Unitarians and Religion on the Net

I was pleased to hear Rev Brian Kiely talk this morning at Westwood Unitarian Congregation, where I am a long term member. Brian spoke about the effect, impact and opportunity presented by the Net for Unitarianism. His talk was inspired by a blog post from Peter Morales the current President of the US Unitarian Universalist Association.  Morales argues that the day of large churches and exclusively face-to-face communities is over, and that both mileniums and boomers are demanding organizations that allow for more flexibility, multimode interactions and greater networking opportunties. Brian reinforced these ideas with a challenge to broaden Unitarian contribution, engagement, influence and service beyond the increasingly aged population who shows up at Church on Sunday monrings.

These messages were, of course, “music to my ears” as I have preaching this message for over a decade. The service this morning reminded me of a talk I gave in 20o0  to the Canadian Unitarian Council annual meeting  in which I outlined three generations of net-enhanced churches (Sigh,  after an hour search through old machines, CD roms and flash drives, I think the text of this paper is truely gonzo! – Not to self – Get organized!!)

The first generation (where Westwood is today) uses the Net to facilitate  and adminstrate face-to-face organization. Our Westwood website is an example of a first generation tools as it serves as a useful resource for general information, announcmeents, newsletters and docuement management for our largely place-based organization.  The second generation (which Brian was urging us to grow into) blends face-to-face activities with net-based ones. For example holding meetings, rites of passage and celebrations in SecondLife, via SKYPE or using a myriad of other means by which spiritual and community activities take place both in person and on the Net. The eco-advantages of this blending are obvious, but more importantly it opens the door for participation beyond geographic borders. It also meets the lifestyle  of those who are managing an increasing large part of thier social, professional and leisure activities online. Brian also noted the capacity to add backchannels to Sunday service, running up twitter feeds, as reactions to or comment on the live service from F2F or distant net-based participants, as is comingly done in many of the Ed tech conferences that i attend these days.  The Third Generation I overviewed was religious or spiritual organizations that were “net-native” and that manage to broach temporal and geographic boundaries entirely by existing exclusively online. Even in 2000 a few of these “cyber churches” were operating but now a see a listing  of 23 Christian Cyberchurhes and numerous links to cyber Buddhism, Digital Islam and TechnoPaganism.

The key message from Brian was both the opportunity and the need to develop a support and outreach network that nourishes and energizes those  who idenify as Unitrains (or lapsed Unitarians) or the much larger groupo of people who can’t stand dogmatic, creedal religion, but who already belive and ascribe to the 7 principles of Unitarian- Universalism  (even if they have newer heard of them)!!. Many people today are socially committed to justice, seek diverse forms of spiritual, intellectual and social stimulation and learning, but they are not now, and never will be ,”church people”.

Groups, Nets and Sets in Religion and in Education

The talk also resonated  with work that Jon Dron and I have been doing on the type of social organziations that we use in education, but now I see they are equally relevant to religious organizations. The first of our “taxonomy of the many” is the well known group. Groups have been the focus and major organizational model for both classrooms and local religious congregations. Groups excel at building trust,  creatng and sustaining strong links among members and creating the extensive support systems that have sustained human life from earliest tribal origions to modern families. Groups however can be marred by group think, exclusiveness, and manipulation by powerful and occasionally unscrupulous leaders including teachers or ministers. Groups are the organization that defines Westwood and most other religious organizations today.

The second aggregation that Jon and I wrote about is Networks. Networks connect indiviudals and groups with a mix of strong and week ties. They are typically very fluid and bursty as network members slip in and out of active participation. Leadership in nets is mch more distributed than in groups, and thus a diversity of idea and background much easier to support. Networks arise at denominational level in Christian Churches and the network itself is sustained by strong groups at congregational level. Social Capital Theorist, Ronald Burt wrote that “members of networks are at higher risk of having good ideas” – a goal for both education and any thinking religion!

The final aggregation is Sets, in which indiviudals or larger groupings or even objects are sorted and selected by nature of belonging to a defining set. One doesn’t join a set, rather, a set is calculated based upon the behaviour of otherwise unconnected individuals. Sets allow us to discover and utilize the ways in which we are like (and unlike) members of other sets. For example, one can use the net to find the set of Youtube videos, or facebook posts that have been “liked” the most times in the last week, or find the set of people who recently purchased a partciular book on Amazon. From this set we can find links to other sets or make inferences such as  determining what other books they also purchased or are likely to purchase. We are just beginning to develop aggregation and analytic tools to exploite sets for edcuational and religious use, but marketers are becoming very good at using set techniques for advertising, solicitation and recruitment purposes.

So to conclude, as I had predicted over a decade ago, the Net is becoming a dominent influence on religious institutions, as it has on education, commercial and government organizations.  Our challenges for religious organizations, as other institutions, is to learn how to best exploite the affordances of these very powerful tools, while not isolating or turning off either those who “get it” or those who wish it would “get lost”.