a brief look at Facebook and Websites in general.
 Roland Allen, The spontaneous expansion of the church and the causes which hinder it, 1st American ed. (Grand Rapids,: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1962).
 Michael Green, Evangelism in the early Church (Grand Rapids,: Eerdmans, 1970).
 Green, Evangelism in the early Church.
 Paul Little, Witnessing: How to Give Away Your Faith. (Downers Grove, Il: Intervarsity Press, 1966).
 Christine Rosen, “Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism ” New Atlantis (2007): 15, http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/virtual-friendship-and-the-new-narcissism.
 Benedict XVI, “”New Technologies, New Relationships. Promoting a Culture of Respect, Dialogue and Friendship.”,” (2009). http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/messages/communications/documents/hf_ben-xvi_mes_20090124_43rd-world-communications-day.html.
 Maggie Mulqueen, “Texting really is ruining personal relationships,” NBC News, Think (December 7 2019).
 Cass R. Sunstein, Republic.com 2.0 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 5. Table of contents only http://www.loc.gov/catdir/toc/ecip0712/2007008392.html
Publisher description http://www.loc.gov/catdir/enhancements/fy0726/2007008392-d.html
Contributor biographical information http://www.loc.gov/catdir/enhancements/fy0734/2007008392-b.html.
 Sunstein, Republic.com 2.0, 1.
 For more on this idea of filtering see Nicholas Negroponte, Being digital, 1st ed. (New York: Knopf, 1995). Publisher description http://www.loc.gov/catdir/enhancements/fy0601/94045971-d.html.
 “Cambridge Analytica, the shady data firm that might be a key Trump-Russia link, explained,” VOX, 2018, accessed July 10, 2018, https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/10/16/15657512/cambridge-analytica-facebook-alexander-nix-christopher-wylie.
 Illing, “Cambridge Analytica, the shady data firm that might be a key Trump-Russia link, explained.”
 “Google Marketing Live: Here come fully automated ads & campaigns for Local, Shopping & more,” Search Engine Land, 2008, accessed July 10, 2018, https://searchengineland.com/google-marketing-live-here-come-fully-automated-ads-campaigns-for-local-shopping-more-301746.
 Speaking of Cybercascades in terms of information as wildfire and tipping points, Sunstein states that “The phenomenon of group polarization is closely related to the widespread phenomenon of “social cascades…” in which “information, including false information, can be spread to hundreds, thousands, or even millions by the simple press of a button.” Sunstein, Republic.com 2.0, 83-86.
 “George Soros calls Facebook and Google a ‘menace’ to society and ‘obstacles to innovation’ in blistering attack,” BusinessInsider, 2018, accessed July 10, 2018, http://www.businessinsider.com/george-soros-calls-facebook-google-menace-society-obstacles-innovation-2018-1.