‘Emerging Scotland’- what next?

A year or so ago, I put quite a lot of energy into trying to find connections with other individuals and groups that were involved in similar para church activities as we were- other people who might use words like emerging/missional/alternative worship.

To this end, I started a Facebook group, set up a few meetings, and began to make contact with some lovely folk.

Stewart then started a Ning site, which has seen some activity, and has over 100 members. There have been further meetings, and on line discussions. However, Ning are changing the way that they operate, and will be charging people to use their sites soon.

The question then arises- what next?

I thought I would reproduce my recent comment on the Emerging Scotland Ning site here. Any comments/ideas/thoughts welcome…

Hi folks
I have been thinking a bit about the site, and what we might be its future…
I started the facebook site a – which is here.
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Activity on the FB site has kind of dried up- perhaps because we replaced it with the ning site, but also perhaps this is a natural progression of all on-line networking. We tend to start well, and make some connections, but then move on to other stuff. The net tends to pull us constantly towards the next ‘new thing.’
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There is a danger that the site becomes just a place to argue about theology- which quickly becomes boring and pointless for most of us, even if important to others.
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There is also the real question as to whether the ‘emerging’ word still has any currency. It still might be something that enables people to gather around a vague set of questions- but increasingly, it is not a term that people are using. I am not sure what might replace it though- Missional? This word always seemed a little contrived to me.
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When I started the ES FB site, my hope was that we might see the development of a supportive ‘emerging’ network in Scotland- facilitated by on line stuff, but not exclusively on line. This was partly about our own needs here to find partnerships, mentoring, encouragement, and cross-fertilisation of ideas, but also an idea that developed out of a number of conversations with others. People described isolation, and a lack of freedom and permission to do things differently.
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I hope and believe that this has been happening through some of the connections made through Emerging Scotland, but to be honest, I still wonder whether we could or should do this better.
This rather depends on whether there are enough of us that want to do this- I know that many are busy with churches and organisations, and feel that they have more than enough networking, and perhaps no time/energy for more.
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However, if people are still interested in developing physical connections, then I would propose that we put a little more energy in developing some local meetings- as already began to develop for a while. A few ideas that occur to me ‘off the cuff’-
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1. a meet up at SOLAS for those going there in a couple of weeks (some of us will be there on the Saturday?)
2. specific interest meetings- worship, youth work, community building
3. Developing partnerships around activities- sharing skills and resources
4. Joining other networks- such a Emergent, or CMS.
5. Setting up some kind of loose administration/facilitation process-or asking an established organisation to host this for us
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I think the bottom line for me is that if we move to facebook, and the current low level of activity continues, then it would be no bad thing. I will probably call in from time to time (although I rarely use FB these days.) However it will be a missed opportunity- and I suspect that Emerging Scotland will kind of atrophy.
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Those of you who blog or have access to other information portals, perhaps it is worth broadening the discussion and asking people to consider what they need?
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Cheers
Chris

Loneliness and the agents of the Kingdom…

There has been a lot in the news recently about loneliness.

One in 10 Britons often feel lonely, and those aged 18-34 are more likely to worry about being isolated than older adults, according to a Mental Health Foundation report.

Four in 10 have been depressed because of loneliness, and 48% believe people are becoming lonelier.

While 17% of over-55s worry about being alone, 36% of under-35s do.

The elderly, jobless and those who are disabled are most likely to be affected.

Persistent loneliness is bad for people’s mental and physical health and can be linked to stress, heavy drinking and poor diet, says the charity.

Peter Byrne, associate registrar of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “Our stereotype of the older person, home alone … is challenged by information [showing] the number of children calling a helpline who are lonely has increased by 60% in five years.”

The Guardian- here.

I find myself interested for several different reasons-

I work in a mental health setting, and the role of community and social support is being ever more recognised as both cause and potential recovery of mental ill health.

