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The Church Amongst the Counter-Institutions

April 1st, 2021 | 18 min read

By Brad Edwards

I watched The Social Dilemma far later than most people not living under a rock. I expected a serious documentary that forecasted serious consequences with a tone of (even more) serious urgency and fear to drive the point home. If anything, it was understated.

I’m still bewildered why interest seems to have abated so quickly. While it’s fashionable to blame social media for polarization and fake news, rarely are those dynamics so clearly shown to be the direct result of social media’s incentive structure rather than an unavoidable (if unfortunate) byproduct thereof. Evaluating that problem mostly through the lens of social and behavioral psychology was damning on its own, but it also implicitly connected dots within a growing conversation around the fractures caused by a culture of Expressive Individualism. The most disturbing of which is the “attention extraction model” Social Media uses to generate ad revenue by keeping users engaged with specific social rewards known in behavioral psychology to produce dopamine production in the brain.

In our day-to-day embodied relationships, those dopamine “hits” are proportional to the intimacy, frequency, and quantity of social interactions. Where that ceiling previously kept “online community” from becoming a replacement for embodied community, the ubiquity of the 24/7 companionship of a smart phone made frequency of affirmation a stunningly effective one-trick-pony for extracting (and keeping) our attention.

I’ve often hoped that social media will go the way of smoking: when we realize that constant use is unhealthy and toxic (a pack a day), it will become a niche hobby for those who enjoy it in moderation (the occasional cigar). But that analogy breaks down at the very point I wished The Social Dilemma had explored further: smoking doesn’t try to mimic oxygen the way social media does meaningful community, nor sell itself as a comparable replacement thereof. Neither does smoking make you more distrustful of oxygen’s safety like social media does of the social institutions it imitates. Facebook and Twitter are simply not neutral vehicles for communication. As digital liturgies shaping our affections, they are the purest forms of systemic individualism humanity has ever seen. Their allure lies in resembling a safer form of the traditional “brick and mortar” institutions that have been on an accelerating decline (both in terms of social trust and cultural centrality) for several decades. It is in that vacuum Social Media offers individuals community (via friends or followers) and ritual (via newsfeeds), but seemingly without the need to constrain individual purpose or meaning beyond our selves.

“Seemingly” being the operative word. A “counterfeit” is an imitation of something intended to deceive or defraud. By creating a false perception of value, counterfeiters profit by deceiving those who use their doppelgänger. To varying degrees but in every measurable way, Social Media platforms are counterfeit institutions.

However, before unpacking that claim, we need to better understand the institutional context and subsequent vacuum that social media is fitting into.

The Social Good of Traditional Institutions

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The same social upheaval that birthed the civil rights movement and sexual revolution catalyzed a parallel anti-institutionalist trend. Much of that skepticism is valid (e.g. the almost-daily breaking news of celebrity pastors abusing power), and the ensuing reforms much needed (e.g. greater accountability of toxic leaders), but it’s simply easier to abandon institutions than reform them. Author and President of The American Enterprise Institute, Yuval Levin, observes that while this exodus has largely happened in the name of greater personal freedom, we’re experiencing the consequences of not having their anchoring presence or accumulated social capital to draw on while weathering rapid social change. And if an “institution” is a social organization and embodied narrative with a formative purpose (my working definition), the social fabric of society cannot help but be profoundly affected by that exodus.

Architecture offers a really helpful metaphor to that point: like buildings built of actual brick and mortar, institutions can take a lot of punishment. You can punch a hole in a brick wall without threatening its structural integrity. It’s unlikely anyone on the other side of the building will even hear whatever made the hole — that’s what makes those materials so helpful in weathering storms. Brick and mortar buildings mediate our experience of inclement weather (both mild and severe) by inserting themselves between us and our environment, which allows us to prepare ourselves for going back out into the wind and rain before getting pulverized by them. No one fully appreciates having a roof over their head until they’ve been caught outside in a blizzard, but by then it’s usually too late.

My point is this: within mediating institutions, we can take a deep breath to recalibrate and incorporate perspectives we would otherwise be too overwhelmed to hear in the midst of a raging storm. Institutions have the same capacity to mediate sociocultural change in ways that can be both humanizing and dehumanizing, but the difference between those results is not primarily in how influential they are in society, but in how formative they are for their members — for good or for ill.

For example, both Emancipation and Jim Crow flowed out of the institutional Church, but where the former was a transformative influence against the grain of American culture (yes, even outside the South), the latter century-long death grip on Southern grievance was largely enabled by the church embodying the Lost Cause narrative alongside the Good News (the incompatibility of which continues in evangelicalism with disastrous effects).

Our country’s relationship with institutions has always been a high-wire act balancing on a tension stretching between individualist freedom and institutional depth. When love of neighbor is limited in scope or narrowly defined, we can assume one merely cultural value or another has compromised the church’s prophetic voice.

