Affiliating in the Age of Unaffiliation: How Digital Social Networking is Changing How We Gather

“I haven’t really given it much thought, but I’m really not looking for community when I go to church,” a colleague said when we talked at a consultation earlier this year sponsored by the New Media Project. We’d been thinking about the ways in which new digital media practices—not the technologies themselves, but the ways we use them in the midst of our everyday lives—are reshaping religious practice. Our focus for the two-day gathering of religious leaders, communications specialists, and academics who study media and religion was how social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Yik Yak, and so on participate in the creation and enrichment of Christian community.

Somewhere along the way, however, the whole idea of “community” was called into question. Whose community, people wondered. How were we defining “community” or “Christian community” anyway? What is at stake and whose interests are served in the assumption that “community” is a foundational goal of Christian practice?

One of the participants, a pastor with an active Twitter presence, insisted that she wasn’t seeking community when she tweeted about religious or spiritual experiences, ideas, and questions. “I have a community,” she said. “In fact, I have multiple communities. I might connect with them sometimes on Twitter, but I don’t go there to find them.” Her social media practice, she suggested, was more about being present in the media landscape as a Christian clergyperson, as a woman of color, and as a thought leader on contemporary religious life.

What is at stake and whose interests are served in the assumption that “community” is a foundational goal of Christian practice?

The discussion tapped into my conversations across the country over the past few years with religiously unaffiliated people—the so-called “Nones.” Many of the hundred-plus people I interviewed told me they attended institutional religious services from time to time. Indeed, some were regular participants in one or more religious groups. But none of them had an interest in affiliating with these groups in the sense of becoming a member or identifying as an adherent to a particular tradition, Buddhist, Catholic, Methodist, Jewish, or otherwise.

A young woman from Phoenix, for instance, talked with me about how much she valued the teaching and support she’d gained through spiritual guides and fellow participants at classes and meditation sessions at a local spiritual center. She said she attended two or three times a month, depending on what was going on in her life. That’s about as often as especially fervent churchgoers attend. Still, she made clear when I asked if she was a formal member of the center, “Oh, no. I don’t ‘belong’ to them. They don’t own me. I go there sometimes because I just want to, and that’s been really wonderful. I’m not interested in joining something.”

That anti-affiliation sentiment was prominent in the 2012 Pew “Nones on the Rise” study. When Nones were asked if they were “Looking for a religion that would be right for you,” a whopping 88% said, “thanks, but no thanks.”

Certainly, the woman who talked with me in Phoenix would be in that percentage. And that makes me think that such questions largely miss the point of how people affiliate today—the affiliated and the unaffiliated alike.

This became even more clear to me when during my research I attended a number of Sunday Assembly gatherings. Founded in the UK by comedians Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones in 2013, this new “godless church” has grown substantially since it came to the US in 2014 to minister to those who identify as atheist, humanist, secular, or otherwise None but who nonetheless desire “all the best bits of church without the religion.”

I arrived a few minutes early to my first visit to a recently formed Assembly congregation in the Silicon Valley, where close to a hundred people were already seated in neat rows of folding chairs. Most were clustered in small groups of friends or with their families. I was on my own. I settled into a chair at the end of one of the middle rows.

Much like too many churches of my acquaintance, no one welcomed me or otherwise seemed to notice me. But they also didn’t seem to notice anyone else outside of their own clusters. They had come, that is, with branches of their own networks, and, though they were cordial enough when the service called us to greet people next to us, they didn’t appear to be much interested in connecting beyond that.

At the refreshment hour after the service, I asked a man waiting with me in the line for tea if he’d come with others or if he knew other people at the Assembly. “No,” he said. He added, “I came to the first one with a friend. But she couldn’t make it today. I think there are groups, or committees, or something you can join if you want to meet people. I’m not sure I really want to.” As we drew closer to the tea urn, he explained that he might come again if the topic interested him or if a friend asked him to come, but he hadn’t come seeking congregational community in the sense that is generally assumed in Christian congregations.

20150417_ED_Affiliation_Desi_MendozaLest we think that this affiliational resistance is unique to the unaffiliated, sociologists who study religious belonging have increasingly found the same thing to be true of Christians, perhaps especially young adults. People may gather at spiritual events—compline at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, a Taizé service in a Sisters of Mercy community in Northern California, dinner church in Brooklyn, a Mumford & Sons concert. They often report feeling a deep sense of connection with others there, a feeling of transcending the self and all of the selves present collectively. But they aren’t really up for joining anything. They’re having experiences in common—in the common, in the New England sense of the word—but they’re not forming a community.

My colleague at the New Media Project consultation spoke of a similar kind of experience, I think, when he told me he really wasn’t looking for community at church.

“Honestly,” he told me, “most of the time I’m looking for almost the opposite—a break from active connection to people after a busy week. I want to worship. I want a certain aesthetic experience, I guess. Mostly, I want sanctuary. Connection I have plenty of in my life. I think I go to church to unplug from that—to tune in more to where God is in my life. I think lots of people do that.”

Where 21st-century churches are able to nurture diverse expressions of being and becoming rather than fixating so much on belonging, they continue to play a vital role on the social and religious landscape, including at its digital outposts.

The mode of affiliation suggested in this emerging outlook among both the unaffiliated and the affiliated is not, it seems clear, a communitarian one. It does not center on the classic modes of understanding religion as some configuration of believing, belonging, and behaving. Rather, it is more of a cosmopolitan practice focused on the experience of being, the process of becoming in the everyday contexts of life. Where 21st-century churches are able to nurture diverse expressions of being and becoming rather than fixating so much on belonging, they continue to play a vital role on the social and religious landscape, including at its digital outposts.

Here, I’m reminded of a common mistranslation of a passage from Julian of Norwich’s Showings in which she reports having seen in one of her visions “a great one-ing betwixt Christ and us.” Translators often render the Middle English “one-ing” as “unifying,” and it sometimes has that meaning, especially in more formal contexts. But, as the word was used in everyday life, it had more of a sense of being loosely gathered. Farmers “one-ed in” a crop; parents called to “one” children home to supper.

Julian sees that we are gathered into Christ, gathered with one another in all our distinctiveness. Held close in love. This is a cosmopolitan coming together that may not result in congregational community, but it nonetheless can affiliate us in our unaffiliation.

Elizabeth Drescher

Elizabeth Drescher, PhD is the editor of Bearings and a Consulting Scholar at The BTS Center. She is also an Adjunct Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University and the author of Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones (Oxford University Press, 2016), Tweet If You ♥ Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation (Morehouse 2011), and, with Keith Anderson, Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012) and Click 2 Save: Reboot (Church Publishing, 2018). Her commentary on contemporary religion and spirituality has been published in Alternet, AmericaThe AtlanticSalon, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Jose Mercury News, Religion Dispatches, The Washington Post, and other national publications. She is a much sought after speaker for religious and academic groups engaging the changing religious landscape in the United States. You can find Elizabeth on Twitter @edrescherphd.

Photo credits:

Untitled, by Jordan McQueen via Unsplash. Licensed under Creative Commons Zero. Desaturated from original.

Untitled, by Desi Mendoza via Unsplash. Licensed under Creative Commons Zero.