A system of distribution and communication connecting people with common interests and affiliations across geographical boundaries—today we call it a social network. In the church last century, we called it a "denomination."
Whether denominations will last this century is an open question. You can find plenty of giddy eulogies for denominations, and some equally earnest rhapsodizing about how denominations will never die. It's hard for either side to disagree that North American culture and demographics make the outlook for the future of denominations grim. (Unless you count McDenominations, which seem to prove that pretty much everyone loves denominations, in one form or another.)
But it strikes me that if mainline denominations do have a future in this century, they might look a lot like social networks. And they ought to do more than just dip their toes in Facebook and Twitter in order to find out.
Two recent attempts by denominations to dive into social networking are worth noting. The first that caught my eye was 10 Thousand Doors from the United Methodist Church. Launched last year, the site is a mashup of social media and various Google doo-dads that coalesces into a unique multimedia portal that doesn't feel at all like a typical denominational website (though the UMC still has one of those, too). The result is a compelling and fluid website that emphasizes that denominations exist in part to facilitate service in the world and connections among people.
Last month, my own denomination, the Christian Reformed Church (of which ReFrame Media, which owns this blog, is an agency), launched its Network, a blog-ish site that emphasizes connecting leaders who wear the same hats (elders, worship leaders, and so on) in order to share experiences and resources. Participants can sign in using their existing social media accounts. The site still highlights denominational events and publications, but is more organic than its main website, which is more of a stable of denominational agencies.
Neither of these efforts is perfect, but both are encouraging. And many other mainline denominations are trying or thinking about trying similar things. Any way that denominations can keep drawing the analogy to social networking—as well as using the technology—the better they can make their case for their existence, especially to disconnected and disaffected young adults. Bureaucratic institutions are so 20th century. Social networks are the future. Fortunately for denominations, that's what they've always been.