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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Is Church 2.0 better or just more digital?

Dan Harper and Peter Bowden are engaged in some provocative thinking about "Church 2.0" — an ecclesiastical analogy to Web 2.0, the term used to describe the rise of user-generated, interactive, "community"-oriented Internet services like MySpace, YouTube, Flickr, and blogging. Dan and Peter have set up a wiki (another supergeeky Web 2.0 tool) to collect Church 2.0 ideas.

I'll confess: I really admire the ambition of what they're doing and will look forward to seeing how experiments along these lines play out, but I can't help but think that the church is almost by nature an analog instrument rather than a digital one. Sure, I listen to sermons and religious music on the stereo or on my iPod, but almost everything I value about the church takes place in real time, in a real place, face-to-face, with next to no digital additions. When it comes right down to it, I see the church as an embodied social reality, and I see other kinds of interaction as supplemental — even highly desirable — but not central. (I am apparently thinking incarnational thoughts during Advent.) A newsletter is great, so is a website, so is a radio program, so is a TV show, so is a podcast — but these are incidental or tactical; they're aren't essential.

I do think there is an enormous opportunity for religious liberals to see online communication and interaction as an important part of our broader religious mandate, but I'm also not sure that congregations are the obvious sources or channels for this kind of communication. Very few churches can provide high-quality experiences in a wide range of media. Each medium requires specialized expertise and attention, and perhaps only a dozen UUA congregations have the infrastructure to take on very many of the ideas Dan has already proposed. I also realize that Dan is not really thinking about technology in every case, but is finding analogies for new ways of organizing people. It may simply be that I'm resisting the technocentric allure of his metaphor.

Parachurch groups, however, could form to support online communities in a way that wouldn't compete with the local church and wouldn't demand a concentration of technical talent and energy in each local church. I've been intrigued for many years by the mid-century success of the Unitarian Laymen's League at promoting Unitarian growth through newspaper advertising and regional events. They're famous for the ads that asked, "Are you a Unitarian without knowing it?" The Laymen's League wasn't congregational and it wasn't denominational; it also didn't survive past the formation of the UUA in the mid-1960s. I'd love to know how they cultivated participants in their work and coordinated their efforts. Something similar could be done to develop "Church 2.0" resources not for local congregations so much as for the broader community of Unitarian Universalists.

Some of these resources might prove extremely useful to local congregations, but in the end I think almost every church will continue to be a real-time, real-space community of people who don't need a computer to interact with each other, to hear the good news, or to touch life's depths and find new strength.

P.S. If the funding existed for developing some Web 2.0 tools at a certain magazine I know, I'd be implementing them now. And if some independent enterprise were trying to develop non-geeky, sophisticated, but easy-to-use communication tools for UUs, you can bet that I'd be eager to see them succeed. But I hate PowerPoint in church. That's a line I won't cross!

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 14 December 2006 at 10:19 PM

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Chris T.:

December 14, 2006 10:43 PM | Permalink for this comment

I agree 100% that the important stuff itself is analog — PowerPoint sermons are just an abomination. I suppose that's not surprising — I say Mass wearing a fiddleback chasuble. ;-)

But I do think new tools and technologies can help develop bigger and better stuff for those analog experiences. The missal I've been editing has come together very quickly because I've been able to draw on a ton of resources without heading down to the library, and I can have people critique an entire draft in detail in about a day by posting it online.

Likewise, after sharing a draft of the Office orders in that missal, I mentioned to a friend that there was no way I could survive editing a whole Independent Catholic breviary. He replied, "There's no need. If people want it, they'll use what you've started and put it together online." A ton of stuff in the independent sacramental movement is taking shape that way.

It also helps with fellowship among clergy — a lot of times, you're the only Independent Catholic priest for miles around. The local parish has to be local, but it's nice to fellowship with other clergy, even online. I suspect the same might be true of UUs in some areas.


December 15, 2006 12:40 AM | Permalink for this comment

As with most technology I think the important question will be "what is it that we have always wanted to do and couldn't until now?" as opposed to asking the question in the form of "gee what can we do with these cool new tools (Blogs, Wiki, etc.)?". Perhaps the difference is subtle, but I think it is a critical distinction to make.

I don't see any technology replacing my church going experience. However, I know that UUs have a far greater collective wisdom than I currently have access to. So there is definitely needs that can be addressed.

Dan Harper:

December 15, 2006 12:52 AM | Permalink for this comment

Hiya, Chris -- You write:

"When it comes right down to it, I see the church as an embodied social reality, and I see other kinds of interaction as supplemental even highly desirable but not central."

My sentiments exactly.

However, I spent a year working at Church of the Larger Fellowship, an internet- and snail-mail-based church, and I learned then how important internet and mail ministries can be to isolated religious liberals, including military personnel, incarcerated persons, and expatriates in the foreign service. (And really, none of this is particularly new, it's just an update of the Post Office Missions of 80 years ago.)

I am also increasingly aware that the Web can offer exciting possibilities for increasing accessibility of liberal churches, e.g. to shut-ins, and e.g. to blind and deaf persons.

In another direction, Web-based tools have the potential for increasing the transparency of congregational governance. Right now, I'm setting up a shared blog for Board members here in our congregation to facilitate open communication within the Board and to the rest of the congregation. Etc.

But none of this will work without paying close attention to face-to-face church. Web-based outreach has to be coupled with face-to-face contact -- e.g., it's not enough to broadcast worship services via streamed audio to shut-ins, you also have to visit them in person.