The Destabilizing Fruit of Counterfeit Institutions

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In contrast, social media platforms are digital silhouettes of institutions reduced to their social connections — in other words, they’re mere Networks. With connections as the only structure, their architectural equivalent is more spiderweb than brick and mortar: content-agnostic, highly conductive, and able to respond (and quantify response) in real time. If something happens at one end of your “web,” the news reverberates across your connections and reaches you almost instantaneously. This is a huge part of why they can be such helpful tools for journalists and politicians especially.

Each platform is a complex tapestry made up of hundreds of millions of interlocking and decentralized connections, each one thrumming with fresh perspectives and information exchange, but distilled down into bite-sized chunks on an infinite-scrolling news feed. From within these counterfeit institutions, you don’t just hear about the news, you receive a more unfiltered and unmediated experience of the news short of physically being there as it happens.

Combined with the behavioral psychology undergirding social media’s “attention extraction model” which highlights controversy and incentivizes outrage, we experience news far more viscerally and (thanks especially to the pandemic) without the pressure release valves institutions normally provide in mediating our experiences through embodied community. The epistemological implications of that power unleashed on a social platform, yet unmoored from institutionally-shaped virtues, are staggering.

The riot and storming of the U.S. Capitol building on January 6th was a real-life parable (and tragic caricature) of this social “dilemma” quickly escalating into an all-out epistemological crisis and open warfare between Institutions and Networks. The more political institutions (e.g. electoral systems and Congress) are distrusted to mediate differences, provide constructive solutions, and release pent-up pressure, the more social media rushes to fill that vacuum. Accumulated outrage fed by disinformation and compounded by prolonged pandemic stress can’t help but boil over into physical spaces eventually. When empty promises don’t satisfy enabled grievances, radical anger and action increase in equal measure.

In classic “be careful what you ask for” fashion, the desire to fully democratize self-expression and bypass institutional gatekeepers has had potent unintended consequences. Politically, the more constituent expectations are shaped by these dynamics over time, the harder it will be for the House and Senate to function as mediating institutions, and the easier it will be for self-serving populists to hijack the common good.

And it may already be too late: that catastrophic shift is proving resilient in the aftermath as many GOP Congress members reportedly express in private a fear of both electoral and personal safety in voicing anything that contradicts their constituents, while publicly agreeing with the lies their base have come to believe as gospel truth. It is precisely that dynamic of fear that prevents institutional leaders from leading in spaces where change is most needed.

Populism is far more oppressive than pluralism, even one as inconsistent with its aspirations as ours.

The cultural shockwaves that would otherwise be dampened by brick and mortar Institutions are amplified by Networks. The same superhighways of connectivity that deliver humanizing social progress (e.g. the Arab Spring) are a poor refuge when weaponized for dehumanizing ends (e.g. Q-Anon). The digital populism that fueled Reddit users’ revolt against Wall Street’s institutional excess (in this case, the cynical “shorting” of GameStop stock) is only going to be more common, and that we can’t even tell whether that was a cause for celebration or a cautionary tale (never mind that both Ted Cruz and Alexandra Ocasio Cortez actually agreed on something) just speaks to how little we understand the road ahead.

If 2020 was the year a pandemic gave us a foretaste of Individualism’s personal consequences, the first few months of 2021 have eerily foreshadowed its effects on a society increasingly susceptible to grassroots digital populism fueled by disillusionment of institutions political, economic, and otherwise. Just as the Reformation was aided by Gutenburg’s printing press in bringing spiritual health at the catastrophic cost of political violence, Zuckerberg’s Facebook has brought greater individual connection at the catastrophic cost of institutional distrust — but at a depth, breadth, and pace that we are not even remotely prepared for.

The Populist Allure of Counterfeit Institutions

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Institutions, like literal brick and mortar buildings, are mostly built by a subcommunity of experts with related experience working off a shared set of blueprints in close coordination with each other. These gatekeepers set the organizational DNA and establish the culture-setting vision they hope to replicate. This requires cooperation, precision, conformity, and shared purpose. Members or participants in those institutions are not (at least initially) its builders — they must first be shaped into bricks in order to also be meaningful contributors.

Yet this can feel elitist to a culture of expressive individualism that views any personal conformity as oppressive (except, ironically, the common shape that so uniformly resists conformity), but rather insists on being affirmed in our unique voice or perspective. And a society that primarily seeks individual affirmation in lieu of institutional formation will discard “responsibility” as a civic virtue.

Without the regular opportunity to practice the skills of restraint or submission within the refuge of local institutions, citizens become resistant to even healthy formation and fragile in navigating sociocultural differences. That fragility means it can no longer be virtuous to merely accept differences, we must affirm them no matter our conscience. To do otherwise is to do violence against those who we see differently. Oddly, this both recognizes and ignores a basic fact of anthropology: that we conform to the social spaces we inhabit to both our flourishing and/or our detriment.

