Is The Internet Good For Religion?

I got this question a few days ago via Twitter from a Colorado colleague who was following the Minns Lectures this weekend in Boston: Is the internet good for religion?

I think the internet is really good for liberal religion.

Liberal religion is about interpreting, evolving, being open to the cross-pollination of ideas and theologies. Liberal religion has inquiry at its heart and delights in challenge (or should!).  I think the internet has been great for that. I don’t know if it has been as good for orthodoxy, which is dedicated to tradition, hierarchy and authoritative interpretations. I see orthodox traditionalists having a really hard time online because the internet just becomes a place for orthodox or conservative fundamentalists to gather to express anger and frustration against the incursion of new and challenging ideas. That’s not very fun or interesting. The internet is essentially a creative space for the free and ephemeral exchange of ideas, feelings and questions. Orthodox religion doesn’t thrive in that atmosphere. I think it’s fantastic that liberal and progressive religion, which is experiencing such a precipitous decline in the form of mainline Protestant churches, is finding expression on-line. This is a blessing and a curse. The question I am constantly asked is, “Vicki, how do we get those people who find you/us online and love what we have to say into our churches to participate in real time?”

But to me, that isn’t the question. The question is, “How can we transform our congregational culture so that it better reflects the things that make digital ministry so appealing and so effective?” Because what do people find in on-line liberal religious community? They find authenticity. They find irreverent humor. They find links to articles, ideas, pop culture, high culture, politics, international trends, technology, business that connect to religious and moral values in a way that church doesn’t do and doesn’t think necessary to attempt.

I met with a United Church of Christ minister of a large church five or six years ago and we talked about the Unitarian Universalist parish ministry versus the UCC parish ministry. This minister said to me in a kind of condescending way something like, “We preach from the Bible, we have a sacred story.” And I didn’t say anything at the time but I was thinking, “First of all, that you think I don’t know that is insulting and ignorant. Beyond that, good luck with the Bible being your only sacred story.” I realized in that moment how grateful I am to not be limited to one sacred narrative in the ministry of worship and preaching.  I don’t mean to sound bitter. I guess I am still a little bitter at her condescension and ignorance. I love the Bible and my heart is in it. But I think God’s story of the sanctity of creation is told in many scriptures. I feel that we are in an urgent time. If people are repelled by the Bible (and for good reason — it has been used as a weapon against many of them), we have to help people read the scripture in other places. I would love it if the whole world had a common holy text and language but we don’t. The minister’s job in this era is not just to instruct in scriptural literacy but to read the whole world as a sacred text.

I am essentially a mystic. I see God in everything. I experience God in comfort and discomfort, life and death. I am constantly listening for the word of God in everything, because my foundational faith is simply that this all has meaning. God is in the baked beans. God is in the blizzard-broken trees. God is in the moment with the homeless guy on the street and God’s wrath is a sting on my conscience when I’m crappy to someone online and have to go back and fix it. I am in conversation right now with a total stranger who wrote me a bit of nasty hate mail calling me disgusting for something I had written. I came back at him with what I thought was kindness and a compassionate suggestion, and then he attacked me again. So I was like, “Fine, the hell with this dude.” And I was mean and snarky back. And then he was mean to me again (of course!). And then — and this was like the fourth or fifth exchange — I said, “Look, we can do this. We can talk about this in a productive way. Just tell me what you need. I really want to know.” And then he started relaxing. And then I started relaxing. By the ninth or tenth exchange, we were thanking each other for staying with the conversation because it was such a serious and important one to both of us. I feel the movement of the holy spirit in that. That man and I are no longer strangers.

When I check in with my on-line community throughout the day I’m not saying, “Let’s open our Bibles and turn to chapter this and verse this and look for what God is saying about justice.” I’m saying, “Let’s look at Syria, let’s look at the Oscars telecast last night, let’s look at India, let’s look at southeast Asia and Congo and see what God is saying about misogyny, about rape culture, about the bodies of women on this planet right now.” The sacred story, the prophetic call, is right there. A click. A bit of information. A sense of revulsion, moral outrage. A call to pray, reflect, discuss. This is, in my experience, the way digital ministry does Scripture study, you know what I mean? The Scripture is in life unfolding in that moment. And yes, I tie the story of right now to ancient stories and to biblical scripture. My theological education makes it easy for me to do that. Even in my comedic writing on Beauty Tips for Ministers blog I include a lot of theological reflection. Because even though I’m having fun and trying to make BTFM a space where ministers can come in the door, put down their heavy bag of responsibility for a moment and dish about lipgloss or what kind of suit to wear to a wedding, it’s still serious religious work.

