The Social Media Gospel and new kinds of communities

The Social Media Gospel and new kinds of communities January 4, 2012

As a reader of the this blog, you are already attuned to social media.

You know what it means not only to communicate, but to converse.  You know what it means not only to tell but to invite. You know what it means not only to post but to share. But not everyone is, and that is ok. Some of us get into new ways of being even without knowing it is happening.

As the co-owner of Social Phonics – a company helping people learn the language of new media – I am struck at our one-day boot camps how often the impacts of the social web and social interactions on how we understand Gospel and the impact on the kinds of communities we want to create are missed by people even though they are excited about the use of the tools. We spend an entire day helping people determine the best way to use the tool of social media for their churches and organizations but really we are doing more – we are helping people see that new kinds of communities are possible.

If you are interested in a one of the Social Phonics Boot Camps, including one next week in New York City, you can find them here.

I am convinced that we can indeed create Social Communities, that is one of the reasons Tony Jones and I have set our sights on training people in the language of new media – because it can create new kinds of communities not just new ways of communicating.

In my book Community in the Inventive Age I make a suggestion that we can indeed have relational-set systems. Here is part of that conversation:

Every collection of people is organized around one of three systems: Bounded Set – Center Set – Relational Set systems.

Each of these sets is important and each serves a particular function. Every church falls into one of these systems, either by design or by default. These systems help organizations figure out everything from who makes decisions to how events take place to who can participate in the community. We’ll take a brief look at each system as a way of understanding what makes a place like Solomon’s Porch an Inventive Age church.

Bounded Set:  In a playground, the fence serves as the boundary. Children can play safely in the playground because the fence differentiates the safe area from the street. The prob- lem is that too often the fence becomes the point of focus. Those who study children’s behavior on playgroundsnote that when children are on playgrounds with a fence, they spend a significant amount of time hanging on the fence, sticking arms and legs through the fence, kicking balls over the fence. Any system that uses the bounded- set theory knows the work that goes into preserving the boundaries. Bounded-set organizations have definable rules: in and out, right and wrong, member and nonmember. These are very important organizational patterns. They provide safety, connectedness, familiarity. People in bounded sets know what’s expected of them. There are plenty of great reasons to hold to a bounded set. Certain organizations are based on the idea that there are rules for entrance and maintenance of membership. If everyone could be part of the group, the group wouldn’t have any identity. The rules can come in many forms—ethnicity, belief, finances, family connections, education, profession, adherence to a set of ideals or commitments. Fraternities, civic groups, sports teams—they are all bounded sets that depend on there being some separa- tion between those in the group and those outside of it. There are some who prefer their faith to be organized by bounded-set organizational theory. They want there to be a line of some sort—baptism, a confession of belief, a particular doctrinal position—that people have to cross in order to be part of the faith. Some churches prefer bounded-set theory because it helps define participation— only certain people can perform particular tasks. It helps everyone understand who does what.  These boundaries of doctrine and belief and practice became central to how Christians understood themselves and their communities.


Center Set:  While the bounded set works very well for some organizations, it isn’t the best fit for others. For some, boundaries feel like arbitrary restrictions that limit access to the faith. They are more comfortable with a system that does not require adherence to a collection of rules or edicts as a prerequisite for participation. Instead, they suggest there ought to be only a few key issues for the community to gather around. The center set shifts the focus from the things that keep people out to the things that bring people together. The center might be a topic, an issue, a belief, or a practice. If we go back to the playground analogy, the center set is the playground with all the equipment smack-dab in the middle of the park. The kids are so drawn to the center that there’s no need for a fence. The center keeps them where they need to be. The center-set way of thinking about faith and church participation has been freeing for many people. They don’t like the implications of the rule-based form of religion that goes with bounded-set faith. It feels exclusive and legalistic. So they are drawn to the idea that people can gather around a positive expression of faith rather than an “us and them” paradigm. The center-set approach is ideal for the Information Age. Many Information Age churches and organizations have built community around common statements, understandings, and beliefs. They hold the perspective that the closer they are to the core, the closer they are to one another. When information is king, then getting the words right is crucial. So many center-set churches will spend a great deal of time refining the words used in their worship services. The meaning of those words is not to open new possibilities but is meant to stay rock solid in order to limit the distance someone might drift. In this context, tools like a statement of faith are not the beginning of conversation. They are the punctuation. While those who hold to a center-set system would have a hard time recognizing it, the fact is that the center set really isn’t all that different from a bounded set. The only real difference is that there are fewer “essentials” in the center set. But if those essentials are called into ques- tion, the response is surprisingly similar to the responses of the bounded set.

I was talking with a friend of mine about this. He mentioned that he is no longer a bounded-set adherent when it comes to his views of Christianity. “I used to believe that people had to believe a long list of doctrines, stop doing certain practices, and start doing others before they could be part of the faith,” he said. “But I’ve left all that behind. Now I believe that there are only three things that are essential to the faith.” I responded with two questions: “How did you decide which three to keep?” and “Doesn’t it feel better to only have three and not the long list?” In answer to the first question, he just nodded with that assured look as if to say, “You know, the really important ones,” as though any reasonable person would know what those are.He responded to the second question by saying, “Oh, way better. It’s so much more true to the spirit of Jesus and his teachings!”  I smiled at him and said, “If you think going from a long list to three felt good, just wait until you go from three to zero!”And then he was silent. It was clear he had no interest in a faith that did not have a set of predetermined essentials. Or, to say it more accurately, he couldn’t conceive of a faith without mandates. When you have predetermined requirements for participating in a community, it makes little difference if you’ve got a wall’s worth or just a few to gather around. They serve the same function—to determine who is in and who is out.


Relational Set: If the bounded-set playground has a fence and the center-set playground has a premade play area, then the relational set is like a self-organized playgroup where each parent brings a bag of toys for all the kids to share.


The playground fence and the equipment exist whether anyone is there to use them or not. But the play-group doesn’t exist until the kids show up. Where bounded- and center-set organizations are fixed—the boundaries and the center rarely change—rela- tional sets are fluid because they change as the people in them change. Everyone in the relational-set organization has the power to shape the system simply by being in it. Most of us experience all kinds of relational-set organizations in our daily lives. In fact, the relational set is far more common than bounded or center sets. From the interaction of molecules, to the gravitational pull of the earth on the moon, we can see that living in dynamic interplay is the organizing principle of creation. The Internet is another obvious example of a relational-set system. There is no boundary to the Internet, nor is there a center. It is made up of interconnected hard drives, software, routers, switches, and gateways. The Internet gets its power from the people who create it.We also see it in our families. A family can rarely exist as a bounded-set organization. Sooner or later some- one falls in love and marries the outsider. Or a child has a personality that breaks all the rules. Or a long-lost relative is discovered and the bubble is broken. A center-set family is equally impossible. The “essentials” would change with each marriage, each generation, each child. Think of immigrant families. Even the expectation of a common language often only lasts one generation. Traditions change as new people enter the family or elders die or family members move. A family is a relational-set system, so much so that some of us have to attend family reunions with a score- card to keep track of who had a baby and who adopteda child and who got married and who got divorced.

The system changes as the people in it change. No one would argue that the family is a weaker system because it is a relational-set system. We know instinctively that a relational-set organization is the most powerful, integrated, and sustainable of all types.

Adapted from Community in the Inventive Age




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  • Doug Pagitt

    Community in the Inventive Age is $.99 in Kindle for a little while longer.