The Common Good
May 2004

Community.com

by Jesse Holcomb | May 2004

Churches shouldn't ignore the meetup phenomenon.

You probably heard a lot of buzz surrounding Howard Dean'

You probably heard a lot of buzz surrounding Howard Dean’s innovative grassroots campaign (amassing more than $45 million in donations; half were for $200 or less). But you might not be familiar with one of the major reasons behind its popular appeal: Meetup.com.

An online social networking service, Meetup.com was the organizer behind thousands of salon-style gatherings of Dean supporters in cafes, bars, and restaurants around the country. But the cyber-nexus has also garnered a rapport with a more diverse spectrum of seekers—demographics that should cause people of faith to incline their ears.

The site is free and user-friendly. Visitors enter their zip codes and choose their area of interest (knitting, Sufism, Chihuahuas—the variety of topics listed are legion). Meetup.com then connects users electronically with others by city and topic. There are very few rules—on a predetermined date, a volunteer convener welcomes visitors at the venue of choice, voted on by all members of the group. At that point the floor is open for conversation over a coffee or a beer among the five or 10 people who show up.

It may sound like a simple concept, but it’s struck a cultural chord. More than 1 million people in 612 cities in the United States and around the world are coming out of the woodwork and creating community by their own initiatives using this format.

BESIDES GRASSROOTS political organizing, some of the most popular meetups are attended by disenfranchised religious (or irreligious) types. There are scores of ex-Mormons, shamanists, pagans, and atheists meeting up, hoping to find comradery. Interestingly enough, there are comparatively few evangelical or Catholic listings on the Web site.

Mainstream politics and mainstream religion both face the perennial tendency to become more institutionalized and inflexible. Consequently, individuals who feel alienated from these spheres are finding other ways to interact and participate in public life. This is why voters came out to meetups by the thousands to support a campaign that encouraged them to rally on the local level. The immediacy gave people something tangible to be excited about—a context in which their citizenship could make a difference.

But this is also why religious outsiders are seeking and finding connections with each other, making missionary-like evangelism obsolete in this setting. In some ways these meetups, while they occur under informal auspices, almost remind one of church. Participants know that while they meet, a similar group is gathering on the same day, at the same time, in hundreds of cities all over the world to share similar interests and experiences; a koinonia for folks on the fringe.

The idea of Meetup.com was born when its co-founder Scott Heiferman read Bowling Alone—Robert Putnam’s analysis of the disintegration of civic engagement in America. "Meetup was at its core really a simple idea—to connect people locally," Heiferman said in an interview last November. "The traditional logic goes that the Internet makes things less local, but why couldn’t it make things more local?" Two years since its inception, people are realizing that Heiferman was on to something. And with other "personal connectivity" services like Friendster.com and Lycos.com, the trend is only going to continue.

There is good reason to be ambivalent about the community-building potential of technology, with its grim historical record of contributing to alienation (the automobile, the television). But it is undeniable that the Internet is still a relatively democratic frontier, in this case rallying social capital ex nihilo. One can even imagine the potential for helping people cross lines of race, class, gender, and neighborhood division. Those of us who hope for as much ought to take note; and the church would especially do well to pay attention to, and maybe learn something from, the motley thousands who are meeting up.

Jesse Holcomb is editorial assistant at Sojourners.

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