Algorithms and how the church can find itself behind the times

There are, without doubt, many problems with algorithms. They aren’t as clever as some seem to think. Countless examples exist of people wondering what they’ve clicked to get the particular ridiculous suggestion float across their computer screen. We thought you might like to buy 100 disembodied dolls heads. Did you? Okay! What in anything I’ve clicked on, said or done would indicate I would want that? Those sort of stories are pretty common. And I am sure you can think of many other issues with algorithms too. Suffice to say, I don’t think they are – of themselves – going to be taking over the world.

But one problem I have noticed with them is that they are frequently behind. Everybody worries that every click, everything they ever see, is being used to determine which adverts are going to be more enticing to you. There is clearly some sense in which that happens to a lesser or greater degree. But I have found those clicks very often make the algorithms somewhat behind and, therefore, pretty inaccurate.

This happens in two ways. Either, someone starts to think they might need something. So, they begin investigating and clicking on appropriate sites to look into the thing. But, having done some looking around, they conclude actually they can manage without and don’t bother getting it. But for weeks afterwards, they are still bombarded with adverts for the thing they have already decided not to get. The algorithm is just behind reality. It hasn’t caught up with the fact that you aren’t bothered or interested in the thing anymore.

The other way it happens is when someone decides they need something and, again, begins looking into what they want. The algorithms might pick up on this and begin making suggestions of their own. But the person continue their investigations. Eventually, they buy whatever it is they were looking for. They now have the product they need and want to get on with their life. But the algorithms continue to pepper their feeds with adverts about the thing they’ve already bought. Again, they are behind reality. The person is no longer interested in buying that thing because they already have one and don’t need any more.

I was minded to think that the church often operates a bit like this. Not as some sort of all-seeing eye, spying on people so that we can sell them wares. Luther had a thing or two to say about that sort of thing! But we can just end up behind reality, thinking we are tapping into current things, whilst actually being out of date and out of touch.

Much like the algorithms. We may think that people are still keen on things that they lost interest in long ago. We put on events that drew people 30 years ago but that have long since been able to attract a meaningful crowd. We may continue trying to offer coffee mornings and evangelistic sunday schools to communities that have long since rejected these things. We may continue trying to reach our community in the ways that worked when it was a predominantly white British community without any sense that the makeup of our area has entirely changed and is now predominantly ethnic minority and (potentially) not even from a Christianised culture. Like the algorithms that keep offering people adverts long after they have decided they don’t want to buy the thing they looked at ages ago, so the church can continue trying to attract people in with stuff that they are clear – and have been clear for some time – they simply do not want.

If we don’t do that, the church may fall into the other algorithm trap. Just like when someone buys something and yet continues to get a slew of adverts selling the same thing, so churches can end up pushing the same things one people who have already got what they need. Let’s say, praise God, someone comes into the church and becomes a believer through some evangelistic event. The church can end up failing to offer that person anything that will lead them to press on in Christ and instead has only a series of evangelistic activities to offer them. And, indeed, much like the algorithm that continues to send people adverts for stuff they’ve already bought, we push people towards these things even though they’re designed for unbelievers. We are essentially offering someone the very thing that they’ve already bought (so to speak) and not recognising that they might now need something else.

The solution for companies is to offer people something else that they might now need given they have bought the thing you were originally selling. Not that I would consider sharing the gospel to be “selling” something, but once somebody has come to believe the gospel and trust in Jesus, the church needs to make sure that we change what we are offering. We are no longer trying to get this person to come to Jesus because they have already come to know him as Lord and saviour. What we are now doing is trying to get them to press on with him. We have moved from sharing the gospel with them in the hope they will come to believe it to encouraging them in the gospel to continue on with Christ. We need to stop evangelising them as though they don’t believe and start discipling them now that they do.

The way to make sure that we aren’t starting from behind with these things is to ensure that we have a range of things for people to plug into. They were (potentially) coming to evangelistic activities as interested observers. They now need to go to teaching and discipleship things in order to grow. They then need to plug back into evangelistic stuff, not now as observers, but as those there to share the gospel with others. They need to start serving in the church as those who want to actively participate in the things their saviour now asks them to do. As a church, we need to change the algorithm lest we end up pushing people towards things they have already accepted and want to progress on from.