Divining the Digital Reformation

“Divining the Digital Reformation” – Rev. Brian Kiely

Unitarian Church of Edmonton, May 27, 2012

No matter when you grew up, no matter what your age, I bet that you have heard this from your elders:

The world is changing so fast!  I can’t keep up and I’m not sure I want to!


That’s okay.  Every one of us grows up in a distinct context.  We learn how to live in that context, and just when we have figured it out, they change the darn context.


It can leave us feeling anxious, stressed, out of touch and, well… OLD!


And we face choices.  We can try to embrace the new context.  We can ignore it and insist it goes away, though that tends to make our personal world smaller over time unless we join the Wild Rose Party J.  Or we can try to adapt, accepting the parts that work for us while still preserving the old ways that give comfort and that have sustained us for so long.


During my sabbatical leave I have been wrestling with my own anxiety about this changing world and how technology is changing church.  I was fortunate right at the beginning to attend two intensive courses at my old seminary in Chicago, one on Digital Spiritual Literacy, and the other on Church in a Post-Denominational World.  It was a great start that led me to begin a blog called Divining the Digital Reformation.  I want to share some of those ideas.


Organized religion is facing a redefining moment – another Reformation… called a Digital Reformation by one author.  It’s about more than technology, but technology is a catalyst. Unprecedented volumes of information and the means to apply it are readily available to everyone willing.  Sitting in a restaurant disputing the year the Berlin Wall fell?  Look it up on your Smartphone, and while at it buy tickets to the movie you plan to see after dinner and check-in for your flight tomorrow.


Of course, that interferes with conversational patterns.  That’s okay, because she’s checking mail, Tweeting about the wonderful meal and setting up her PVR to record a TV show.  And if that scares you, it shouldn’t.  It’s not bad, and it’s not the death of conversation, intimacy or anything else…it’s just different.


Whenever there has been a game changing technological innovation, there have been people well versed in the old technology who have condemned the new as a threat to all that is good and worthwhile.  Consider this quote:

“This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learner’s souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.  The specific which you have discovered is not an aid to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth.”

That was Plato, about 370 BCE quoted by Socrates.  What was he complaining about?  The creation of the Greek alphabet and writing.  The irony, of course, is that had he won the day, we would not have his ideas or words.

As a young minister over two decades ago, I spent an hour a day on the telephone.  These days, it seldom rings more than four times a week – and one of those will be robocalls.

These days I spend at least an hour on e-mail instead, but even that is changing.

Last Fall I was travelling. Nevertheless, I had significant counseling interactions with two parishioners in crisis, one over Skype instant messaging and another by text message.  The first was someone my age.  The other was with a 24 year old.  The first took an hour, the second lasted about 10 minutes.  Both interactions felt effective, which was later confirmed by the two people involved.

Some colleagues were shocked that ‘real’ pastoral care could happen in such a way.  Too removed?  Too ‘not face to face’?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that I was called to adapt, to do ministry in a manner that was comfortable for the people that needed help and in a way that met the immediacy of their needs.

Unusual?  Perhaps, but then two months later Peter Morales issued his manifesto asking us to attend to “Uses of social media that are rich and flexible. Technology is critical to connecting people today.”

Or as a pastoral care professor once said to me, “When you go into a hospital room, your comfort or religious beliefs don’t matter much.  It’s the needs and beliefs of the person in the bed that count.  Care for them, not yourself.”

Morales suggests that we re-vision ourselves as a movement more than an association of congregations for exactly the same reason, so that we focus on how we can serve more people in diverse ways, rather than focusing on a congregational model.  This poses a few critical questions for our congregations.

The first is what is our purpose?  Ours says we celebrate free thought and the spiritual quest of people joined in common support and action.  We believe in “compassion of the individual heart, the warmth of community and the search for meaning…”.  Those goals work congregationally but also serve the needs of a movement.

The second question becomes for whom will we do this?  That answer defines our target market and defines how we will do business.  The congregational model offers a viable choice serving the people we have always served.  That’s fine.  They built and maintained the church for decades, and their needs deserve to be fully met…but I think you will also agree that serving that single set of needs is not a long term growth strategy.

We have to learn how to serve the people outside the Boomer generation and even the Gen XY generations, and that may be a challenge.  The world of young people today is just plain different.