The “gospel” of Social Media promises all the affirmation that comes from being part of an institution, but without the prerequisite openness to formation that infuses deep community with meaning. Instead, you can “have your own identity, and express it too” through a web custom designed by each spider-architect. This taps into what Tara Isabella Burton refers to as “Intuitionism” — the growing Western tendency to source our individual identity through a DIY bifurcation of the community, ritual, meaning, and purpose historically found only within the walls of a single institution. Whether chicken or egg, Social Media functions as both launchpad and rocket fuel for near limitless opportunity for expressive individuals to receive affirmation.

In short, it is the populist’s digital antidote to elitist institutions.

The Democratic Facade of Counterfeit Institutions

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And therein lies the most fitting reason to describe social media platforms as “Counterfeit Institutions.” The line between “democratizing” elitist institutions and a populist deconstruction is an often blurry line. Social Media’s line is especially so because it relies on a masterfully-spun reality that the entire “user experience” is designed to conceal:

You’re not the spider. You’re lunch.

Populist groundswells are notoriously susceptible to bad actors who are able to tap into nascent discontent and leverage it for their own social or political gain. Social media companies hide behind a similar facade of altruism, promising virtual liberation from any constraint of our personal expression, but it is a liberation more akin to The Matrix than Les Misérables: the goal is not human freedom from oppression, but the automated shackling of our attention for the sake of shareholder and advertiser profit.

Instead of sentient tentacled machines harvesting our BTU’s, this spider is a faceless algorithm deftly pulling subconscious strings like a parasitic puppeteer, allowing you to believe you’re autonomous while wrapping you up in a dizzying web of virtual connectedness and bombarding users with endless novelty, intermittent social approval, and attention-demanding notifications. Every bit as psychologically imprisoning as The Matrix, social media is a digital liturgy shaping our affections, redefining our expectations of real-world relationships, and distorting truth that used to be responsibly stewarded by mediating institutions. Understood through this institutional lens, The Social Dilemma couldn’t possible have overstated the challenge we now face as a society.

Which leads me to a claim that may be particularly hard to swallow… By several orders of magnitude, social media is inherently more abusive and manipulative than the institutions we have grown so wary of. Rather than have our expressive individualism confronted for our good, it is co-opted through a siren song of affirmation. That we are still viewing social media’s role in the Capitol Riots as a neutral communication medium and not also as a formative catalyst that made it socially acceptable for rioters to post selfies on their Facebook accounts, is case-in-point.

We are appalled (appalled, I tell you!) by the Chinese government’s blatant leveraging of shame to social engineer their own people, but that’s exactly what we are allowing to happen in our liberal democratic society. While both countries claim motivation for the common good (one a capitalist expression and the other undeniably communistic), both rely on conditional social approval or disapproval to incentivize engagement. Ironically, Xi Jinping’s motives are far more honest and transparent than Mark Zuckerberg’s, but both are damningly manipulative.

Setting aside the political implications for a moment, this has horrifying human implications. In addition to performing the undeniably good role in exposing the wicked abuse of celebrity leaders like Ravi Zacharias and holding their institutions accountable, Twitter has become one of very few spaces where victims of institutional (and especially spiritual) abuse feel safe to gather and process wounds. Too many who fear to step back into a local church (often for objectively valid reasons) are yet co-opted and actively manipulated by their cheap counterfeit. Their need for healing is monetized through “engagement” with other victims, and their pain-filled attention spun and captured by the false promise of being known and affirmed by strangers who “get it.” The more that they believe it can be found through an app, the more they distrust that redemption can be found within the institutions they feel burned by, the more both dollars and wounds are multiplied.

I do not mean to trivialize this pain at all. I too carry trauma from institutional abuse of power. Knowing you are not alone is an utterly good and necessary part of healing from institutional wounds, and there can be genuine benefit in processing our wounds in a virtual social space where one’s traumatically sensitized vulnerability is mitigated by the same ceiling that limits intimacy.

Yet we ignore at our peril how these genuine needs are at cross purposes with an “attention extraction model” that actively stokes offense and outrage to keep our attention, often leaving yet more shame casualties in its wake. Algorithms are incapable of empathy, yet we implicitly trust them as digital sherpas in our search for healing connection. That is a measure of the depth of our wounds, the failure of our institutions, and our desperation for healing that can only be fully found therein. Social media profits from our inability to believe that those could all be true at the same time.

