Teaching and Learning in a Net-Centric World

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”.


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  1. Brian Kiely Brian Kiely
    March 11, 2012    

    Hey Terry,

    Thanks for the props and for your furthering of the conversation by linking it to your work at the university. Very cool stuff.

    I just want to correct one misimpression I may have given you. You wrote, “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 opportunities. ”

    The Peter Morales document says nothing about the state of large churches. It was I who quoted other sources noting that the mega churches are hurting, but then organized religion is currently losing membership at aver size of congregation. Still, I would be wary of concluding that the day of the large church is over…that old pendulum does have a tendency to swing back.

    In a similar vein, I don’t think either of us suggested that Boomers and Millenials are “demanding” anything. At this stage it’s about the denomination learning to reach out to a changing audience. No one is demanding to get into our church, and if we don’t meet the online needs of people who feel comfortable in that milieu, they won’t ever start. It’s a matter of changing the church to meet the times so that we can be attractive to younger seekers. The only people making such demands right now are Unitarian leaders who don’t want to see us get left behind.

    Thanks again for leading the service and for commenting on the sermon.

  2. March 11, 2012    

    Thank you for sharing this Terry – I think this clearly shows that our lives are not islands nor disparate pieces of ourselves as we move from one world to the next. We are one in all that we are. It is wonderful to see this in action.

  3. March 14, 2012    


    Thanks for bringing together the two topics that I am most interested in-edtech and UUs. I belong to a UU church in Frederick,Maryland and my favorite group is AHA (Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics).

    I am just beginning to learn more about Humanism and that has been made possible through “edtech.” I am taking an online course through the Center for Inquiry. The participants are from all over the world, just like the education webinars I often attend.

    Our congregation uses the Internet for administrative purposes, but I’m going to share your post with them. Perhaps we can use the Internet to connect with others who “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”.”

    Thanks for getting me thinking!

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