Lots of people like to talk about “on-line communities” and sing their praises.  Just about as many people like to disparage them for not being “real”.  Like a of of things, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle – and perhaps involves a more fluid concept of ‘community’.

Mary-Anne Parker

I was chatting about this … in person, over a glass of wine J …  with Mary-Anne Parker, the Lifespan Learning Co-ordinator at the Unitarian Church of Saskatoon.  She is a frequent Skype buddy who was visiting with her family last week.  We wrestled with how to build bridges between these worlds.  As churches go forward in the digital age, maybe we need to seek some happy medium, programs that allow us to reach a non-traditional ‘congregation’, and that also provide chances to people into face to face contact.  Fortunately there are already tech platforms that can help that happen.

But let me start by comparing virtual and in person meetings:

On the plus side of the on-line community are qualities like immediacy; permeability (people can come and go easily); the ability to find people who share your interests without concern for geography.  And such communities can be inclusive of race, age, gender and most other categories because involvement is based on interest.

I serve on the Executive of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists.  We meet with Go-to-Meeting and Skype (for smaller groups). Our on-line meetings include a Canadian (me), an American, two Brits, a Norwegian (well, actually an American in Norway), a Burundian, a Transylvanian, an Australian and a Filipino.  We talk, we know something of each others’ lives and we get a lot of work done.  Without the web, those meetings simply couldn’t happen with such efficiency.   Mary-Anne meets with fellow professional Religious Educators via Google+ using Hangouts function- and Skype on a regular basis; to her it reinforces connections already made and a way to maintain relationships, but does it deepen them the way face to face interactions do?  She’s not convinced.

That is one limitation of such communities, and there are others.   Even as it allows a chance to connect with folks far away, it places limits on the scope of that communication.   On-line conferences or meetings only last for so long and only one person can talk at a time.  Thanks to video we can pick up more of the visual aspects of communication, but not all of them. Some say that as much as 80% of human communication is non-verbal.  Some of that gets lost, especially the glances and signals passed between folks who aren’t speaking.  And of course the physical contacts are lost.  On-line hugs just aren’t as comforting.

So what can we do?  Reflecting on small group dynamics and planning Mary-Anne shared that she once ran a coffee house in a small town in Alberta.  To stimulate business (and, I think, her brain) she and her partner started Philosopher’s Cafe nights, where folks could chat about pre-planned topics in a comfortable and caffeine fueled setting.  She figured that was an adaptable model that could work in both realms.  How?

Well, say we set-up our Unitarian Cafe.  We already have a model coming from Small Group Ministries.  It’s a simple format with an opening reading, a check-in, sharing of readings on a topic, time for reflection and then discussion.  Many of our churches have them, but they are meant for groups committed to meeting and getting to know one another deeply over time.  Still the framework may be transferable.

As another example, Mary-Anne has a Linked-in friend named Rebekah who runs Reasonable Woman and Saskatoon Secular Family Network via Facebook Groups where ideas are posted on line and once a month members meet face to face in Saskatoon to discuss a favourite topic.  Mary-Anne wants to steal that idea and work it into her congregation’s life.

So why not set up a Unitarian Cafe meeting site or Facebook page in your town?  There are a bunch of platforms available.  Most 12 year olds can tell you which ones work…

Next, settle on a few topics (schedule for a few months, eh?) and start some initial discussion.  “Here is the topic.  Here are the things a couple of knowledgeable people have to say,”  Perhaps we offer a link to a YouTube clip, a TED Talk, some web pages or -gasp!- a book reference.  Folks are welcome to respond on-line.

At the same time publicize the same material in the church among folks who like more traditional forms of connection:  newsletters, orders of service, coffee hour recruiting.  Offer Facebook tutorials for those interested in joining in the on-line interaction.

But here’s the key, call a Unitarian Cafe meeting!  Real people in real time in a real place.  Folks bring their best ideas and get to discuss with one another with a facilitator hosting.  If a lot of people come, have small table talk groups.  Heck, you could even have a live feed happening on a projection screen with geographically distant folks adding their views as well.

And Mary-Anne just Tweeted she wants chicken wings at the cafe… but that’s another story!