At checkout on a recent visit to my favorite SLC bookstore, I was rewarded with a free book: After 150 Years: The Latter-day Saints in Sesquicentennial Perspective (Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, 1983). Loyalty has its perks. A bit dated at 32 years, but this chapter caught my eye: “Testimony and Technology,” by LDS historian James B. Allen. What he didn’t see coming: The Internet.
That’s an observation, not a criticism — no one expected the Internet. But Allen’s discussion of how technology affected religion in the past is instructive: There was the advent of writing (several millennia ago) then there was the advent of printing (five hundred years ago). In terms of technology, nothing else compares with the impact of these two inventions. The Bible over there on your shelf shows the impact writing had on religion. The three or six or nine dozen books on your shelf about Mormonism and religion show the impact of printing, which apart from filling your bookshelf also put vernacular Bibles in the hands of the laity for the first time. But “church” — trooping off to services on Sunday to sing hymns, say prayers, hear a sermon, and take the Eucharist — hasn’t changed much since the Reformation. In the 20th century, radio and TV allowed shut-ins to get religion at home, and nondenominational megachurches changed the scale and tone of what happened on Sunday, but those were just variations on a stable theme. Church on Sunday has not changed much for 500 years.
So is the Internet like radio or TV, an incremental change that won’t directly affect churches, or is it like printing, a revolution in the making? Let’s go with revolution. Writing made religious information suddenly more available across space and time, allowing preservation and distribution of written sacred texts. Printing made those texts and many other religious books and texts suddenly available to a much wider audience. And now the Internet has multiplied exponentially the scale of religious information available to almost anyone on the planet, along with search tools to find a lot of narrowly-tailored information on almost any religious topic of interest. Internet + Google = Revolution. You want to know about Joseph’s plural wives or the evolution of the Word of Wisdom or what General Authorities get paid as a stipend (not, of course, a salary)? Just Google it. The impact of all this on the Church? Initially, significant and negative, with the Church now hastening to update the standard LDS narrative before everyone has a faith crisis.
But this is old news. We’ve been talking about the impact of Internet information on the Church almost since there were blogs (Blogger launched in 1999; Times and Seasons debuted in 2003). Here is a second, less-remarked effect of the wired, networked, smartphone world we now live in. The pace at which we consume information has increased dramatically and the attention span of us info consumers has shrunk. In different terms, our willingness to tolerate the slow. delivery. of. anything. has decreased dramatically. Make it the slow delivery of boring content and we click to another source in about three seconds. Or change the channel. Or head out the door.
It’s the heading out the door part that’s a problem for the Church. The Sunday meetings that make up our current three-hour block are not much different from the same meetings a hundred years ago: slow delivery of largely recycled information you have likely heard several times before. But we the people have changed. In the short term, an active young Latter-day Saint can fill in the gaps between relevant content at church with an iPad or a smartphone the way their parents might have used a book or a nap. But in the long run what happens in church has to take account of the fact that this is 2015, not 1955, and the pews are filled with 2015-people, not 1955-people. These 2015-people won’t sit around reading their smartphones on Sunday forever. Give them better content and better delivery or kiss them good-bye.
There is hope. The Church sets up Spanish-language branches and stakes (and other language units as well) to meet the needs of non-English speakers all across the US. The Church sets up young adult branches to meet the needs of young single adults in the Church. So the principle of tailoring local units to meet the needs of the members is an idea that senior LDS leaders have already embraced. I think that at some point an overhaul of the entire LDS approach to Sunday meetings will be needed to meet the needs of the membership as a whole, just as the Church has wisely acted to meet the needs of particular demographic groups in the past. Please, do it quick before we end up like the Catholic congregations I observed as a missionary in France a generation ago, with no one under 50 in attendance.
And it is technology that is driving this development. Here’s my point in one sentence about how technology is changing the Church: The Internet is changing the scale of information we can now almost instantly access, but it is also changing us; the Church is starting to respond to the information challenge, but also needs to recognize and then respond to the looming challenge of keeping what happens in church on Sunday compatible with the changing sensibilities and capabilities of the membership.
It’s 2015. Life moves pretty fast.
Note: If you want to see what you said on this topic eight years ago, check out this 2007 T&S post.