Facemashing Christianity

I was watching The Social Network, squirming as the story of Facebook opened, and the Harvard women became outraged at Facemash, the site that the Mark Zuckerberg created in order to let people compare female undergrads, ranking them based on who was hotter. I cringed as I watched the horrified women, being voted up or down like cattle at the State Fair.

I winced because I knew how they felt. I, too, had been a part of a similar “who’s hot and who’s not” contest, but in a very different venue, and with a much larger audience. It was on an Evangelical Christian Leader site.

I often write and speak about the intersection of technology and religion, and so I’m keenly aware of the benefits and the cruelty that can be generated at that crossroads. So when my name appeared on a site for “The Nines” event, and my Twitter feed filled with messages saying that people were voting for me to speak at the conference, I became interested. I went to the site and inhaled deeply. I found a list of names along with a small picture and description and a place for people to vote, with a thumbs up for “like” or a thumbs down for “dislike.” The site tallied and ranked the speakers.

I thought of the art of spiritual writing and preaching, the beauty and poetry that the church has birthed since its inception. These words have lifted spirits and encouraged men and women to walk through their darkest hours. Sermons have inspired people to commune with God, to sell everything they own to feed the poor, and work for a society where all can live with dignity. Then I saw the thumbs up and down and thought, Is this what we’ve done with our spiritual heritage? I looked closer and I found out that my husband, Brian Merritt, had put my name in without asking me. Brian is a shameless promoter, with a bit of a prankster streak. So I shook my head and exhaled. The Christian Facemash had begun, and I was about to see how “hot” I really was.

Let me give you a bit of the back-story. On September 9, 2009, Leadership Network responded to the economic crisis that had hit so many churches by holding a free on-line conference entitled “The Nines.” It was an incredible success. Thirty to forty thousand people from 35 countries watched and interacted with one another. There were probably many more people watching than that, as pastors used the event as an education opportunity in their churches. The next year, as 09/09/10 approached, the organizers tried to think of ways to generate even more buzz. Since the Leadership Network is committed to recognizing known as well as spotlighting unknown leaders, they decided to have a bit of a competition between Christians. They put their avatars in an arena to see who would outlast the lions of public popularity. They would use Twitter and crowd-sourcing to create publicity and scope out the next hot thing. The site drew over 30,000 people within a few weeks.

The world of “The Nines” is not my world. It’s a corner of Christianity where mega-pastors, with multiple-site churches claim their stake. It’s where church leaders go to learn about “rapid growth.” They seem to be doing fine things there, but the speakers at their conferences are mostly good-looking, fairly conservative men who wear jeans that someone just starched and ironed. I, on the other hand, am a small frumpy mom who wears five-year-old suits that always have stray pet hair on them. I’ve pastored Presbyterian churches for twelve years. I also write about church growth, but I encourage the steady kind. I left Evangelicalism a long time ago, mainly because of the sexism, homophobia, and conservative politics that I experienced there. So, I figured that the good folks at Leadership Network would surely sniff me out as an intruder, but because of my active social networking presence my rank kept going up.

Then the mash began. I quit looking at the site when I started to get negative votes. The “dislikes” piled up, and I got a pit in my stomach when I saw that I could see the faces of those who voted against me. I looked at their Twitter pics and wondered, Why do you dislike me? Do you know who I am? What have I ever done to you? Feeling like those Harvard women, I kept thinking, This isn’t right.

The sponsors of the event have acknowledged that there were a lot of things they could have done better, but they defended the process overall, because it generated buzz and helped them identify new leaders.

I suppose I should be used to the endless comments, criticism, and praise. That’s what our Facebook culture is all about. I benefit from it most of the time, so I ought to be able to take the rejections as well. At the end of the day, I’m not sure where I was ranked on Leadership Network’s Twitter poll. I do know that I was like many of the other smart women on the list– women like Diana Butler Bass, Julie Clawson, Phyllis Tickle, and Nadia Bolz-Weber–historians, authors, pastors, and church planters who never spoke at the conference. They are innovative giants who are changing Christianity. Yet even after the humiliation of an on-line Christian Facemash witnessed by over 30,000 people, we still didn’t get to hear from them.