Of course, none of us actually think of Twitter or Instagram in that way. Rather, we credit the remarkable people they connected us with, who show up and respond to our story with kindness. To which I say: of course! Social Media is still social, and if it never gave us positive experiences, no one would use it. But this algorithmic “mutual friend” didn’t introduce you to someone with shared interests or affinity for the joy of catalyzing community, but to invisibly facilitate a for-profit transaction. Whether you become BFFs or Frenemies in the long-term doesn’t matter to the spider, it’s all the same to them so long as you’re dependent on their ongoing brokerage. Our flourishing is simply not their motive, but a carrot on the stick of FOMO anxiety.

At the end of the day, social media is highly unlikely to go the way of smoking. We simply can’t put this genie back in the bottle. We live in a different world than the one where institutions sufficiently mediated our sociocultural experience, the current pace of which places institutions (and our relationship with them) at an historic, adapt-or-die crossroads.

Re-Purposing Institutions… Starting with the Church

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The church is long past-due for an Institutional Renaissance every bit as humanizing as Counterfeit Institutions have been dehumanizing. We are at the very front end of realizing that ministry in a “Post-Christian Society” means far more than standing firm against secularism, and the church has far more painstaking work to do in understanding the implications of (and our complicity in) an Individualism increasingly unanchored by mediating institutions. But that endeavor’s trajectory and texture is essentially biblical, and one Jesus has already guaranteed to be unfazed by the gates of Hell. Counterfeits simply can’t compete with Covenant.

How then, do we start that work?

First, we have to see this within our own walls and remove the speck from our own eye. The fruit of Individualism’s influence on evangelicalism (or rather lack thereof, as I wrote about at-length) is deep and pervasive. Brett McCracken’s recent TGC article applying to the church Yuval Levin’s observation that social media-driven “Affirmation” expectations are rapidly replacing institutional “Formation” purposes, pairs exceptionally well with Chase Davis’s autopsy of the specific “missional liabilities” of liberalism for which the institutional church is so badly needed in order to address.

But as both McCracken and Davis rightly argue, that has to start with a more discerning discipleship within the church, the character of which (I would argue) must include an explicit institutional emphasis. We fish have to learn to explain to other fish that liberation from aquatic oppression is not more freeing, but more suffocating and dehumanizing. Worship at the altar of affirmation is not only unbiblical, it risks a spiritual fragility that imports the “safe spaces” of liberal university caricatures into the pews. The church has to become significantly more self-aware in how digital liturgies are shaping our affections away from an openness to (never mind an eagerness for) grace-fueled, corporately formative practices.

Yet we also cannot trample upon the many legitimate wounds of institutional abuse, nor take for granted how much a climate of fear thereof has permeated our pews already. Even though most of us have not directly suffered institutional abuse, everyone now knows someone who has (even if only in the Twittersphere).

Yes, social media amplifies scandal, and moral failure goes viral proportionate to how well-known a fallen celebrity pastor is or how worthy their words are of outrage, but dismissing valid institutional wounds for those reasons is no more justifiable than another’s casual relationship with the truth justifies our own. If, according to Jesus, we are called to go above and beyond in handing over our cloak when robbed of our shirt, we have a similar obligation to more-than-meet institutional skeptics where they are. And yes, that is every bit the hurdle it seems.

Second, and in the words of my podcast co-conspirator, Bryce Hales, we have to learn to “tell the better story” of the institutional church. Authority, submission, and repentance are all blasphemies to Individualists, in part because we (evangelical pastors) have been guilty of teaching their biblical imperative without painting with their humanizing beauty. We quote Paul’s rallying cry to “fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Timothy 6:12) to inspire extraordinary achievement for God, but not an ordinary contentment in Him that “aspire(s) to live quietly and mind (our) own affairs” (1 Thessalonians 4:9). Where the Missio Dei is reduced to the Great Commission and neglects the Cultural Mandate, we omit the extraordinary dignity of ordinary faithfulness rooted in place — like doing the laundry, mowing the lawn, or being emotionally present with our families.

There is so much more we are called to, but unconditional repentance and ordinary faithfulness are more than a good place to start, they are essential elements of the church’s formative purpose. Once seen through this institutional lens, you can’t unsee how the depth and breadth of our lopsided narratives are forming lopsided disciples. We need more heroes who embrace obscurity for the sake of love than sacrifice love for the sake of celebrity.

Just as the church’s faithfulness to the Great Commission relies on the Gospel to make disciples, institutions rely on communally-embodied narratives to shape members. The work of contextualizing the Gospel in an environment so inhospitable to institutions at least requires us to sing the praises of repentance unto life, submission to the common good, and authority transcendent of populist spin — all exclusively within the folds of God’s New Covenant Institution. As Christians, we know that the Spirit of Christ’s presence within and among the Body of Christ is objectively more formative than the empty spiritual calories of mere affirmation. Our task ahead, then, is to practice the embodied hospitality of a Savior whose invitation is not despite an institution He begrudgingly tolerates, but is uniquely experienced within the Bride whom He “rejoices over with loud singing.” (Zeph 3:17)

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