The Reverend Brian Kiely – minister to the Unitarian Church of Edmonton – has a blog in which he challenges traditional ideas of church. It is Divining the Digital Reformation – go ahead, check it out! Not surprisingly, he has all kinds of questions about and suggestions for the use of electronic and cyber technology in church, with church, for church … I’ve been meaning to comment on one or more of his posts, but he gets them up and then has more ideas about stuff so fast that I just had to take a bit of time to compose a response. And, really, I have my own forum here, so I don’t have to get lost in a pile of other comments on his blog. (I realize that I may still be a voice crying in the cyber wilderness if nobody reads what I have to say here!)
There have been a few points Brian made to which I’d like to respond. His first underlying question is ‘How do Unitarian Universalist congregations engage Millennials?’ Then he has posed several questions and suggestions that involve electronic and cyber technologies. Now, I have nothing against the use of technology. Clearly, I’ve got a blog, a Facebook profile and a Twitter account. I’ve owned a personal computer for over twenty years – not the same one, of course. I’ve lived in a household with at least one personal computer for nearly thirty years. (yes, I realize how privileged I am.) So, my first challenge is this – why would the use of technology in church only engage Millennials? I would argue that Gen Xers (those of us born between the mid-1960s and the very early 1980s) are the first generation of ‘digital natives’. Gen Xers make up the vast majority of ‘early adopters’ of various electronic and cyber innovations. As I understand it, the majority of Twitter users are men in their mid-thirties to early-forties – Gen Xers.
Gen Xers are also those Unitarian Universalists at whom some of the first Young Adult worship initiatives were directed. Back in the 1990s Gen Xers were Young Adults. We were told that church liturgies had to change to meet our spiritual needs. We wanted ‘Soulful Sundown’ services. We were loath to sit through a ‘traditional’, ‘square’, ‘sermon sandwich’ service. We needed interactive worship. I’m now 40 and I’m still loath to sit through a ‘traditional’ service. I’ve done it, we all do, but it’s not my preferred form of worship. I suspect that a good number of people who were Young Adults in the nineties became disillusioned by the lack of change in our liturgies.
How many of our members are Baby Boomers (those born between 1947 and 1966 in Canada) who came to Unitarian Universalism in search of something different? I suspect we delivered a new kind of theology, but not a new kind of liturgy. How many of those Boomers are people who were doing freaky, innovative stuff artistically and spiritually forty, maybe fifty, years ago? Might they be interested in new forms of liturgy? Not simply interactive worship, but incorporating technology, too? Boomers are just as techno-literate as Gen Xers and Millennials. Who do think bought all those Commodore 64s in the eighties?
In some early posts, Reverent Kiely focussed on incorporating technology into sermons. One example is a minister who has congregants tweet during the first portion of his sermon. (They actually tweet about the sermon – they’re not just tweeting because they’re bored.) In the second part of the sermon this minister responds to the tweets. I’m sure this is a good way to engage some folks in the congregation. And, if the service is being streamed live I think this would be a great way to engage those congregants not in the same building as the minister delivering the sermon. However, here is where I see a big problem with Rev. Kiely’s underlying premise (in his first early posts at least) – he continues to imagine church services led by ministers delivering sermons. I believe there is a place for ministers in our congregations – those that can afford them, mind you. Ministers have training that grounds them, for the most part, in Unitarian Universalist theology, history, epistemology and other good stuff. Things lay-people don’t necessarily have time to explore to the same depth. Ministers deliver pastoral care to congregants. Ministers train lay-people in worship arts. Ministers support other religious professionals who serve the congregation. Ministers become the face of the congregation in the community. Ministers perform important rites of passage. And, of course, ministers lead worship services. However, it seems to me that a seminarians spend a great deal of time and energy learning about writing sermons and preaching sermons. And, I’m not certain that this is what most Unitarian Universalists want to fill the majority of their worship services.
Maybe new seminarians are learning to create worship services that aren’t built around a sermon. I certainly hope so. I know there are a lot fabulous ways to worship that have nothing to do with listening to a sermon. (I have to admit too often I find myself wondering if I turned off the coffeemaker instead of paying attention to the sermon.) I believe that radically changing our liturgies will serve the spiritual needs of our members and those we hope to serve in the future. There is plenty of evidence to suggest people are looking for new ways to worship. Unitarian Universalist congregations can definitely deliver on that!