The digital cathedral: Shifting institutions to networks

Posted Apr 01, 2014 | New Media Project

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By Keith Anderson, guest blogger


This is the last in a five-part series on Keith's forthcoming book, The Digital Cathedral.

Keith AndersonLast month the Pew Research Center released a report called Millennials in adulthood: Detached from institutions, networked with friends, which contains important insights for ministry leadership in the digital age.

The report addresses two major interconnected trends that have dramatically affected the church over the last 25 years: the so-called rise of the Nones and the increased use of the Internet and digital social networks—both of which have profound implications for ministry leadership and life in the digital cathedral.

The first trend is the increasing number of Nones, that is, the religiously unaffiliated—people who check “none” on surveys when asked their religious or denominational identity. Fully 20 percent of Americans are religiously unaffiliated, and Millennials (those between 18 and 33 years old) come in at 29 percent, compared to 21 percent for Gen-X, 16 percent for Boomers, and nine percent for Silents.1

This trend has become familiar to ministry leaders and has been the cause of much handwringing in the church. However, the report states that this is only part of a broader move by Millennials (as well as older generations) to detach from traditional institutions more generally. Though they tend to be more progressive in their politics, Millennials are also more likely to be political independents—50 percent, compared to 39 percent for Gen-X, 37 percent for Boomers, and 32 percent for Silents. They also engage in the cultural institution of marriage at a lesser rate than predecessor generations, with just 26 percent married between ages 18 and 32, far less than Gen-X at 36 percent, Boomers at 48 percent, and Silents at 65 percent, at the same age.

The authors conclude, “Adults of all ages have become less attached to political and religious institutions in the past decade, but Millennials are at the leading edge of this social phenomenon."

At the same time, the report finds that Millennials are more digitally networked than previous generations, having far more Facebook friends and being vastly more likely to take a selfie. They have “taken the lead in seizing on the new platforms of the digital era—the internet, mobile technology, social media—to construct personalized networks of friends, colleagues and affinity groups.”

Trading institutions for networks

This shift in the way we organize our common life—gravitating toward networks rather than traditional institutions—is the subject of the new book from Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman called Networked: The New Social Operating System.

They write that we “have become increasingly networked as individuals, rather than embedded in groups. In the world of networked individuals, it is the person who is the focus: not the family, not the work unit, not the neighborhood, and not the social group.” This is “the new social operating system we call ‘networked individualism’ in contrast to the longstanding operating system formed around large hierarchical bureaucracies and small, densely knit groups such as households, communities, and workgroups. … Our research supports the notion that small densely knit groups like families, villages, and small organizations have receded in recent generations. A different social order has emerged around social networks that are more diverse and less overlapping than those previous groups.”

As such, “Structured and bounded voluntary organizations are becoming supplanted by more ad hoc, open, and informal networks of civic involvement and religious practice.”

Based on this research, it can be argued that the combination of the Internet, mobile devices, and digital social networks have formed a new emerging infrastructure for relationships and community that previously only localized groups and organizations, like churches, could provide. Before, if you wanted to talk about faith, you went to a church building. If you wanted to discuss, say, environmental issues, you found a local group in your community, if one existed. Now, with Internet, mobile devices, and social media, people can connect to others directly, regardless of location, and build their own networks. People are no longer reliant on hierarchical institutions to supply either the physical location or the organizational structure to enable relationships, community, coordinated social action, or even religious practice to happen.

Networked ministry leadership

This is not to say that local faith communities are a thing of the past. They’re not. However, the way they have been organized historically, their role in culture, and the traditional role of their ministry leaders may very well be.

Given these shifts, today’s ministry leaders must be networked leaders. They cannot assume that institutional religion will exert the same gravitational pull in their neighborhood as it once did. Therefore, they must be present in other local and digital gathering spaces, cultivating relationships, and creating opportunities for people to connect.

They must go about their daily face-to-face work in much the same way they (hopefully) are present on Facebook: connected to varied, multiple, and ever widening networks of friends, followers, and neighbors; reverently acknowledging what is shared; participating in the ongoing process of meaning making with others; and present at critical moments in people’s lives or the life of their community.

In today’s networked environment it is crucial that ministry leaders are social media savvy, not just for the sake of how they use these digital tools, but so that they can speak, act, lead, and care in ways that are culturally resonate, not just online but offline as well.

1 It is important to note that religious affiliation does not necessarily mean lack of belief in God. This report shows that 58 percent of Millennials are absolutely certain there is a God, 28 percent believe but are not certain, and 11 percent don’t believe at all.

The Rev. Keith Anderson is a pastor at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church in Ambler, PA. He is the author, with Elizabeth Drescher, of Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse 2012). His forthcoming book is called The Digital Cathedral. He blogs at pastorkeithanderson.net.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

2 Comments

  1. 1 Irma Kelly 29 Apr
    Thanks, Keith. I finally got to read these Digital Cathedral blog posts during a layover at the SFO Airport. I just kept saying "right on", "right on"!
  2. 2 Keith Anderson 29 Apr
    Thanks, Irma! Glad to have made your layover a little better. :)

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