Facebook and the demise of denominational labels

Posted Jul 03, 2012 | New Media Project

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By Laura Everett, guest blogger


This is the third in a series of three blog posts by this author about social media and Christian unity.

Isaac Everett (no relation) has a solid Protestant pedigree: confirmed in a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation, Master of Divinity at Union Theological Seminary, Minister of Liturgical Arts at an emerging Episcopal parish, The Crossing in Boston. But on his Facebook page, Isaac does not identify himself as Presbyterian or Episcopalian or even generically Christian. A few months ago, he asked:

On my Facebook profile, my religion has been listed as "Jesus hippie" for a couple of years now. I think it's starting to wear out (I'm much less of a hippie than I used to be), but I'm not sure what to replace it with.

So I'm having a contest: if you were to fill the "religious views" field on my profile, what would you write? How would you describe my religious identity?

Suggestions came quickly. A 31-year old established Christian minister crowd-sources his public religious label. It is hard to imagine this public conversation about mutable religious identity even a generation earlier.

What is going on here?

Certainly, the nature of denominational affiliation is changing and “cradle-to-grave” parishioners in any single tradition are less common. The Pew Forum has found that 44% of Americans profess a religious tradition other than the one in which they were raised. Facebook is simply reflecting this change.

At another level, Facebook is facilitating the demise of discreet denominational labels. Facebook allowed users to define their own “Religious Views.” You may write your own, as Isaac ultimately did by choosing “prays well with others.”

In an excellent Washington Post article on how users approached this personal detail with anxiety and complexity, William Wan found that Facebook’s 2006 introduction of the “Religious Views” box was designed for personalization rather than choosing from a list of pre-determined denominational labels. The “Religious Views” personalization was so popular that Facebook ultimately ended “Political Views” list of labels and allowed write-ins as well.

A scan of my peers on Facebook turns up more personalization; I invite you to do the same. Many of my clergy friends are not using their singular denominational labels instead preferring labels like: “Christian Unitarian Universalist Witchy Trancescendentalist Jungian” (a UUA pastor), “Open Minded Evangelical Protestant Christian” (an Evangelical Covenant Church pastor), "Critical Thinking Faith, with a dose of common sense realism” (a dually ordained American and National Baptist minister), “Cake or Death?” (an Episcopal priest), and my favorite “Don't make me jump a pew” (a United Methodist pastor).

It’s hard to know how wide-spread this religious personalization is on Facebook; when asked by Wan in 2009, company officials declined to provide details. Perhaps more relevant information would be to know how thoroughly a self-chosen Facebook label reflects a user’s religious identity. Certainly, some of those clergy are aiming for humor, nuance, or signaling something to a community they minister with, like other young adults.

Yet Facebook’s denominational personalization matters in Christ’s call for Christian unity. Most of the modern ecumenical movement is based on the premise that denominational identity is discreet and static. If a Presbyterian is at the table, she is able to represent her tradition, and, thus, Presbyterians can negotiate with Lutherans. Denominational identity is identifiable and consistent. But what if before she was Presbyterian, she was Baptist? And what if she carries some of those Baptist tendencies still? Or what if someone comes to the table with a polyphonic religious identity as one who “prays well with others?” If contemporary ecumenism wants to be relevant to and sustained by "A Facebook Generation of Clergy," we will have to adapt our ecumenical structures and presumptions beyond discreet denominational labels.

Ordained in the United Church of Christ and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, the Rev. Laura E. Everett serves as Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, a 110-year old ecumenical expression of 17 Protestant and Orthodox Christian traditions. Find more of her writing and preaching at http://RevEverett.com or follow her on Twitter at @RevEverett.

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.

8 Comments

  1. 1 Melissa Wiginton 31 Jan
    Great observations, Laura. I have heard myself tell people I'm not THAT kind of Christian. It's not just denominational labels that are insufficient and inadequate; we need a way to disembed the name Christian itself from a kind of ultra-socially and politically conservative, evangelical agenda that it has been code for in popular parlence over the past 25 years.
  2. 2 Father Bob+ 31 Jan
    Some people eat at Dennys; others prefer some other place to break bread and fill their bodies nutritionally. I believe denominations define the type and quality of bread being broken in gatherings of Jesus followers.

    I also think that the movement to dump denominational affiliation is an attempt to ditch one's corporate membership so as to deny participation in the human institutional life that is always falling short. To belong to an undefined group is like seeking to disappear one's personal history by simply changing one's name. "A rose by any other name is still a rose.." A therapist will ask a client to look at their past. IF we are unwilling to own our personal and corporate history to avoid having to answer questions about either, I think we are missing the point of that moment when Peter heard the cock crow and turned in tears to a new life, not divorced from his past, but connected to his Jewishness and his failures as a man and as a follower of Jesus.
  3. 3 Rev. WendyO 31 Jan
    I am totally going to change my identity. Progressive Christian doesn't cover it... thanks Laura.
  4. 4 Jay Blossom 31 Jan
    I'm an Episcopalian layman and a vestry member at my parish. My Facebook religion is: "Expecto resurrectionem mortuorum et vitam ventúri sæculi". I guess I'm part of the trend.
  5. 5 Meredith Gould 31 Jan
    For years I've characterized myself as having a Multiple Spirituality Disorder and that's what I've put on Facebook.
  6. 6 Robert Cornwall 31 Jan
    Maybe it's because I'm Disciple and ecumenism is part of our ethos, but I do put up my denominational identifier on my facebook profile. I don't see the identifier as an issue, it simply defines where I come from. I may be emergent, missional, evangelical, progressive, open-minded, engaged in interfaith work, but my home is Disciple. That's the starting place as I venture into the world and engage in conversation and work.
  7. 7 Anonymous 31 Jan
    This makes sense to me
  8. 8 Anonymous 31 Jan
    The whole conversation is Interesting. Important for leaders to discover/define/shed/reclaim...Especially if they are leading.
    At the same time, where are the lines between Self-Declaration and One's Spiritual evolution and stability for communities? I'm curious, for leaders, what are the tensions between being thoughtful members of some community with definitions and being "a provocative personality" where the community is built around the leader's definition of him/herself. Does that make sense? I guess I'm hinting at some of what scares me about how culture in this country is deafeningly about the individual's journey/evolution/right to pick and consume what each of us wants or wants to sell. Cynical?

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