07/31/2012 02:41 pm ET | Updated Sep 30, 2012

Church, Social Media and Chautauqua

I've been invited by the Department of Religion at Chautauqua Institution to lecture next week on the theme "Digital Identity." In addition to sharing some of the theological reflection emerging from my work with the New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary, I will also tell some stories from the project's case studies about how religious communities are using social media. Stories like this:

Last August in a basement room at Duke Divinity School, 13 clergywomen gathered for the annual face-to-face board meeting of The Young Clergy Women Project (TYCWP). They came from across the United States to Durham, North Carolina, to plan for the life and work of this new online clergy network. Perhaps more importantly, the women came to enjoy in person the support and encouragement they share online throughout the year. But these board members did not shove their laptops and iPads under their seats so to better relish the warm hugs and smiles of old and new friends. Computers popped open and tapping ensued, along with the bear hug embraces you would expect at any long-standing family reunion.

Everything this group does, it does online. Bylaws and minutes, blogs and e-zines, registration, and even visioning exercises are handled through the "thickening web of interconnectivity" as New Media Research Fellow Kathryn Reklis said in a blog post last August. No one asked the women to 'shut their computers and turn off their cell phones because the real meeting is about to start, and you don't want to miss something important by hiding your head behind a screen!' The two and a half day meeting was conducted to an orchestra of clicking and dinging and the ironic asides so common to online communication. But no one thought it strange or disrespectful. No one wondered who was tuning out or ignoring the person speaking. They held a virtual and face-to-face meeting all at once. And it was the most fully present gathering I've attended in a long time.

On the final day of the board meeting, we moved to Scribblar so that absent board members could be present for the all-important "voting" on organizational issues. I thought perhaps this more formal day might bring a more formal air. Instead, constant chatter persisted throughout the meeting, both that gentle whispering of old friends and the incessant tapping of young leaders who inhabit a digital world. Someone needed access to the agenda on Google docs. Another requested the link to that book on parenting. While she was Tweeting about the meeting, one of the co-chairs found an absent board member Tweeting as well. She had forgotten to sign onto Scribblar for the live chat section of the agenda that connected those present in Durham with the six or seven who couldn't make it in person. Soon the missing board member's icon appeared in the chat room. Minutes later, another board member looked up from her computer with mild panic in her eyes after watching the wild machinations of the stock market; a few prayers for the nations and for the poor were posted on Facebook.

Identity has long been a theme in religion studies and religious thought and practice. How might something like "digital identity" be shaping and reshaping religious life today?