Facebook and the demise of denominational labels

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 at Union Theological Seminary is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmedia@uts.columbia.edu.