Engaging with the New World

“Engaging with the New World”  a sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely

Unitarian Church of Edmonton, September 23, 2012


Any Trekkie will be able to tell you.  When Captain Jean Luc Picard was set to begin a new adventure, he would issue his orders to the helm crew, and when the course was plotted, he would tuck in his blouse, gesture forward and in good command voice give the word, “Engage!”

A great word!  On a purely mechanical level it meant put the engines in gear and get going.  But on a deeper level it was a pep talk, a prayer, a reminder, a call to focus energy and skill on the journey ahead.  It was an invocation to take this work seriously and a statement of expectation of himself and of the crew.

In 2012, our Board of Trustees has identified engagement as one two key priorities for this congregation.  As we set off on the next phase of our shared mission, how can we instill a sense of belonging?  What do we need to do to become the kind of community that inspires people to want to participate, to share in leadership, to embrace the things the Unitarian Church has to offer?  The Board did this while I was on a sabbatical looking at the similar question of how we need to adapt to thrive in an internet world of social networking and all the changes that is bringing to our society.  My work, though different, was also about engagement.

But even Jean Luc knew that you can’t just order any meaningful engagement beyond getting the engines moving.  It is not something decided at the top and sent outward.  Engagement of heart and mind of a human being is only something that can be given willingly by one person.  At best, leaders can create a climate where that enthusiasm is stirred up and encouraged.  Good leaders don’t get anyone engaged, but they do help to remove barriers.  They figure out how to present the kinds of Principles we have here in a way that are comfortable and accessible to newcomers. They create or encourage programs, events and activities that respond to needs – today’s emerging needs, not just the ones we have served in the past.  They learn how to speak the language of the folks they wish to serve. And finally, once they have figured it out, good leaders lead with integrity.  Captain Picard would never have been successful if he had been pretending. When he ordered the crew to ‘engage’ they all knew that he was the first to heed his own command.

In a few minutes we want to ask you help participate in this conversation.  Perhaps you can tell us what already inspires you to be engaged here.  Or maybe some of you will want to name something that is missing, something you would need to feel more connected and more committed.  There are no right or wrong answers.  Your leaders need to hear from you about what inspires or could inspire your engagement.

Before we go there, I want to explore another avenue for a few minutes.

I found my sabbatical wonderfully refreshing.  I came back ready to recommit. I also understood that I would have to change if I want to be part of this church as it becomes the home of a generation who have matured in a social context different from my generation.  The world is changing in the way we connect and communicate.  There is a new meaning for the word ‘community’. Today’s younger adults have a completely different collection of shared experiences that define how they see the world. I have a short video to share that outlines this.  It was done by some American university students.  It has an American focus of course, and probably a couple of images and statements about the eldest generation will amuse.  My favorite is a claim that today’s old folks lived through two world wars illustrated by a picture from WWI.  I suppose I should be glad it wasn’t the war of 1812!

If you wish to view the video visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=maCqagwdFBU

Despite the flaws, this video does point out some important truths.  The context of each generation is different.  The great moments that shape the collective memory change over time, and so, therefore does society.

One of the questions we all must face is how to create a church that is attractive to all the people in that video.  Can UCE be a meeting place for folks with differing contexts and back stories?  If so, what would it look like?

This summer we gathered an “Engagement Team” for an informal session (read: food, wine and conversation about church).  This is not a Task Group or an ongoing committee, but rather a group of folks who have shown they are engaged with the church.  There were some longtime members and a couple of brand new ones.  The goal was to have the kind of conversation we hope to have today, but on a smaller scale.  Ultimately this team of people will be encouraged to ask, “What if we tried this…?”  So far we have only had one meeting – my fault – and the simple notes have gotten um, misplaced.  I blame Herman my dog for that…ok my fault again.

But here are a couple of ideas that floated around.  First was a great revelation that has been dawning in UUism in North America:  Church is more than the Sunday service.  For well over a century, everything revolved around Sunday morning.  There might be other activities, but this gathering was the thing that was really called church.  It was the centerpiece, and everything else was second place to this worship event.

The revelation?  That might not be the best way to see it any more.  We need a bigger and more diverse understanding of just what IS church.  Perhaps the Sunday service needs to be seen as one activity in the whole circle of activities and opportunities, all equally valid.  They are all ‘church’ individually and collectively.

What’s in this circle?

The service, shared meals and potlucks, social justice, weddings and memorials, the children’s program, the Youth Group, the folks who support the building, the Board and Committees, adult classes, Chorealis, the Walking Group and so on.  None of that is new.

But we have added some new ones, like the FaceBook Group.  It is growing in popularity and use and some interesting online sharing of wisdom is starting.  Instead of a single monthly column, there are now a couple of blogs attached to our website.  I have one, RE has one.  We intend to update the content often enough to create another stream some will follow.

And here’s the thing:

There are some people who only follow us through the revamped website which now features videos and is starting to fill out.  The very definition of church engagement is changing.  We must respect the different ways people ‘do’ church just as we respect the diversity of beliefs our members hold.

And this is only the start.

I have a collegial acquaintance in New Mexico who has begun live broadcasst of the church services to a small network of house churches in the region.  People gather at 10:30 in someone’s living room and ‘attend church’ in real time, but in a small local setting, sitting on couches, not pews.  It suits them better.  And I know several churches where some folks meet in a quiet pub to discuss religion instead of…hockey, though some might find separating the two a challenge.

Our Facebook group now has 113 members, some of whom are not even located in Edmonton.  They can keep up with a different kind of ministry as people post quotes and videos that inspire them or outrage them or call them to act.  Most posts get viewed at least 30-35 times.  For some people that – not a Sunday morning gathering in this room – will be church.

It’s not that this service isn’t important, but does it need to be the one and only thing that defines us?  If so, we may fail to reach a generation of people who find their engagement in different ways.

Well, I want to get out of the way and encourage a conversation, so I will close my part with this:

We are Unitarian Universalists.  We have long ago given up the idea that a single creed holds all the answers.  We believe in many paths and many truths and that they all lead to wisdom.  And we have learned that accepting a diversity of belief does not mean that any individual has to give up anything.  Rather we learn that our own beliefs are only enriched by dialogue with others.  Our beliefs may evolve in the process, but in the dialogue we gain much and lose nothing.

To back to Star Trek for a moment, Vulcan Ambassador Sarek noted, “I am pleased to see that we have differences.  May we together become greater than the sum of both of us.”

Can it not be the same with doing church?  Are we not improved by welcoming new ways of practice even as we preserve the things we love.  Is there not room in this temple of the open mind for many ways of living our faith?  Perhaps we need a whole new set of banners to match the world religions on the back wall, a set of banners showing a sanctuary, a classroom, a computer, a kitchen, a garden, a protest march, a hospital room, heck even a pub!  We’re Unitarian Universalists.  We can do church anywhere.