I am interested in the role of social networking (and other on line health and social care platforms) in supporting us- and have a strong feeling that our reliance on the web is contributing to the isolation of many people. The stats above for example suggest that loneliness is especially concerning in the ‘facebook generation’- who might have three hundred on line friends, but no-one to go to the pictures with at the weekend.

This is a recurrent theme on this blog- here for example.

It is also a key theme for our Greenbelt worship event this year.

Here is the question- if the statistics suggesting that loneliness, isolation and disconnectedness are increasingly defining characteristics of our society- then what should be the role of we, the agents of the Kingdom of the living (relational) God?

Who made us in a way to be at our best when we love and serve one another?

As we seek to serve those around us, how might we need to structure our activities to better shine light and sprinkle salt to bring out the good flavours of the societies we serve?

It used to be the strength of our institutions of faith- the way we brought together and unified our communities (sometimes for ill as well as good.) We birthed a thousand community groups- womens groups, mens groups, kids groups. And we served our communities at points of crisis and celebration in a way that marked and deepened our understandings of transitions.

We still do many of those things- but perhaps we need to think outside of the boxes in which we currently work within. There is great need out there…

Losing faith in the world wide web, a little rant…

Like many of my predilection and generation, I have become entirely dependent on ‘tinternet for all sorts of things.

It does some things very very well.

  • It plugs me into an international stream of humanity that is transforming the way we live and work and think.
  • It gives me access to endless (if sometimes dubious) amounts of information in relation to any subject.
  • It allows me to connect with individuals and groups at a huge distance in a meaningful way- without leaving my living room- particularly useful if your passions and interests are not of the mainstream, or if you live in the Scottish Highlands, or the middle of the Atacama desert…
  • It allows me to find any product I may wish to buy, compare it with others, and find the cheapest place to purchase it from.
  • It gives me instant access to entertainment of all sorts of kinds.

There is of course a downside to the changes that the internet is bringing to us. All the positives listed above have a much publicised and debated negative side-

(Time to bring in Some Grey Bloke again I think!)

  • The stream of humanity we plug into is unequal, full of contradictions, exploitations and does not include ALL of humanity- in short, it reflects the power and wealth differentials found in the physical world. Most would say that the early hopes for the democratisation and empowerment of the small over the large has simply not been realised- beyond little reshuffling and re-entrenchment of existing powerful corporations.
  • Information is rarely truly free, and always contextual and comes pre-loaded with values and assumptions. Some of it is simply wrong, wacky, or malign- and there is so much of it to filter through. The internet can be said to devalue information- which only has worth because of the amount of attention (hits) achieved. So the superficial, celebrity driven nature of our culture continues to feed itself…
  • Social networking- I’ll come back to this later- but in the meantime…
  • Shopping- like we do not do enough of this already! Has the internet just become the new means to maintain the unsustainable and unequal lifestyles dictated by capitalist imperialism? (Oh dear- the old class warrior in me just hiccupped!) There is also the problem of the further destruction of local networks of commerce, with yet more consequences for erosion of community and isolation and loneliness.
  • Entertainment- don’t get me started on that one! Bite sized, mind numbing, celebrity driven drivel- a million channels to fill. And the pressure that we all feel to participate in mass manufactured experiences, in order for life to have meaning.

I suspect you have all heard this before- and may even wonder if there is any point in worrying about these things- after all, the internet, in all its mixed glory, is here to stay. It is perhaps the defining characteristic of western (and increasingly of southern) cultures. It just IS, and we people of faith have to get with the programme, and carry Jesus out there with us, one server at a time…

And this is my feeling too, most of the time. But every so often, I lose faith in the medium. And I remind myself that we Christians are supposed to be ‘…in the world but not OF it’- that as well as looking for truth and beauty, and salting/lighting it, we are also called to bring to bear what Michael Frost calls ‘dangerous criticism’. (Decent summary of this stuff here.)

So my take on this is that we Christians, faced with the megalithic construct that is the world wide web, should participate, contribute and celebrate truth and beauty, but we should also be driven by a deeper radical alternative set of principles that are the cultural capital of the New Kingdom, arising from the teachings and very personality of Jesus.

