370: Now what? You say ‘Community’ — and I say ‘Congregation’ — but should we call the whole thing off?

“THINGS HAVE COME to a pretty pass
“Our romance is growing flat,
“For you like this and the other
“While I go for this and that,
“Goodness knows where the end will be …
“Something must be done!”

Ira Gershwin for Fred Astaire (and so many others)

    Since our reporting last week “LIVE from New York” at the Tools of Change conference, exploring the future of publishing — a steady stream of thoughtful responses is flowing through the Home Office of ReadTheSpirit. We published a half dozen shorter responses last week. The response we are publishing today stands alone. It zeroes in on the core concept of “community” that kept echoing through the Times Square conference center last week.
    Tim Moran is a lifelong journalist, specializing in business and auto-industry reporting for national magazines. His scholarly background includes history, religion and the fine arts. He’s perfectly poised to poke a few provocative holes in all the gleeful use of the “C”-word last week.
    PLEASE, read his piece today and tell us what you think! ALSO, please check out “Care To Read More?” links at the end of this story. Here is the commentary he has titled …



There was a time when apparently reasonable people, even functioning business leaders, would drop everything and make time in their day for the important event of standing on a street corner to watch two aged men wearing plumed hats get driven past a church door in a horse-drawn carriage. Each time they passed, an observer reported, the applause grew louder and the gathered people experienced more and more true pleasure.
    Preposterous? Not so. Today, this would be flashed over YouTube — as an incident of sincere interest to some, and an item of absurdity to others.
    When this occurred, the “community” took note, passively, that this event was happening in 1963. The people who hankered for this event, who made sure to be there, applauded and called out to the “Sir Knight” members of the Masonic Commandery on a spring afternoon.
    But they were not “community.” They were, instead, congregants.

    Congregation – the bringing together of a flock, an assembly of persons at a stated time and even a virtual “place” – is vastly different than a community. A community implies a society with common rights, common laws, common burdens. Community is a label that can be broadly applied, even passively merited. If you are a computer programmer, you belong to the “community” of programmers.
    I live in a particular community, but we are not a congregation — I differ wildly from its general political and financial tone.
    The world leadership community includes a Khadafi and an Obama, but not because they chose one another or share similar worldviews.
    Boosters of the rampaging new “communities” that are forming around particular new technologies are missing the passion, and the point, of how these technologies are being used.
    Far from forging community in new and emerging technology, I see so-called “new media” as a new form of congregationalism instead. It’s much more like a church body than it is like a city or, even, a campus.
    I was recently reading a letter of recollection by a longtime church member, as part of a history project, and came across this revealing note: “Church was the highlight of our lives. You will know there was no t.v. (sic) in those days and so our social life and entertainment and inspiration was the church,” the writer penned.
    The price of that social life was not only belonging, but also being physically present. We wonder, today, at the elaborate printed programs for events and the huge importance placed on personal titles that now seem quaint. At a fraternal organization’s museum, a letter on exhibit describes the happiness of a man’s friends when that person reached the level of “exalted.”
    “We revel at being able to bask in his exaltedness on this occasion!” it read. Only congregants, those who come together especially based on some form of faith, go basking in some co-creature’s “exaltedness.”

    Whether it’s a deistic faith, or a polytheistic faith, or a faith of social folklore and non-critical thinking makes no difference. Faith of some kind is a basic human tendency. Even those whose faith is that of religious unbelief seem to need to draw together in actively selected groups to share their lack of religiosity.
    Technology has not really changed the content of human lives, so much as it has changed the pace and the place of that content. In older days, people liked to chat with one another, to tell or listen to good stories, to look at pictures or representations of shared interest and to follow the latest gossip. The rules of the tribe of the time, and the available technology, largely meant that those things happened in a physical place, and that they happened once.
    Aggregating an audience in the place and at the time was the tough task. By becoming part of a congregation, individuals could both count on a sure feed of information — and earn status and influence within the gathering.
    Today, people have the same wants. Chat, pictures, movies, gossip. But technology has allowed that to flow without limits of time or place. Now the desire for the benefits of congregation can be fulfilled – but not the abiding human need for self-fulfillment, the tip of the Maslow pyramid, the “belonging” status that is critically important to self-actualization and wellbeing.
    So what has been created now is, not “community,” but instead what might be termed a “congregational cloud.” If religious congregationalism is defined as the ecclesiastical power being concentrated in the assembled body of each local church, “cloud” congregationalism can be seen as that power concentrated instead in the active participating body of connected interest-sharing individuals.

    Don’t believe it?
    Try offending some of the unwritten “rules” of the new groups and see how fast an individual can be ostracized. Among the technologically elderly, there’s still a great deal of angst when somebody using primitive posting skills SHIFTS TO ALL CAPS. It’s yelling — a holdover code from ancient BBS days and the 300-baud modem.
    Among all of these congregant users, “belief” is the entry price of belonging. Fox News or NPR? New Coke apostate, or Coke Classic believer? (The believers achieved their own form of Nicean victory recently; Coke is removing “classic” from its labels because “classic” simply IS Coke – somewhere out there is a clan of Coke Apocrypha devotees, though, no doubt planning their own marketing bible). Star Trek, or Star Trek Enterprise? If you are a believer, you are welcome in the congregation – now you may post “my kitty did the cutest thing” on Twitter and other congregants will follow you.
    So, congregations may join together out of interest, but invariably they need a Shamanistic leader of some kind to propound the true meaning of belonging. Without physical times and boundaries, without a sense of place, the question of who provides continuity — who has the authority to do so — becomes crucial. Somebody must be available to the congregation to tell back to it the story of its relevance.

    Sadly, somebody must also be vested with power to act for the congregation, to dispense the congregation’s benefits and to ensure social hierarchies and conventions are followed within the gathering. New media has moderators; forums have owners and elites exist. Democracy doesn’t work very well for true believers; we don’t like it when belief can be overruled by the will of any upstart majority.
    Meanwhile, the old tribes of content communication are dying. The tribe of Newspaper is suddenly joining the lost tribe of Telegraph and the scattered tribe of Correspondence.
    As the members of the tribe of Blackberry, the tribe of Blog, the tribe of Twit, the tribe of Broadband, the tribe of Pod exist together and divide by congregation across tribal lines, they need a common way to move from following the saint who invented their technology (Steve Jobs may never see the promised valley) and participate, instead, in the continuously revealed faith of the content.
    That takes a pastor.
    Not a community.
    Watch for the rise of new ministers, new gurus, new deacons of content and interaction, to be empowered with authority by the emerging group of would-be congregants.
    Maybe they’ll get to wear plumed hats.


    Come back tomorrow for our reader roundup in which, among other things, you’ll read about an unusual “community” or “congregation” forming around faith and science!
    The OurValues.org landing page has been exploring ideas of “home” and “community” all week. There’s even a quick online quiz on our attitudes toward our “communities.”
    PLEASE, we invite you to sign up to “follow” ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm on Twitter — so you’ll be all set for an experiment in new-media “community” that you’ll learn more about on Monday.
    Men and women preparing for the Lenten season — please check out www.OurLent.info — yet another exploration of “community” or “congregation” online.

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    (Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)

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