I don’t know how, or if, the goal of digital ministry is to get people into our brick-and-mortar churches or houses of worship. Someone asked me that during an interview again just the other night. I think about it a lot. What I wonder is how churches can be worthy of the kind of openness, trust and enthusiasm people bring to online conversation and participation. Of course I understand that typing some comments onto a Facebook page isn’t high commitment, but it’s too easy to stop there and say, “Well, the church is a deeper and more important place than FACEBOOK because FACEBOOK ISN’T REAL.” That’s just too easy! It’s not productive to stop there! I have to ask, “What is it about online liberal religious community that creates such warm feeling and the kind of long loyalties that I have experienced as PeaceBang?”

There are people across town who think I’m a fine speaker and good person who wouldn’t drive ten minutes to be part of the congregation I serve.  They think we’re lovely people and friendly and our building is beautiful and the music is great and we have a terrific Sunday School and all those good things. They’re busy, they’re maybe just not interested in joining a church and they don’t want to experience that pressure of “joining.” Okay, I get that. I’m sorry because I’m a church joiner and it has meant the world to me to practice faith in the context of a covenanted church community. I don’t think there’s any substitution for that same time, same space, in-and-out-of-the-seasons together way of life.  But that’s me, and I can’t force anyone else to get involved in church life and stick with it. Then I think of that person who drives several hours to attend a conference where PeaceBang is a speaker. Or they even fly there. They sit in the chairs and then they come up and introduce themselves to me and tell me who they are and we fall into each other’s arms, really, we do! Because we have shared our lives on-line for years, maybe, and you had better believe that I KNOW them. They KNOW me. We are really, real friends in spirit before we ever meet in the flesh. I look into their eyes and we just stare at each other with goofy smiles like long-lost lovers sometimes. What’s going on with that? What is God doing with THAT? Something important, and real and instructive. I’m not sure yet what we’re to learn from it, but I’m starting to figure it out.

It is something about intimacy. I think people are terrified of intimacy in religious community because it comes with enormous risks. And so American church culture (and we’re the only nation in the world that has this kind of church culture where your religious community is hoping to be your social community and friend community and therapeutic community and spiritual teaching community and golfing community … it’s too much! Too many expectations! Too many personae to live out in one place!) is a place where people really hesitate, with damned good reason, to bring their tenderest and most vulnerable selves. We reveal it in moments and maybe for a season. Small group ministries facilitate it, I think. But there’s a lot of good reason to not want to gather congregations of people who are perpetually that open and vulnerable: we have institutions to run! Committees and programs to organize and lead! Service to do! Leadership obligations to take care of! Money to raise! Right? I am for this, it’s a beautiful and essential part of congregational tradition. But it makes intimacy difficult and again, very high risk.

When we check-in online, however, there is no politicking for a leadership role. There is no money to be raised. There are no minutes to take or follow-up items to mark in our calendars. We are really free to say what’s on our mind in the moment, to share something very deep that’s apropos of nothing, and to be as lyrical and obtuse as we choose to be. There’s no obligation that our communication be productive or contribute to the leadership goals of the church or anything.  I used to think that the internet was the parking lot after the meeting. I mostly used it that way, and still do sometimes, as the parking lot-after-the-meeting place to talk about Unitarian Universalist issues and initiatives. But now I’m more interested in the internet as a place for liberal religious presence that’s simply about presence. Like, “here’s how a liberal religious person sees the world, right now.” Or “Here’s how a deeply religious woman really thinks … and it’s not what you think.”

And this brings me to my final point about how the internet is very good for liberal religion, and that has to do with image and persona, two of my passions.

For a very long time, “religious person” evoked an image in people’s imagination, and it looked nothing like you or me. Close your eyes and think, “religious person” or “woman of deep faith.” What image springs to mind? I can almost guarantee it’s not me. It’s probably not you.

This is what a Bible-reading, praying, God-fearing religious leader looks like today. She has a raucous sense of humor. She watches “RuPaul’s Drag Race” every week without fail and uses a lot of drag queen references in her daily life and speech. She is a feminist and g/l/b/t advocate and ally.  She has a shoe habit. She wants to try the new tapas restaurant in town and to flirt with the cute gay waiter. It’s 2013 and the internet has helped me help clergy bust out of the pious milquetoast image that so many Americans are clinging to for dear life.

By extension, I have wanted to do that kind of image work for all religious people, which I define as someone who takes matters of religious life, belief and religious communities seriously and devotes themselves to their flourishing. This includes atheists who take the claims of religion seriously enough to engage with them on a critical level (I don’t have the time of day for obnoxious, thoughtless atheists any more than I have the time of day for obnoxious, thoughtless believers), and it includes the “Nones” who flock to the internet for spiritual community but who have yet to find (or in some cases, even look for) a real-life community that has the kind of integrity and awesomeness that they seek.I have wanted to use the internet as a way to communicate my own authentic spirit out into the world beyond the local congregation and to invite others to do the same. To say, “GOD, are you so OVER the limited, limiting, inauthentic, unfunny, uncreative, spirit-stomping conformist image the world has of religious people? I am! Are you SO sick of the assumptions people make when you share with them that you are committed to religious ideas and practices? I AM! So right here, Imma be myself and you do that, too. And along the way, we’ll offend a few people but we’ll make space for many, many, many more who aren’t offended but liberated, uplifted and included.”