I think these are some of the principles that seem relevant-

People before product, before project, before everything.

Community as the evidence of the beloved, the blessed ones, the agents of the Kingdom.

Community offered freely and looking outward to serve.

Real community- the dirty, messy hand-in-hand, painful kind- as school for life.

Learning to love, practicing grace and valuing simplicity and humility.

Justice- a skew towards the small people, the poor and the oppressed.

social_networking

So what of all this social networking?

I participate in a few of these- I blog, I am part of Emerging Scotland Ning site, Missional tribe, and Facebook. All of them have been fun, and allowed me to connect with others.

I have discussed the relationship between real friendship and the internet before here. In this article, I shared some research about the some negative isolating effects of social networking, and suggested that it’s value for me was only the degree to which real flesh on flesh connection was facilitated and enhanced.

So, the question for me is whether or not this has been my experience?

I think the answer is mixed for me, and so the jury is still out…

I have connected with some wonderful people- but most of these connections have been transient and brief. We have hoped for the establishment of real networks of people who seek to mentor and support, but so far this has not happened. This may be that we have not yet found the right combination of people and processes that allow this, or in more negative moments, I fear that we are as addicted to those safe saccharine personalised spaces that the internet allows us to wrap ourselves up in as anyone else…

But of course, that is not the whole story. There are people who keep offering themselves as a place of hospitality and openness. God bless them- because my feeling is that we need them now more than ever.

On-line social networking and children…

Following on from my previous post, a little more on social networking via the internet…

This morning, there was a discussion about the potential impact of the impact of Bebo, Twitter and Facebook on the minds of kids, led by Professor (Lady) Greenfield.

It echoes themes that I have heard discussed in several other places- including (oh the irony) lots of blogs and social networking platforms. The implications of these discussions for people of faith is what is of interest to me. There are threads of discussion on both the Missional Tribe platform and on Emerging Scotland.

So what does Lady Greenfield have to say?

Here are some quotes taken from a Guardian newspaper interview- the full article is here.

facebook-reaches-5th-birt-001

She told the House of Lords that children’s experiences on social networking sites “are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance. As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilised, characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity”.

Arguing that social network sites are putting attention span in jeopardy, she said: “If the young brain is exposed from the outset to a world of fast action and reaction, of instant new screen images flashing up with the press of a key, such rapid interchange might accustom the brain to operate over such timescales. Perhaps when in the real world such responses are not immediately forthcoming, we will see such behaviours and call them attention-deficit disorder.

“It might be helpful to investigate whether the near total submersion of our culture in screen technologies over the last decade might in some way be linked to the threefold increase over this period in prescriptions for methylphenidate, the drug prescribed for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.”

She also warned against “a much more marked preference for the here-and-now, where the immediacy of an experience trumps any regard for the consequences. After all, whenever you play a computer game, you can always just play it again; everything you do is reversible. The emphasis is on the thrill of the moment, the buzz of rescuing the princess in the game. No care is given for the princess herself, for the content or for any long-term significance, because there is none. This type of activity, a disregard for consequence, can be compared with the thrill of compulsive gambling or compulsive eating.

Greenfield also warned there was a risk of loss of empathy as children read novels less. “Unlike the game to rescue the princess, where the goal is to feel rewarded, the aim of reading a book is, after all, to find out more about the princess herself.”

She said she found it strange we are “enthusiastically embracing” the possible erosion of our identity through social networking sites, since those that use such sites can lose a sense of where they themselves “finish and the outside world begins”.

She claimed that sense of identity can be eroded by “fast-paced, instant screen reactions, perhaps the next generation will define themselves by the responses of others”.

Social networking sites can provide a “constant reassurance – that you are listened to, recognised, and important”. Greenfield continued. This was coupled with a distancing from the stress of face-to-face, real-life conversation, which were “far more perilous … occur in real time, with no opportunity to think up clever or witty responses” and “require a sensitivity to voice tone, body language and perhaps even to pheromones, those sneaky molecules that we release and which others smell subconsciously”.

