May 5, 2008

New Churches As Social Networks

Minnesota pastor, author, and blogger Doug Pagitt recently said,

I think that Christianity is fundamentally a people movement that we should understand in social networking theory, not a belief system that we distribute through institutional applications and franchising models.

It's an interesting idea--that Christianity should be understood as connected people, not as distributed beliefs. That who we are as a church is based around who we are as a group of people and how we connect to one another, and not focused primarily on the common beliefs we hold.

But wait, I hear the concerned masses cry out: people have to agree on a set of beliefs to be a Christian church. Make the set as small as you like, they demand, but you can't entirely remove "belief system" from what it means to understand Christianity. I think that's true.

But no social network can exist without some degree of commonality among its members. The Pomeranian Lovers' Facebook Group doesn't require proof that its members love Pomeranians. But what Pomeranian hater would want to join such a group? And what harm would it do to the goals, mission, thrust, and objectives of the group if he or she did?

These kind of questions are really about belief management styles, or so I'll call them. Social networks have a passive belief gate, letting in anyone who wishes to join, but trusting that a) people who don't share the beliefs and vision of the group will be unmotivated to join and b) that if people who don't share those beliefs do join, no harm is done. Group members will understand, for instance, that a Pomeranian Lovers' group will have events geared toward their love of Pomeranians, etc.

In contrast, traditional evangelical churches usually use an active/aggressive belief gate, allowing visiting members to observe the service for a time with no belief obligation before urging them to make a commitment (become a member), involving a signed agreement to the church's beliefs. And liberal churches often use no belief gate at all, unless the beliefs are more social justice oriented.

For years the churches on the right have aggressively pursued this sort of orthodoxy in their congregations, while churches on the left have adopted inclusivity-at-any-cost, to the point of pretending there are no beliefs that hold their group together.

What many of us are beginning to realize is that the people who don't want to be shoved into a box of pre-packaged beliefs are equally disinterested in joining a beliefless club.

Even senseless social networks (like Facebook's "10,000,000 People Challenge" whose sole purpose is to get ten million people to join) are drawing from people's desire to be part of something bigger than themselves while working toward a common goal, no matter how trivial.

The challenge for the new, dare I say emerging church is to understand how to become a network that clearly displays its common beliefs without making them a requirement for membership. There are folks who are doing this, and doing it well from what I can tell, and my inbred inclination is to contact those people and ask them for a bottle of their strategy to use in my own franchise of their successful church model.

But that's exactly how it doesn't work. This kind of network springs up from its surrounding environment. The more you talk to other people, the more inspired you become, in theory, to see how their general ideas (or sometimes their opposites) will play out in your own neighborhood context.

That's why the franchise model is less effective for this kind of understanding of church. The aggressive belief gate is meant to be portable, allowing churches to send out church plant franchises without too much worry that they'll misrepresent the beliefs of the larger church. But when you slide a shiny membership application in front of many new church-goers, they look at many of the questions and scratch their heads.

"Well, I'm sure I don't agree on everything about God with everyone who goes here. But I'm here because I want to continue to explore all those things with you all. Is that enough?"

Part of being a people's church is knowing how we'll answer that question.

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