Millennials in the virtual church aisles – a thought for universities

A few years ago I was asked the question by the colleague “Is blockchain the future of higher education?” After quite a lot of reading and head scratching I reckoned the answer was “no”. However, the question keeps coming back. I still think the answer’s “no”, only these days it’s “***k no”. The more I become aware of blockchain and other-hyped technologies, the more concerned I become about how rational sensible people lose their critical faculty over technology.

NFT anyone?

One of my favourite sources for critical thinking is the “Tech Won’t Save Us” podcast. The essence of the podcast is an attempt to critique technology from a left-wing perspective. It’s refreshing to hear analysis of technology that isn’t about fetishising the latest Apple product or evangelising the omniscience of techno-priests such as Elon Musk. The Sci-fi utopianism arising from Silicon Valley masks lots of serious societal problems. Anyway, it’s worth a listen.

The most recent episode “How Evangelicals Emulate Startup Culture w/ Corrina Laughlin” explores the relationship between the Evangelical movement and trends in technology. As ever, there’s plenty of thought-provoking content..

One point that struck me is that Evangelical churches have been very innovative in using new technologies (radio, TV and now the internet). Life.Church experimented with online church services as early as 2006. Laughlin suggests that it’s not been a success. Congregations use online church when the other options aren’t available. I strongly suspect that online attendance has been huge during the pandemic. Like the proverbial Zoom quizzes, they fulfil a need, but are arguably less-satisfying experiences. The experimenting churches felt that this online activity would appeal to Millennials, the excitement of being able to attend with a congregation from anywhere on the planet would be irresistible. Right?

I’m a born again atheist, but as a young person attended Anglican, Evangelical and Methodist churches pretty regularly (I lost my religion in the middle of truly terrible midnight mass in a Catholic church). But of course I recognise the richness of the church experience: community, friendships, shared purpose, structure, collective singing (okay the jury’s out on that one), ritual, incense. All that without transcendent faith. I can understand why an online experience will be a paler comparison. Laughlin gives examples of virtual reality services in an article for The Atlantic, but I remain unconvinced.

The point for this blog is just how strong the similarities between the lived experience of attending a church and studying at a university is. In both instances, the community and belonging associated with a real-life experience doesn’t necessarily translate into the online world. Online and blended learning is here to stay in higher education and it would be ridiculous to say that we can turn the clock back on social media or mobile phones. However, the problems of creating meaningful communities of students remain. I think the podcast is yet another reminder about how hard it is to do.

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