She said she feared “real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitised and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf. Perhaps future generations will recoil with similar horror at the messiness, unpredictability and immediate personal involvement of a three-dimensional, real-time interaction.”

Greenfield warned: “It is hard to see how living this way on a daily basis will not result in brains, or rather minds, different from those of previous generations. We know that the human brain is exquisitely sensitive to the outside world.

Lady Greenfield may well be in a position to comment, and have some very valid points about the changing nature of childhood.

The first comment on the Guardian site under the article is worthy of reproduction though- some wag wrote That’s exactly what my mum said about reading the Beano.

The article does not list the research that fuelled Greenfields strongly expressed opinions- but it may well be that quoted in my earlier post.

But the main issue for me remains how we build real, deep, meaningful human relationships and community.

Friendship and the internet…

boots

Friendship- it just might save your life.

Not just in the obvious roped-together-climbing-up-the-Matterhorn kind of way, but in a thousand more subtle ways.

I have benefited enormously from all this on-line networking and blogging. But have long been concerned that online friendships lacked something vital to human experience. For us, they were expedient- given our somewhat isolated geographical location, but in my mind can never fully replace flesh on flesh contact.

I would go a little further (although I am hesitant to be categorical) and wonder if the real community that Jesus called us to (and modeled for us with his traveling companions) can only be experienced in close contact. I say this with some trepidation, as this kind of community is rarely comfortable, tidy or easy. I liked what Mark Berry had to say here about this.

On-line communication seems to have something of the autistic spectrum about it. It allows for the sharing of lots of informational data, but for the most part lacks the nuanced, multi-layered complexity that characterises human face to face exchanges. to extend the analogy, people who have autistic spectrum difficulties can find techniques that might help manage some of the contradictions and complications life brings to them. They might also have real strengths that are revealed in a capacity to perform some non-social tasks extremely well.

In the same way, on-line networking (such a recent phenomenon) does some things very well, and might yet develop techniques that make the interface more human. Before we rush to condemn, we should bear in mind that each step-change in communication technology has been greeted with much suspicion- the printing press, the railroads, television. These things result in change and adaption as they penetrate deeper into the human experience.

But I remain convinced that communication at a distance will never be enough. At present, I think the autistic analogy remains a good one.

jordrel-bank-2

I came across an article from the journal ‘Biologist’ the other day, which was quoted by the Dranes on their 2churchmice’s blog. It makes some startling statements.

Britons now spend approximately 50
minutes a day interacting socially with
other people (ONS, 2003). Couples now
spend less time in one another’s company
and more time at work, commuting, or in
the same house but in separate rooms using
different electronic media devices. Parents
spend less time with their children
than they did only a decade ago. Britain
has the lowest proportion of children in
all of Europe who eat with their parents
at the table. The proportion of people who
work on their own at home continues to
rise.

Britain’s disinclination for togetherness
is only equalled by her veneration of communicating
through new technologies. The
rapid proliferation of electronic media is
now making private space available in
almost every sphere of the individual’s
life. Yet this is now the most significant
contributing factor to society’s growing
physical estrangement
. Whether in or out
of the home, more people of all ages in the
UK are physically and socially disengaged
from the people around them because they
are wearing earphones, talking or texting
on a mobile telephone, or using a laptop
or Blackberry.

Does this matter?

Well the study goes on to list the benefits of close human contact and friendship. Here are some highlights;

  • Measurable genetic and immunological benefits.
  • Biological changes as a result of physical contact- hugs for example.
  • Increased incidence of cardiovascular problems in people with lower amounts of social connections.
  • Lower general morbidity associated with higher amounts of social contact.
  • A study finding lower incidences of strokes on women
  • Lower blood pressure in men, and a faster return to normal blood pressure after stress.
  • Measured differences in the narrowing of arteries.
  • The unexpected fact that if you have contact with more people, you are LESS likely to have colds.
  • Memory loss in old age declines at twice the rate in those poorly integrated.
  • General links between enhanced cognitive performance and social interaction.
  • A reduction in mortality for those who attend regular religious services! (But not just to ‘warm the pew’.)