Which seemed to make it even crueler.


16 thoughts on “Facemashing Christianity

  1. As soon as you said “Leadership Network,” I wondered if it was part of the same all male-produced magazine by the same name that I tried to read, and had to stop reading, in the 90’s during the early years of my ministry. The approach seemed to me to be very “male” in that leadership was about “winning” rather than being faithful. As a new, second-career pastor, I was looking for guidance, but decided that their ways were not for me, and I don’t think they saw women in their audience, much less in their leadership network (irony!) even back then.

    Your post is timely for me as I have been thinking lately a lot about the concept of “kindness” and how scarce it seems to be. Not simply “friendly” and certainly not encompassed by “fairness,” intentional kindness seems to have no place. In its absence, cruelty finds a home.

  2. Yeah… I don’t think that there stance is particularly against women in the ministry. I don’t know. (Anyone from LN want to respond?) But women are surely underrepresented.

    As for kindness and cruelty… your comment makes me think of Alex Wilhelm’s post a while back: How a Troll is Born. (Oh! And please don’t click if you’re offended by foul language…)

  3. Someone put me on that list, too. I checked it a couple of times, and I was shocked at how hurt the “dislikes” made me.

    I recall saying it at the time, and will repeat it now: popularity contests suck. And I do **not** recall them being a part of the Gospel. Ever.

  4. I watched just a little bit of the first Nines event, and I voted for you in this last one but then forgot that it was happening so I have no idea who spoke and who didn’t.

    But overall, I don’t know if I really have a problem with this particular “mash” method. I don’t remember my votes but I probably voted Mark Driscoll down and Rob Bell up, but left the vast majority of people unvoted because I didn’t know them. I’m sure a number of individuals voted people up and down for arbitrary or less than Christian reasons.

    But I think there is something to be said for getting direct input from the masses here and there. Very few of the conferences that I am made aware of through PC(USA) and Mainline Protestant channels interest me. Mostly because they speakers/leaders they choose are done in a different sort of mash.

    The mash isn’t done online by votes up or down, but it is still a popularity contest among a certain mass of people. Points seem to be scored by books published, other prestigious speaking engagements, who you know, who did the foreword to your book, what articles you have written, what seminary you went to, etc.

    Some of these speakers I enjoy and find valuable, others, in my opinion, may have once been relevant and meaningful to the modern church but now are just being invited to speak because of past glories.

    There probably were a lot of problems with how the Nines mash was done, but I’m happy to see a different method for finding event leadership.

  5. “Leadership,” the magazine, and Leadership Network are not connected. “Leadership” is published by Christianity Today; thus the emphasis you noted. Leadership Network is an independent organization that does focus on larger churches, especially multisite congregations, and has done some interesting things along the way. Emergent Village grew out of a youth ministry initiative at LN that was led by Doug Pagitt. Their influential series of books published by Jossey-Bass has included titles like “A New Kind of Christian,” by Brian McLaren. I got an email from them this morning advertising a chance to spend four hours online with six of their leading authors, for free (it’s on 11/11 so I guess it will be known as the “Elevens”). I may not always agree with their theology or ecclesiology, but they are doing some interesting things in creating online community.

  6. Carol-

    You hit in many of my problems with The Nines. What got me As well was the lack of care of the organizers to push away from the norm. They kept with more of the same. I asked one leader about lack of LGBT representation and his reply was that wasn’t the direction they were going in. Yet, the theme was Game Changers. How was any thing the shared about the true “game changing” that needs and is being done? At the end of the day The Nines was not about leaders, such as yourself, who are actively changing the climate of the gathering but keeping the game the same. They only had one woman I would consider in that light who did speak. So the game on the mega-church side will stay the same and yet applaud themselves as being game changers to a game that isn’t the gospel many of us know.

    I’m proud to say I know you Carol and proud you wrote words behind your thoughts!



  7. Thanks for writing about your experience. Bad behavior, including but not limited to incivility, seems to be especially rampant these days.

    As for me and my house, I hope we will always be shocked by examples of insensitivity all the way down the very slippery slope to cruelty. Public events in the past couple of weeks have reminded me that meanspiritedness can be a cause of death.