So that’s what I’ve been doing. Someone said to me recently, “God is more real to me than anything else in the world, and I’m not really allowed to say that anywhere else in my life and be taken seriously.”  And I remember when someone else said to me, “I really question whether or not anything my church teaches is true. I think most of it is bullsh**, but I really like the people and don’t want to hurt them. I suspect that a lot of them feel the same way I do, but I don’t feel like I can say what I’m thinking there.”

You can say it here, babies. That’s what we’re here for.


Roger, my dear friend and colleague, thank you so much for including me in this question.  It was a great one.


16 Replies to “Is The Internet Good For Religion?”

  1. Love you Vic. All the way back when we went to see Rufus Wainwright in Baltimore, when he was terribly drunk. And always, of course! Great response to a good question. Love your writing too. Roger

  2. Three points in response to this fine essay:

    1. “Beloved community” is a beautiful, powerful, and NECESSARY thing–no matter what iteration it takes.

    2. My unvoiced message to the narrow-minded haters of whatever stripe: “My God is smarter than your god.” (It’s how I define Universalism.)

    3. People like you, dear PB, need to be even more vocal!

  3. I’ve never been drunk with you, Victoria. But I love you, too.

    Good rant and great reflection…

    Thanks! [You’re welcome! And geez, Roger and I weren’t the drunk ones, it was Rufus Wainwright who was drunk! 🙂 – PB]

  4. Perhaps the best thing I’ve read online or off in I-don’t-know-how-long! One member of my congregation who can’t often make it to church because of illness always says she’s grateful for my “Facebook ministry.” I never intended my rantings, quotes, silly cat memes, or occasionally lucid spiritual comments to be a ministry. But that’s apparently what it’s become. Thanks for helping me feel good about it!
    Peace and Light,

  5. I am keeping this post. It is so hopeful. I have heard and participated in so much “ain’t it awful” lately.

  6. I’m going to be preaching a sermon at a Unitarian Universalist congregation a week from tomorrow entitled “Why Religion Will Survive the Internet”. (It rebuts something that was on AlterNet two months ago.) Your comments couldn’t have come at a better time. I think you hit the nail on the head. (Now back to the Facebook feed where I found this …)

  7. I have been drunk with you, both on-line and off-line.

    Excellent essay —

    The great thing about the InterNetWork is that makes clear this whole concept of a human network. A congregation is a just a social network that meets in a building under certain conditions for certain purposes. It is part of a much larger social network of friendships, acquaintances, colleagues which is largely not visible to the naked eye. Something about the internet, specifically social media like Facebook, makes this nebulous thing concrete. Maybe it is Facebook, where I can actually see my circle of friends, and then their circle of friends, and then beyond; it’s actually charted.
    Humanity is really one big network — we have never been able to see that with any concreteness before. Congregations were ways that our forebears tried to bring that network into being, building blocks, so to speak. Isn’t clear now that they function as much as ways of dividing as much ways of joining together?

  8. I read this post during a break in the “History and Identity Workshop” our interim minister organized today. I got to the paragraph on intimacy and BOOM. For me, it struck me that this is what we try to do as congregations is so tough. The is why the most caring, intelligent, thoughtful leaders in our midst say “I’m done!” and mean it. This is why we get “welcome” and “will you join a committee?” so unfortunately intertwined. Thank you for putting this out there to consider and integrate.

  9. Great points, PB, I’m with you all the way!

    Another thing I like about online stuff is that you can be anonymous and share as much or little as you like, dip in and out, pop here and there, belong to groups that would normally be opposed to one another etc. It’s a lot freer and more flexible than offline stuff.

  10. Amen! Alleuluia! I continue to reflect on what it is about online community that does/doesn’t carry over into face-to-face religious community. You’ve shined a light on that.

    Here’s someone whom you’ve yet to meet who’ll be asking for a hug when we finally meet. Right on, sister!! [Yay! – PB]

  11. I do a lot of pondering and professional work about the internet, social media, community building for social goals (recently performed an evaluation on a global network of natural resource management professionals funded by our tax dollars). For my church, I get asked and ask myself “how do we turn online ministry into people in pews”. And i think we are asking the wrong question. Instead as you point out, how do we build intimacy and community, wherever it can grow and thrive? one question to bring up, as you do implicitly, is what is the purpose of a religious community? And the next question is, what are the multiple methods we have available to achieve that purpose.

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