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The New Divide: Online Segregation in the Church

It was decades before the Web when Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous quote that “Eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.” MLK’s point was that the church sets a poor example in its own segregation of congregations. The effects of ongoing segregation were recently detailed in the book Divided by Faith. The basic point of the book is that the segregation of the church results in a separation of “social capital” between communities which perpetuates injustice. For example, a church member in a very resourced church who is looking for a job, may get 10 referrals from friends in the church, whereas a church member in a church where 50% of the attendees are unemployed might not get any referrals.

As society and Christian communities are increasingly online, could the same statement be applied to online Christian communities? If it is true, then what would be the effects?

I used to develop models to answer questions like this as a researcher at MIT. While at MIT, I co-founded the Internet and Telecoms Consortium, which was a multidisciplinary research group that examined the social implications of the Internet. Since then, for the past 10 years I’ve been working in low-income communities to try to address the digital divide, which is the gap between those who have access and training with technology and those without.

Now I am seeing another social divide appearing that could shine light on segregation and injustice in a way not seen since the civil-rights movement. Historians say that television made much of the civil-rights movement possible because it enabled the average American to see on television the injustices that had existed for many years. Before television, these injustices where essentially invisible to the average American, but when they saw it, they could not stand the hypocrisy of allowing it to continue.

Now, I believe that we are on the cusp of another such movement of God that will be enabled by technology—this time through online technologies. Before the advent of online social networks, individual social networks were essentially invisible. Researchers may know a few of their friends, and their friends’ friends, but beyond that, researchers have very little means of assessing social networks on a mass scale. But now with social networking sites like LinkedIn, I can be connected to over 2 million individuals by 3 degrees of separation (friends, friend of friends, and their friends). This makes social networks visible in ways that were not possible before. In going through profiles on social networking sites, I was shocked at seeing how racially segregated most people’s lists of friends are.

My belief is that online social networks will reveal how injustice is perpetuated by segregation. They will show segregated social networks keep the under resourced from accessing resources. This will enable us to quantify and prove the effects of this segregation in a way not possible before. My hope is that when faced with that reality, Americans will again not be able to stand the hypocrisy.

My thought is that rather than trying to point the finger at everyone else, the church should first start by examining its own record in online segregation. My own interest in online segregation in the Church comes from my role as Executive Director of a Christian nonprofit organization called TechMission, which uses technology and online services to help serve under-resourced communities. I started to see the effects of this segregation when we launched our website ChristianVolunteering.org to match volunteers with volunteer opportunities, similar to how Monster.com helps people find jobs but for Christian volunteers. I found that the past 10 years of living in the ‘hood changed my social network and I quickly saw the results of that. Within a few months our organization had secured partnerships with most major national Christian organizations serving under-resourced communities—not surprising since our staff and I all had strong relationships with people in those organizations.

We did a similar push for partnerships with organizations with ties into more resourced communities and urban churches. Same amount of effort, but with almost zero results. Then I got to thinking about it. The longer I’ve been in the ‘hood the fewer ties I have with resourced people, and the same is true for most of my friends. Then I thought, “Well if you won’t partner with us, at least give us a link on your website.” We could not even get that.

I started doing a little research, and I found that the market value of the time given by faith-based volunteers in the USA is $51.8 billion. I found that the combined budgets of USA churches is $285 billion. This is an enormous amount of capital and social capital ($336.8 billion), and is almost as large as the entire non-military discretionary budget of the US government ($350 billion). The problem everyone agrees exists is that the Church is often to focused inward on itself, a fact that research reports that show that only 7-15% of these volunteers serve the larger community beyond the walls of the church. The end result is that if each church keeps the majority of its resources to itself, and individual churches themselves are segregated, then the church could be unintentionally perpetuating injustice by hording resources in the wealthy churches.

Most people, while shocked at this issue, just give up and say, “Well what can you do?” That is the question to consider. It is an important question in the age of the Internet, because it will soon be possible for researchers to quantify how the segregation of our own social networks could unintentionally perpetuate injustice. It is fine to have the television cameras pointing to those racist people somewhere else, but the Internet could make this personal.

