UMC Hymnal Survey: The power and peril of online groups

While this is a ministry-oriented blog, I will throw in other entertaining stuff related to my stated interests: ministry, social justice, and internet-age group theory.

This post somehow incorporates all three. Really.

Reading through Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody, he talks about motivation in the internet age is influenced through a plausible promise: the action called for must be "big enough to inspire interest, yet achievable enough to inspire confidence."

One such plausible promise that ties this all together is the RickRolling of the New York Mets by (Rickrolling is defined here, example is in this video of the Pope falling down the stairs) had its readers fill out an online poll for a new in-game song for the Mets with the Rick Astley song. Low barrier to entry (filling out an online form), high anticipation of success (Fark's fanbase is huuuge). It won, and forced the Mets to an in-game run-off to neutralize the power of online groups. By raising the barrier to entry (namely forcing in-game participation), they removed the plausible promise of success of an organized online group.

Also, Stephen Colbert regularly uses internet groups to deface Wikipedia, name a bridge after Colbert, and other online hijinks. Colbert has definitely discovered Shirky's balance of "big enough and easy enough" by choosing obnoxious targets with online voting. Wikipedia neutralized the Colbert threat by locking page edits and forcing people to wait a few days to be able to edit their pages. By raising the barriers to entry, they removed the plausible promise of a rabid Colbert fan base.

So, to the question at hand (reworded a bit):
What is the plausible promise for ministry groups trying to influence church doctrine?

Recently reported by T.L.Steinwert is the results of the UMH Hymnody survey. The online survey had a relatively low barrier to entry, and thanks to the renewal groups, a call for populist outrage. The Good News movement requested this:

We would encourage you to participate in a hymnal survey being done currently by the church. You can share your ten most favorite hymns as well as the ten least favorite that you would like to see removed from the hymnal. Hymns such as "I Am Your Mother," "Mother God," and "Womb of Life" to just name several, have problems theologically. They would be good for your removal list.
I'm sure the other groups did too, this is just the online one I could find online evidence for.

There were 4,000ish responses. Here's the results of the bottom 20 for The Faith We Sing supplement:
1 12% Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth FWS 2050
2 10% I Am Your Mother FWS 2059
3 9% Womb of Life FWS 2046
4 8% She Comes Sailing on the Wind FWS 2122
5 7% Bring Many Names FWS 2047
6 3% A Mother Lined a Basket FWS 2189
Well, the plausible promise of the survey was achieved for the renewal groups. 6 songs with feminine images of God at the bottom 6. Well done.

But wait...what about the bottom 20 of the UMH Hymnal?
1 17% Daw-Kee, Aim Daw-Tsi-Taw 330
2 14% ¡Canta Débora, Canta! 81
3 13% Battle Hymn of the Republic 717
4 13% America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee) 697
5 12% Onward, Christian Soldiers 575
6 18% America the Beautiful (O Beautiful…) 696
7 10% Camina, Pueblo de Dioa (Walk on…) 305
8 10% Jaya Ho Jaya Ho 478
9 9% Am I a Soldier of the Cross 511
10 9% Cantemos al Señor (Let’s Sing unto the Lord…) 149
11 8% En el Frio Invernal (Cold December) 233
12 8% Cuando el Pobre (When the Poor Ones) 434
13 8% As Man and Woman We Were Made 642
14 7% Nothing but the Blood (What Can Wash Away) 362
15 7% Silence, Frenzied, Unclean Spirit 264
16 7% There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood 622
17 7% De Tierra Lejana Venimos (From a Distant Home) 243
18 7% In the Garden 314
19 6% Heleluyan, Heleluyan 78
20 6% God of the Sparrow, God of the Whale 122
Holy carp. Look at the bolded entries. 9 outta the bottom 20 of least favorite songs are from other cultures? What kind of message are we sending to the worldwide United Methodist Church that songs from other cultures are distasteful?

It reminds me of when the Renewal groups were going to picket a Reconciling Ministries event at Lake Junaluska. They decided not to show up when the KKK said they would stand side-by-side with them. They didn't want their theological outrage to be associated with the racist and homophobic outrage of a white supremacy group.

Well, here's the difficult moment, isn't it? Alongside theological outrage at feminine images of God is ethnocentric discomfort with songs from other cultures. Let's be clear: I won't try to prove there is causation in this correlation, or even that the same people voting against feminist images of God are also voting against other culture's songs. But whenever ethnocentrism and anti-feminism collide, I am curious and wary of the results.

I see these disappointments coming from this online poll:
  • What the UMC authorities wanted was a response to their survey. What they got was a heavily politicized response that may be honest, but heavily influenced by renewal groups and caucus groups (the liberal/progressives were heard clearly too, with the battle "victory in Jesus" and blood atonement songs also in the bottom 20 of the UMH)
  • What the renewal groups wanted was outrage at feminine images of God. What they got was a survey where the majority of the least favorite songs are songs that are from our international brothers and sisters: the very people the renewal groups depend on for mostly-consistent conservative votes at General Conference.
  • What the United Methodist worship leaders wanted was a handy poll to show what songs people really like. What worship leaders in the bible belt got was little incentive to introduce songs from other cultures...because clearly, they are not welcome.
So, where do we go from here? All the tenets of an open system like United Methodism lead us to suspect these trends:
  • Surely the UMC Hymnal would get only MORE diverse as we incorporate more world voices. There will be even MORE songs that whitebread bible-belt America will be uncomfortable with. The christian symbolism will get even MORE diverse with different cultures.
  • But at the same time, group efforts to REMOVE diversity in opinion become easier to sustain. The barriers to entry of lots of people in the internet age will lower or collapse, so we will see MORE of the group-action like this and will have to deal with the responses we get.
  • I realize the UMC has a built-in defense: General Conference. Like the NY Mets and Wikipedia, the barrier to actually change and make decisions is high. But on the public image side, there are no such barriers: anyone with a following can influence public perception of the UMC. How can we vote for unity when the bitter taste of divided opinions becomes louder?
How do we as a church encourage unity in diversity in an internet age where groups wanting to remove diversity have a much stronger voice?

I don't have an answer. But maybe this link does. Discuss.


blake April 9, 2008 at 9:29 PM  

that's really interesting. honestly, i'm really, really starting to get tired of the old left/right dichotomy. it's so.....modern.

i think we're beginning to reach a boiling point though, and i wonder what will happen to the compartmentalization in the next 10 or so years. maybe, something like this.

Patrick April 10, 2008 at 10:41 AM  

Why it's obvious! Methodists want a hymnal that's never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down...

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