Religioscope – Since many of the people who will read the interview may not be very familiar with the United Church of Christ – for instance people living outside of the United States – could you please briefly explain its background?
Andrew Lang – Sure. It’s a church of about one and a half million members that was founded in 1957 as a union of four different Protestant traditions in the U.S. It tends to be a relatively liberal church, not extremely conservative or fundamentalist. It’s a church that historically, since the 19th century, has been defined by its commitment to social justice and human liberation. One of our ancestors, the Congregational Churches, was active in the movement to abolish slavery, for example. U.S. Congregationalists in 1846 founded the first anti-slavery society with racially integrated leadership–the American Missionary Association–an extraordinarily effective organization that not only mobilized opposition to slavery but, after the Civil War, poured resources into the South to help the newly-liberated blacks in their struggle for equality. In the 20th century the UCC built on this foundation of social activism–and this continues to be a defining characteristic of its ethos today as a church.
Religioscope – Regarding the Web presence of the United Church of Christ, when did it begin and what was the impulse for the Web presence? Did it derive from the web pages of individual ministers or was it originally a decision by headquarters?
Andrew Lang – It was a decision by headquarters–although actually a local church member was the first to draw our attention to what was then the infant technology of the World Wide Web. We began to explore the possibility in 1994 and by 1995 all of the national departments and agencies of the church agreed it would be good to organize one unified presence on the Web. Our site was introduced in September 1995 and has grown since then from a few pages of information to nearly ten thousand.
Religioscope – Regarding the target audience, do you have the same target audience now as in the beginning or has it evolved over the years? Is it basically church members?
Andrew Lang – It’s essentially oriented towards members of our local churches, but we also want the site to be a welcoming environment for people who are visiting us, including ecumenical visitors from around the world and especially people who are not members of any church and are looking for a spiritual home. So when visitors encounter the UCC on the Web, we want them to find a friendly, welcoming and supportive environment that might motivate them to visit a UCC congregation the following Sunday. The site therefore serves a dual purpose, providing members of our churches with information services and opportunities for conversation, and at the same time introducing visitors to our church.
Religioscope – When you speak about finding a spiritual home, did you ever envisage the possibility of a kind of virtual spiritual home on the Web for some people who for some specific reason don’t want to become affiliated with a congregation?
Andrew Lang – We think we may move in that direction eventually. One reason we are cautious in this regard is that we emphasize the local church as the “basic unit” of the church–really the centre of our community. We think it’s important for people to meet each other in congregations, to be fully aware of each other as human beings and not merely as an e-mail address, and through the congregation to be accountable to each other. But we also recognize the potential of the Internet to engage those spiritual seekers who aren’t ready yet to explore membership in a church. Sometimes the anonymity that is often criticized as an obstacle to communication on the Web is actually helpful to those who are a little fearful–especially those who may have been harmed by their experience in a congregation of some other tradition. Nevertheless, the Web is hardly the ideal form of church, in part because it is much easier in this medium to evade accountability–and I believe accountability is the essence of community, and therefore of the Christian congregation.
The Web certainly does provide new opportunities for communication and we want to reach people where they are. So we’re beginning now to develop sites that are not oriented towards members of the UCC but rather towards “spiritual seekers.” Seekers could be defined as persons who have no strong spiritual commitments, do not identify with any particular church or tradition, but sense an emptiness or lack in their lives that they want to fill–and who therefore are exploring religion on the Web. When they meet us, we want them to have a space where they feel comfortable and which gives them an opportunity to engage each other and members of our church in conversation.
Religioscope – A number of denominations with rather liberal inclinations feel uncomfortable with missionary work, at least in the traditional meaning of the word. Can we say to some extent that the development of the Web offers possibilities for a new type of missionary work, which is more adjusted to the sensitivities of liberal churches? I mean, the Web is not something imposing. You cannot force people to buy the message. Do you see it connected to a possible missionary revival of another kind in the UCC?
Andrew Lang – That’s a very strong way of putting it but I think you are right. We are certainly interested in attracting people to our community. We also work very closely with ecumenical and interfaith partners. We have relations with Lutherans, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics and with the Jewish and the Muslim communities, so we’re not by any means convinced we are the “one true church.” We understand that people especially in the United States have literally thousands of religious options. We think one of the attractive features of the UCC is that we are a diverse community that works hard to cultivate a culture of tolerance and respect for diversity. That means there is a wide range of political and theological opinion in the UCC and a wide range of ethnic and racial cultures.
Some people are attracted to that kind of diversity and feel comfortable with it. They have at least a reasonable expectation that they, too, will be treated with respect in such a community. Other people may be looking for a community with very fixed ideas, very rigid doctrines: for them the UCC will probably not be a very comfortable place. They would not be attracted. But for those who expect diversity or pluralism, the UCC is an option. So we want to communicate that message and we want to at least make sure that people know that the UCC is an option for them.
Religioscope – Regarding the relationship between the main UCC webpage produced from the headquarters and probably the many parish web pages, how did it evolve over the years? Do you provide support to local parishes for the webpages or do you expect them to link to the UCC or to have some kind of typical UCC statement or logo?
Andrew Lang – In our church every congregation is self-governing, so you can’t tell a local church to do anything. We do provide Web hosting services for congregations, but they are under no obligation to use them. We recognize that our churches have a wide range of choices just like every other group or person who establishes a presence on the Web. Some churches use this or that Internet Service Provider and some use our hosting service. It’s all the same to us.
When a congregation establishes a website, if they tell us where they are, we make sure they’re linked through a searchable database. This again points to the missionary potential of the Web. If a seeker visiting the UCC website likes what he or she encounters, then he or she can easily, simply by typing in a postal code or the name of their town or city, find a complete list of nearby congregations with basic information and links to the websites maintained by those congregations. That means the UCC website also serves as a web portal to our 6,000 congregations.
Again, our real goal is that people interested in the UCC should check us out by investigating a local congregation near their home. We want to make it as easy and transparent as possible for visitors to find and connect with congregations in their area.
Religioscope – Probably like every webmaster or webservice, you are looking closely at statistics. What are the services in greatest demand on the UCC website?
Andrew Lang – First, conversation. We have a large “forums” area with about forty to fifty conversations on various subjects at any given time. This is the single most popular area of the UCC website, and this led us to the conclusion that what users really want is not just to be passive consumers of information but active producers of information. The forums are areas where they can debate difficult issues, have arguments, pray together, study the Bible together, prepare sermons together and solve problems together. They can share together experiences and ideas from their experience in local churches, so through the Web congregations can learn from each other.
The second most important area are the resources that we provide for pastors as they prepare sermons and organize worship: the complete texts of lectionary readings that are appointed for public reading in our churches on Sunday, various commentaries, sermon preparation aids, information on liturgy and worship–all of those resources. And complete liturgies for Christmas, Easter and other special occasions can be downloaded from our site.
The third most important area are resources devoted to social justice, including action alerts and bulletins on issues concerning social policy in the U.S., international policy, development in the Third World, and issues of war and peace.
The interview with Andrew Lang took place in Cologne on 11th June 2002. He was interviewed by Jean-François Mayer. The tape recording was transcribed by Nancy Grivel-Burke.