Here is just one example. While it might take years to quantify the value of individual Christian and church social networks and how strongly they are segregated, a much easier assessment is to measure how different Christian websites link to each other. If churches and ministries are segregated, then it is likely that links from one ministry to another would also be segregated. After all, most people link to who they know, and most people know people of a similar racial and socioeconomic background to themselves.

Based on my past research experience, I decided to build a basic model to estimate the “cost” of this online segregation of links. While this is a very rough model, I am making it available in a Wiki format where others can contribute to improve it (http://www.urbanministry.org/onlinesegregation/).

The result of this model is that in the USA alone, the cost of this online segregation to ministries serving under-resourced communities is about $432 million per year. In other words, by perpetuating segregation online, resourced ministries are getting a net benefit of $432 million each year, while ministries serving under resourced communities are losing the same amount.

Keep in mind that while this article focuses on the cost of online segregation in the church, the effects of online segregation on the entire web Web are much larger (given that the Christian web traffic is a small portion of overall web traffic).  My quick guess is that that online segregation in across the web probably costs the poor of billions of dollars.  This is assuming that you counted the value of non-commercial links.

Here’s how it works. If everyone links to people they know, the result is that a disproportionate number of resourced individuals and ministries will link to each other because that is who they know, while ministries serving underresourced communities are stuck in a virtual ghetto with few people linking to them.

The net result is that for ministries trying to tap into the $51.8 billion worth of faith-based volunteers for resources, it is difficult to get the word out because of online segregation. With the Salvation Army, TechMission, Rescue Missions, Black and Latino churches are all linking to each other to recruit volunteers. The problem is that without connection to the rest of the Body of Christ it is kind of like having a job fair with all unemployed people, but almost no one offering jobs.

So what do we do about this? It’s actually very simple compared to segregation in the physical world. While it might be more difficult to move your family to the ‘hood for the sake of justice, it is very easy to put links on your MySpace profile, blog or website to ministries like the Salvation Army, ChristianVolunteering.org, UrbanMinistry.org and Rescue Missions. Each of those links not only refers people to those sites, but it also boosts their popularity in search engines. That is worth big money—probably close to $211 million per year. Because these organizations are experienced in leveraging funds, it is likely that $211 million in online traffic could be turned into much more. An increase of 10% in the number of faith-based volunteers serving out in the community would represent an increase in $5.2 billion in resources going toward under-resourced communities. That is worth putting a few links on your website.

It is likely that over half of the traffic driven by Christian links on the web is driven by non-commercial links that are essentially free and could easily be directed toward ministries serving under-resourced communities. Think of it as the online equivalent of giving your spare change to the bell-ringers during Christmas. It may not seem like much, but it quickly adds up.

Commercial sites could contribute too. Even the most competitive companies like Wal-Mart allow Salvation Army bell-ringers outside their doors during the holidays because it costs them nothing and they benefit from the PR. Similarly, the amount of advertizing that can be fit on a webpage is not limited, so those selling Christian advertizing could easily give away some and have a net gain in PR. Even Google gives away valuable advertising space to nonprofits through its Google Grants program. Online ministries following Biblical values should at least do the same.

From my experience at TechMission, this is not yet happening in the Christian community. In fact, secular commercial companies like MySpace have driven much more traffic to our websites than Christian sites have, because these companies realize the value of corporate philanthropy.

TechMission is making this appeal because in many ways we are a global leader in technology and online services in the Christian social services sector. Our partners across our websites include the Salvation Army, World Vision, the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, Christian Community Development Association, Urban Youth Workers Institute, YouthPartnersNet (formerly Compassion USA), UrbNet and Here’s Life Inner City (Campus Crusade). Together they serve over 35 million individuals from low-income communities each year.

The Internet represents a unique opportunity in history to address injustice and segregation, but just like any tool, it can also perpetuate injustice unless we are intentional in how we use it. God has called us to be stewards of this opportunity, and so far we have not done that very well. But this can be easily changed. All we have to do is to be intentional and give what we can. In doing this, I believe that there is a historic opportunity to address injustice in this generation.