The review ends with a description of an old study (10 years ago) which may or may not have been prescient.

While the precise mechanisms underlying
the association between social connection,
morbidity and mortality continue to be investigated,
it is clear that this is a growing
public health issue for all industrialised
countries. A decade ago, a detailed classic
study of 73 families who used the internet
for communication, The Internet Paradox,
concluded that greater use of the internet
was associated with declines in communication
between family members in the
house, declines in the size of their social
circle, and increases in their levels of depression
and loneliness. They went on to
report “both social disengagement and
worsening of mood…and limited face-toface
social interaction … poor quality of life
and diminished physical and psychological
health” (Kraut et al, 1998).

So, what can we make of all of this? The study clearly takes the view that on-line contact is not enough, and indeed may be problematic.

I still hope however, that when used well and purposefully, on-line connections might facilitate community building. This is where I still place my energy, and why I started out trying to establish this ‘Emerging Scotland’ thing…

It is almost as if we humans were made to find our highest expression in community. As if we were wired and plumbed for this.

So for now, my own conclusion is like this;

The internet is great. It gives me access to loads of great stuff (and lots of rubbish too I suppose!) It also allows me to connect with others. But it does not allow me to commune with others in the way that I think Jesus intended. In order for this to happen, the whole of me has to be engaged in this process, in all of my contorted brokenness, aware that in the joys of serving and loving will also be pain and suffering.

There is no other way.

old-hands

Emerging Scotland Ning site…

network

I have posted before about Emerging Scotland.

This began as a network on Facebook, which led to a number of meetings planned into this year.

Stewart has now set up a Ning site, here.

This seems to be a great way of taking things forward.

I started the facebook group, and have put a lot of time and thought and discussion into the possibilities of a network. A recent discussion has focussed my mind again on what my own hopes are for such a thing.

I have participated in a few on-line ventures already- the most notable being Missional Tribe, where I cross post some of my blog entries. Most of these sites start well, and things tail away as interest wanes and people move onto the next big thing- there seems to be something about the net that promotes and elevates the ephemeral, and this is both a strength and weakness. Things do not tend to last long.

Through some of these web based portals I have conversed with some interesting folk, and had some interesting discussions. One of those recurring discussions has centred around the value of all this on line blogging, twittering, facebooking and networking. Why do we do it? What purpose does it serve? Might these things really facilitate significant human and spiritual development?

Well for me, the verdict is mixed. Thomas posted a really interesting take on this here.

I think the way of the cross is finds it’s real meaning in community. And measured by the quality of that community.

And I am also well aware of the research about how the strength of our societies can be measured by the degree to which we are connected with one another. The degree to which we love and share and do the things that Jesus talked about in the sermon on the mount.

Check out this stuff on happiness

Social networking may or may not contribute to the way our society learns again the need to connect, but it is unlikely to be the complete answer.

Whatever its limitations, it also offers real possibilities. I have met people who I believe I will continue to share life with online.

Which brings me back to Emerging Scotland.

My motivation for starting the thing arose from the circumstances we found ourselves in in Dunoon. Part of a group that was mostly outside organised church, and increasingly (particularly me) feeling that the way I understood my faith was different from the mainstream faith groups in Scotland.

I began to read and read and and read- and dream of other ways of doing things.

But at the back of my mind, there has always been this need for connection- people who will hold me accountable and be accountable in return- people whose power will add to mine, and mine to theirs.

Hence, Emerging Scotland.

But I am old now- 42 after all, and so now have the answer to the meaning of life the universe and everything. So I am well aware that the formation of new things can be messy! There has been a bit of storming in the forming this week.

But I am convinced that in this new context, we need to make active decisions to walk together, not just wave at one another from across the the world wide web…