In January I got to spend time in sessions with Terasa Cooley, the head of congregational services at the UUA.  Every 10 years there is a large multi-faith American survey of religious attitudes.  She had just begun working with the 2010 data. Here’s a paraphrase of what she said:

The 2000 data taught that healthy congregations were large, multi-staff, multi-program institutions.  For 10 years I have been teaching UU’s to staff for the congregation they want to become.  The 2010 data shows that doesn’t work so well anymoreLarge churches of every stripe are bleeding members.  Mega churches are becoming unstable, some unsustainable.  Life isn’t linear, and the pendulum is swinging again.

And here’s the direct quote as Terasa laconically described discovering that what she’s been doing for the last 10 years might not work anymore, “Shoot!”

Young adults are used to large, evolving extended families including step-relatives. Boundaries in these families, and therefore in the lives of these young people, are permeable.  Membership is flexible and ever evolving. Thanks to the way we reform families with separation and re-partnering those boundaries are permeable and membership is somewhat flexible.

Many of us who have worked in churches a long time are wary of the term ‘family-sized church’.  In the past it has meant a community with controlling gatekeepers who quietly undermine growth plans because they like things the way they are.  It has not been a positive term in denominational circles.  That may be changing.  It appears, at this early stage, that younger people may prefer smaller groupings, but no longer bring the same gatekeeper qualities to the group.  As I said, they have grown up with permeable boundaries.  Smaller congregational bodies may be one source of strength in the years ahead. In fact one colleague in Arizona is already bridging the gap, preaching to a large congregation, but having the video feed sent live to two or three ‘house churches’ where people gather some friends into their home.  Why not?

From the rest of my notes of Terasa’s excellent analysis:

Religious life for the Millenials (roughly aged 15-35) is different. It’s still important for them, but it’s not necessarily tied to institutions…or institutional financial or volunteer support as we have known it.   People are finding religious community in small groups (Yay! We have those.), in casual settings and in social settings.  They are a lot less frightened of discussing spirituality with friends that previous generations were.  They are also a lot less tied to specific religious traditions and practices.  Mix and match religion is okay with them.

There is a greater tendency for these younger folks to connect in affinity groups.  Circles form as needed and last only as long as needed by the group.  The idea of commitment to, say, a two year church Board appointment is not so much on the radar.

The notion of service is critical.  Apparently all US school kids engage in service projects during their education.  It’s become an expectation of young people to give back in some way.  Religion should provide that opportunity.

This generation is culturally diverse and they assume diversity is the norm.  They tend to be urban, connected to each other and to other generations, often living at home much longer than their parents expected.  They are NOT a generation that has rebelled, probably because this parenting generation has placed so much emphasis on relating to kids and spending quality time with them.  They have been well nurtured and have experienced diversity in schoolmates.  They have an intolerance for intolerance.

But here is something else I have learned. The Digital Natives, the ones who have grown up never knowing a world without computers manage information differently from, well, me.

For example: People of my background tend to organize computers like filing cabinets.  We retrieve info by looking for a certain document in a certain file.  What student colleagues in Chicago showed me is that digital natives have a radically different approach. (This is, of course, a generalization and must be treated with the same wariness of all generalizations.) Instead of orderly files some… (inaccurate visual metaphor coming) pile every piece of information on the floor – marking or ‘tagging’ words and ideas here and there- and then send digital bloodhounds after those tagged items.  Instead of retrieving the one specific reference I sought, they pull out a string of things all relating to the topic in question -say spirituality.  These connected pieces train them to see the relationship between information and ideas much more intuitively than we ever did. They look up spirituality and they might find the chalice lighting words I wanted, but they will also find a song, a prayer, someone’s sermon, some Buddhist references, and a really cool YouTube video.

They also process information much more quickly.  These days, and I am not talking about any specific age group here, typical web article loses 50% of its readers every time they have to go to a second page.  Video clips longer than 3 minutes have significantly fewer viewers.

As a novice blogger, I have learned to post my ideas in 500 words or 90 second video clips.  Of course I include links to longer articles for the dedicated, but the reality is we have to get ideas across in a condensed form in the virtual world.  People are less concerned with footnotes than with the core idea.

And they don’t just want to consume it, they want to participate in the conversation and this implies a challenge for religious leaders and perhaps for Sunday service planning.