    Keep the conversation alive and public, Carol.

  8. Carol, THANK YOU!! I’m not yet caffeinated, so my words are short and small and my thoughts are not big. But you have hit the hammer on the nail with this post. I hope you do send it to HuffPost as you initially tweeted that you might.


  9. Carol thank you for sharing! I watched the Nines last year and I watched a small portion of it this year. I somehow was blessed when I watched that in the 40 minutes there was 1 woman and 1 racial ethnic man.

    While you may not have appreciated Brian putting your name out there, and I am sure it was hurtful to see dislikes; I appreciated being able to vote for you. A few days later, I went back to the site and voted for every woman I saw just because she was a woman. I would not have done that if I didn’t see Brian post that he nominated you to speak.

    Somehow I think churches do not think about how insensitive we can be. We think because we say we are doing it in “Christian love” that it is okay when it’s not.

  10. I love this discussion. There’s so much here.

    Did they, as Shawn is saying, just open up the private facemash for more voices? The one thing that concerned me was that I wasn’t sure that they ended up taking the recommendations….

    And, as Richard points out, Leadership Network IS innovative, and always doing different things. They have been pretty clear about their mistakes along the way. Is it right for me, the stodgy mainliner, to criticize their mistakes? Because we all know that I will be replicating their successes. 🙂

    Leadership Journal and Leadership Network are not only two different entities, but they had a disagreement about all of this. Skye Jethani criticized it on “Out of Ur.” The discussion is pretty interesting for those who want to wade into it: http://www.outofur.com/archives/2010/06/an_open_dialogu.html#comments.

    Jules, you’re right in being frustrated with the lack of LGBT representation. And I think your response was good too–create your own event. Things ARE changing so quickly, we’ll need to keep pushing existing structures and creating new ones.

  11. Carol,

    I don’t know how much this fits or not, but I see your comments about how this vote played out (I, too, voted for you–among others–and then promptly forgot about it) vs. some comments about the method being used (for and against) and I’m reminded of the comments you’ve made recently on God Complex Radio and in Reframing Hope. Specifically, the way that some ministries have asked the question “how can we use the new technology?” vs. “how can this new technology fit our goals?”

    I wonder what the goals of the vote for the “Nines” event were. Was it a publicity drive? Almost certainly, to some degree, at least. And in that respect, I’m sure it was successful. But did they think about how people of faith would use the vote, and about what that usage might say about the way people interact today? Did they give any thought to the “popularity contest problem” at all? I’m doubtful.

  12. Carol,
    Thanks for these and others you’ve shared about “the club” and celebrity culture that exists in emergent and postmodern Christianity. I am a presbyterian intentionally (and find comfort in the presbymergent angle), but being female and pastor of a small church of mostly older folks doing really creative and wonderful things, I often find myself on the outskirts of conversations, and feeling a lot of the same ridiculous emotions from high school – the popularity contests, the “cool kids” – both hating the game and wishing I was part of it at the same time. So, thank you for the solidarity you vicariously offer by sharing your own experiences!

  13. I am deeply saddened by this story.

    A popularity contest always leaves someone out and wounded. Creativity and technology could have taken this down a different path. Instead they opted for the lowest common denominator: voting with a thumbs up or a thumbs down. Incredible. Isn’t that the traditional act of the Emperor? Hmmm.

  14. “I do know that I was like many of the other smart women on the list– women like Diana Butler Bass, Julie Clawson, Phyllis Tickle, and Nadia Bolz-Weber–historians, authors, pastors, and church planters who never spoke at the conference. They are innovative giants who are changing Christianity. Yet even after the humiliation of an on-line Christian Facemash witnessed by over 30,000 people, we still didn’t get to hear from them.”

    Perhaps, Carol, they are not the giants that you believe them to be; and that the changes to Christianity which you advocate are not really happening. I think this is why the Emergent church is fizzling out and the Resurgent Church is gaining the momentum.

  15. I fin it interesting that I’ve never heard of these groups. Things always seem bigger and important when they are near, less important when they are far.

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