Are Echo Chambers dangerous for the church & youth ministry?

In Hypernormalisation, Adam Curtis picks up on a theme which has been banded around for the last few years, in relation to social media and perspectives, especially politically. Its that as technology, especially social media, has become very clever, it is now able to carefully select the news, stories and perspectives on the news feeds of Facebook or Twitter that are suitable to the person who is wanting to view them. Its the kind of thing such as algorithms and advertising, especially when it freaks people out, as soon as i go on to the Evans cycles website all i see on Facebook is adverts for new bikes. It is known as an echo chamber.  My previous piece on Hypernormalisation is here, including a link in which you can access the programme:

What happens in the echo chamber is that then people believe a version of the world that is most suitable to the people that they like, share stories and opinions of, forgetting that there might be other points of view. This was particulalry the case, it is argued in elections when countless people from one side thought that a message was being communicated in the world through social media, when in actual fact it was only being communicated to the already receiving and supporting people. not the ‘non’ voters.

One of the questions that is raised by the concept of  the Echo Chamber is one i feel that the church should be aware of in itself. For a number of reasons.

  1. Dissention and Divergence

It is argued that both dissention and critical thinking are good for organisations, helping them to propel forward because all the while they are being confronted with challenges that those external to an organisation will also be asking of them. Yet psychologically dissention and divergent thinking are difficult to hold in balance in groups that are already strong, or conversely weak, and in groups where there might be a culture of acceptance or conformity. Yet it could be argued that Jesus surrounded himself with strong minded disciples who were comptetant in their professions, and did stand up to him, such as Peter (Stoddart 2014, p135-140). Did Jesus need Peters interjections of challenge – well he knew by then that his character was strong and so he didnt dismiss Peters often challenge – even if the content of it was to be desired.  But have a think – what does a church do with those who present dissenting, or divergent, or different thinking?  are they ignored for the majority? the leader view? or politely asked to leave..?  – and so what kind of church is left – one that might in itself be an echo chamber of its own perspectives, theologies and practices?  – yes ‘all in agreement’ but at what cost?

2. Strategy thinking

The echo chamber of the church, its ministry and organisations is most prevalent in its current drive for developing strategies. Theres a mission strategy, a funding strategy, a publicity strategy and probably a few others. Strategies are great, especially if you’re a business and you want to achieve higher sales and want people to buy your products. A good strategy will be based on consumer buying patterns, consultations and market research. For food products it might include taste tests, advertising and a whole host of techniques. At many aspects of the process of developing a new product, a good supermarket will have involved many selcted people from outside its organisation to test it, pilot it and evaluate it. The Church might have adopted management and strategy thinking from the world of business, but that world is different, the church in its local form, might be a different type of organisation, one that is a social reality, a learning organisation or a culture.

How much of a church, or faith organisation or denominations strategy is based solely on people from within it? Ie created by only a few people, who might all be in agreement, or create a strategy that endorses their own views, and their own experiences of faith. Can church strategies for mission only reflect the popular, the known or the copied from elsewhere – endorsed by the wider echo chamber of the church.

3. The Same social media trap.

When the church adopts the same communication methods that are as manipulated by the media giants, then its messages will thus only be heard by those who are like it. Do our own facebook groups involve ‘outsiders’ to give critical opinion? do our church websites get shared or developed by those outside of the faith group? Who are we speaking to on social media, on the internet – ourselves?

One danger is that the approaches that churches have for the activities of community and mission don’t shift – they stay as ‘event’ and ‘attractional’ based – but they are then, because of social media, are advertised to less people and people who might already be in the know. The appropriate medium for the message might need to be found. Of course it would be great to discover what the local channels of communication are in a town or village and be part of these. But that means talking with people and discovering what peoples lines of communication are. If it something that a community wants, needs or is good for them, they will spread the word, they will be its own evangelists. Anything that we have to continually advertise might not be…

And, at a time when the church’s position in the world is perceived to be under threat, then being safe, and creating holy huddles of similarities might feel the most appropriate thing to do, to self protect, to shelter from the storm. Its understandable, yet is it suitable in the long term. Is that what the church is called to be in thw world? safe from it – or incarnationally with and amongst it?

So, if Churches are in danger of being echo chambers, how might they avoid it?

  1. Invite people to speak and preach who they dont agree with.
  2. Engage in discussion and Q & A sessions that are created to have open conversation and framed appropriately.
  3. Allow spaces for critical reflection and to be taste tested by outsiders – ‘ the mystery worshipper’ on is one example.
  4. Develop spaces of learning from other similar organisations, philosophies or approaches – in order not to dilute but to learn from then.
  5. To discover what God might be saying through the arts, the media and film for the church, what are various forms of culture saying to the church.
  6. To be active in reading theology and practice books that challenge, not just endorse, thinking.
  7. To welcome the stranger, with the strange views in their midst.
  8. To Trust that God is in the world, and that she can be found in more places that are already thought.
  9. To take risks in loving a local community and learning from it.
  10. To spend less time doing activities for itself, and more in proximity with others, not just other christians.

I am sure there are a few others, and its not just churches, youth work & mission organisations, but all organisations that benefit from outside opinions, from disagreements, from divergent thinking. But in a world where the Echo chamber is a dangerous place of entrapment for the ideologies of this world to fester in and circulate, then it might be worth thinking about how the church can avoid falling into a similar trap. Being in the world but not of the world doesnt mean only being in our own world.


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