All of this implies change for religious leaders, and maybe even for the structure of some Sunday services. Phillip Clayton is a theologian write on how church leadership roles are changing in this Google world:

“The New Christian leader is a host, not an authority who dispenses settled truths and wise words… Above all, they remind me of a great hostess.  She makes guests comfortable; she anticipates their needs.  She matches folks up and gets the conversations started, though she doesn’t need to place herself into the middle of each one.  She leads by example, often by establishing an atmosphere or an ethos that fosters deep sharing.  I cannot think of a better model of leadership in the church after Google.”

It’s a good point.  As someone who makes his living standing in front of the church, it’s a challenge to provide content that is as deep, and as fully developed as in, say, the average TED talk.  Our Worship Chair John Pater clearly already gets this having done two TED services this winter with the brilliant addition of panels of members charged with discussing the video.

I recently saw a clip of a minister in the US who has a live feed screen on stage where listeners can tweet their responses while he preaches.  He stops half way through his sermon, they sing a hymn or two while he consults all these posts, and then he does the second half of the sermon responding to the comments and questions.

Now some of this might sound pretty scary.  Some blog followers have responded anxiously to my posts by making calls for ‘Slow Church’.  They have reminded me that what we really build in these congregations of ours is a community that comes from physically being with other people.  No amount of social networking can provide that.  Said one commenter in her early 30’s

I definitely feel that there is a balance to be struck between the worlds. I don’t think “virtual” church could ever supplant the many virtues of communal worship under the same roof. I’m seeing the advances of IT as a bolster to religious education and a catalyst to religious and spiritual movements, and I don’t think our biology (or soul) allows us to accept it as a complete spiritual solution.

But to sit back and think ‘phew, we’re okay then…we’ll always need the congregation’ is a poor idea.  We can no longer afford to count on a single strategy to sustain us.  Our congregations are shrinking 1-2 % per year.  If we do not reach out now to those who can pass as Digital Natives, then we are risking our future.  If they do not get to know us now, then they won’t look for us when they start feeling a longing for community.

How?  Liz James, a ministry student and CUC growth trainer from Saskatoon, was my classmate in Chicago.  She offered this observation:

Our churches offer two things to both Boomers and Millennials:  freedom of belief and religious community.

Boomers are accustomed to religious community in their lives and are excited by the freedom of belief thing.

Millennials, by contrast, expect freedom of belief and are excited by the idea of religious community.

Sooo, she concludes, we need to promote freedom of belief in church and talk more about the promise of community in our on-line presence.

Hmmmm…makes a lot of sense.  But go look at most church websites including our underused one (which will be replaced this week or next).  What images do you see?  People?  Video clips of folks of all ages saying “Hi! Come see us?”  A Facebook link to conversation and comments among members and friends? Nope.  You see pictures of buildings and chalices and the minister.

It is as if we sent our Greeters to the church door on Sunday morning, forbade them from smiling or speaking and only allowed them to hand out newsletters. Not much of a greeting, eh?  If we want to impress people with our communities, then we had best find ways to give an on-line representation of that community with images, video clips, with social network links that are up to date and interesting, with ways of connecting with others in meaningful and interesting ways, and with content that can connect even with people who will never come into this building ever, but who might like us..

And that brings me back to Peter Morales asking us all to think beyond the congregational model.

“We have long defined ourselves as an association of congregations. We need to think of ourselves as a religious movement.

“Creating ways of engaging people who are not members of our congregations is not a threat to congregations. Quite the opposite is true. We can help lower the walls between our congregations and the larger world. This can help make our congregations stronger.”

The physical congregation and the online congregation have to become integrated: what you find online you must be able to find in church and vice versa.  The new role for religious leaders is to give up thinking of websites and bulletin boards.  Instead we need to think of it as coffee hour.  We need to allow it to become small group ministry if that’s what’s needed, or become and adult education course if that’s what’s needed.  The website can’t remain just a place to post notices of upcoming activities.  It has to become a place where church, at least in part, actually happens.

Friends, I don’t think we have to give up the things we love, but we do need to think about carrying our Unitarian message into a different kind of space in ways that are appropriate to the people who thrive in that space.

It’s not about giving something up, it’s about adding ways to reach a more diverse group of people.