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'Facemashing' Christianity: What the Hot-or-Not Approach Overlooks

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I was watching The Social Network, squirming as the story of Facebook opened with Harvard women becoming outraged over Facemash, the pre-Facebook site that Mark Zuckerberg created in order to let Harvard students compare female undergrads and rank 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, 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 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 backstory. On September 9, 2009, Leadership Network responded to the economic crisis that had hit so many churches by holding a free online conference entitled "The Nines." It was an incredible success. Between 30,000 and 40,000 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 following year, as September 9, 2010 approached, the organizers tried to think of ways to generate even more buzz. Because the Leadership Network is committed to recognizing known leaders as well as spotlighting unknown voices, they decided to hold 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 12 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 online Christian Facemash witnessed by over 30,000 people, we still didn't get to hear from them.

Which seemed to make it even crueler.