Chris T. -- I agree with you on PowerPoint sermons, which are just Church 1.0 on steroids, not Church 2.0. PowerPoint presentations are not open-source, not user-generated or user-modifiable, and besides they're Microsoft (yuck).

Your missal project is what I'd call Church 2.0 -- user-generated content, the increased laicization of religion, etc. etc. How very cool! Can you give a URI?


December 15, 2006 03:58 AM | Permalink for this comment

This is a long-term visionary project that makes a lot of sense for some people in some geographical areas but is totally impractical for people with limited access or for those who have been "left behind" by the digital divide. In Cuba 20 people have to share one computer and a telephone line that is interrupted every 5 minutes. They are not even in Web 0.5, so to speak. What kind of religion are we making for the world?

Chris T.:

December 15, 2006 10:16 AM | Permalink for this comment

Dan -- It's not quite ready for prime-time, but the latest draft is usually available at:

I would say that the project (or one part of it) of the independent sacramental movement is not quite the laicization of religion, but rather a proliferation of the priesthood. We have a lot of clergy, and barriers to ordination are not quite as arbitrary as they are in some mainstream churches.

Some folks (my bishop included, myself less so) are becoming interested in the idea of a free priesthood exercised largely in the world, the idea being that the Protestant idea of being one's own priest got it wrong. Instead, we are called to mediate God's presence for one another, being priests for each other. Taken to its logical extreme, it would lead to the abolition of the laity ala the Quakers, rather than the laicization of religion.

Peter Bowden:

December 15, 2006 11:03 AM | Permalink for this comment

Wow, I didn't know we were going public yet. Welcome to the brainstorm.

To me, the tech stuff is all secondary. I'm focused on how to create an effective relational church that does a better job doing whatever it is we are trying to do.

Go read CREATING COMMUNITY by Andy Stanley for more on what it means to be a relational churches. UU MINISTERS - you need to read this one.

Whatever our UU congregations collectively are right now, that's UU church 1.0. Dan and I are starting to explore what a 2.0 would be. Don't get stuck on the techie stuff.

Call it what you want. WE WANT YOUR BRAINS. What's next???

Scott Wells:

December 15, 2006 11:08 AM | Permalink for this comment

Well, one could use Impress for an open source alternative to PowerPoint, and the resulting files could be shared to be changed, in the spirit of the GNU Public License and other open source licenses.

If one must.

Steve Caldwell:

December 15, 2006 11:13 AM | Permalink for this comment

Dan Harper wrote
"I agree with you on PowerPoint sermons, which are just Church 1.0 on steroids, not Church 2.0. PowerPoint presentations are not open-source, not user-generated or user-modifiable, and besides they're Microsoft (yuck)."

I suppose one could create them with OpenOffice, which would make them open-source and non-Microsoft.

On a slightly more serious note, I've been invited to participate in a worship service on the Welcoming Congregation program at a nearby lay-led UU fellowship in East Texas.

Representatives from another East Texas lay-led fellowship are going to talk about their congregation's success story with the Welcoming Congregation program. I will be talking about my congregation's failures with the program. One thing I'm going to do is have the following anti-oppression continuum on the wall:

- Active Participation
- Denying or Ignoring
- Recognizing (But No Action)
- Recognizing and Interrupting
- Educating Self
- Educating Others
- Supporting and Encouraging
- Initiating and Preventing

When the Welcoming Congregation program ran into difficulties and tempers started flaring, our board created a task force to interview members and find out what they thought about the Welcoming Congregation program.

I've taken some of these quotes from this report and put them on paper using a large font size.

During the worship service, I'm going to ask for volunteers to place the quotes on the anti-oppression continuum where the individual volunteer thinks it best fits. And then we'll talk about it. This idea isn't original with me -- I'm borrowing it from the YRUU Leadership Development Conference workshop.

All the paper products (labels for anti-oppression continuum, opinions from my congregation's members on Welcoming Congregation, etc) were all done as a PowerPoint files (using OpenOffice at home and PowerPoint at work).

So ... I suppose it's possible to use PowerPoint in a semi-interactive manner in a worship service.

PS -- The advisory commission report that is providing some source materials for our worship can be found on my congregation's web site as a PDF file:

andrew jones:

December 15, 2006 03:17 PM | Permalink for this comment

hard to keep up with it all but a wiki is a good idea. thanks for the info.

David Smith:

December 19, 2006 11:59 PM | Permalink for this comment

Web 2.0 is about empowering individuals to generate and control their own content.

I took a stroll through the wiki, and didn't see that idea. The most developed section was new ways to distribute minister-produced content. So maybe I missed it, or maybe I don't get it, or maybe I just have a different vision.

Church 2.0 should be things like each congregation provides each member with a blog account, teaches them how to use it, and then actively organizes a monthly carnival about meaningful questions.

Church 2.0 should be about supplementing General Assembly with online webinars and online training throughout the year.

Barnes and Noble has a "University" section where book authors and subject matter experts lead an online discussion and study group. Why can't the UUA offer such a platform?

Church 2.0 should be about yet-another-social-networking-system, with each local congregation acting as the membership gatekeeper.

Just my thoughts, fwiw.


December 20, 2006 09:43 AM | Permalink for this comment

David, I like what you're proposing in interactive communities -- but I'm not convinced that more than a handful of congregations could support a congregation-specific "church 2.0" site. That's why I've suggested that a parachurch organization could form to provide this kind of service -- whether it's the UUA or some other, more nimble and entrepreneurial enterprise.

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