Central East Region: Gould Discourse: An Annual Lecture Sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association St. Lawrence Chapter

2010 Gould Response

Response to Twittered, Tweeted and Still Lonely?

by Rev. Linda Hoddy

2010 Gould Discourse

There are three responses to the 2010 Gould Discourse

Download the responses to this discourse: Asprooth-Jacksonn (PDF), Gilbert (PDF), Purcell (PDF)

Respondent Rev. Kelly Wiesman Asprooth-Jackson

Thank you, Linda, for the invitation to respond to your talk tonight. You mentioned some awesome tools for ministry that are to be found in new technologies. There are a number of UU bloggers out there who have highlighted others. Rev. Naomi King had a piece recently on using 4Square in her ministry. 4square can notify people you're already connected to by Twitter and Facebook where you are in the real world - among other things, Naomi has used this to give a final coax to her congregants to get to church on Sunday morning. 'I'm at church – where are you?' In my own life, I deeply appreciate the way in which Facebook allows me to stay connected to, and to make new connections with my colleagues all over the country and the world.

What unites most of the information technologies we've talked about tonight is that they empower individuals: the possibilities for sharing your message, adding value to your work and building your brand are considerable. Magnifying the ministry of our leadership through these means is a wonderful thing, but what would be better would be to use technologies to strengthen the congregation directly and serve our larger purpose as a liberal faith. More than magnifying the work of individuals, I am excited about empowering communities, and facilitating new sorts of holy conversations.

A few examples: The Church of the Larger Fellowship, at which I interned, has a system of small group ministry which takes place entirely on-line. A number of our brick-and-mortar congregations have enough home-bound members that they might think of forming an on-line option for their covenant groups. This would offer a distance ministry that is still rooted in a specific context, and help people continue to feel a part of their religious home, even when they can't get there in person.

Further out ahead into unexplored territory are services like GoogleWave, which, through real-time editing by multiple participants, allows for a deep and rich online collaboration and could be used for a variety of congregational projects. We might think about creating a repository of institutional wisdom online through a congregational wiki. UU blogger Chalice Chick has even argued on the basis of our democratic values for moving some of our congregational decision making on-line. If you're as much of a governance geek as I am, then that idea either really excites you, or makes you want to vomit with fear.

The gospel of the internet and related technologies is connection – we are tethered one to another by fiber-optics and satellite transmissions, wrapped in cell phone and wifi signals. The Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker once observed in my presence that there are many different ways in which we can be connected to each other, and not all of them are healthy or lifegiving – some can be terribly destructive. We should be attentive, therefore, not only to the fact that we are connected, but to the quality of those connections.

As we consider this, we should remember that most of the technologies that we've talked about here tonight emerged from a place of isolation and consumption: a dominant culture that does not share our values. A Unitarian Universalist congregation is a fundamentally counter-cultural institution. The extent to which we remember that is the extent to which we are capable of changing the world. So whatever technological innovation we may make use of, we must take care to do so in the service of reasons that are our own. To save lives, to grow souls, to heal the world. No fad or fetish can save us, but for a faith as great as ours, a dream as big as ours, everything is worth trying.

Respondent Rev. Richards S. Gilbert

Thanks, Linda, for challenging us with a provocative and timely topic. My task as an "elder" is to provide some historical perspective on technology and the church. As you will see, I share some of Linda's ambivalence. Two stories will suggest why.

Mark and Donna Morrison-Reed, while they were at the First Universalist Church of Rochester, were the first of our group (GRUUMPS Greater Rochester UU Messianic Professionals) to have a computer. At one of our monthly meetings they invited us to their home to try out their system. Liz Strong, MRE at Rochester at that time, typed a paragraph into the computer. We waited with baited breath as it printed out. The words were clear and bold and in alphabetical order. This caused me to wonder.

At last I was dragged kicking and screaming into the computer age by members of the congregation who thought their parish minister ought to be up to date. At the time I was using an IBM 2 Selectric Erasable typewriter, which I thought was the ultimate writing machine. You could actually back space and erase an errant character. I was going to use that machine as a metaphor in a sermon on UUism as a self-correcting faith. At the last moment I decided to take a risk, and in a hectic Friday afternoon seminar learned a few rudiments of computer word processing, which I would use during the sermon. I had the computer and screen all set up in the sanctuary to illustrate my thesis. As about 300 breathless souls waited, I tried to type a paragraph and then edit it. The computer crashed – or perhaps I crashed it. Another illustration fueling my ambivalence.

However, to illustrate my basic enthusiasm for the use of technology in the church, my notes for this response are written in hard copy, but also on my newly acquired Droid cell phone, which does just about everything. But notice the backup. Trust, but verify.

While I believe the various technologies available to us are great tools, I do want to suggest some caveats. Technology, I suggest, is a means and not an end.

The computer is extremely useful as a way to disseminate information. As a social activist, I find it helps to level the playing field between self-interested lobbying organizations and groups with which I work to promote the common good by progressive religious advocacy. It is economical, efficient and very useful. However, it can be dangerous with more sensitive matters. For example, I know of congregations which have unfortunately used chat rooms to debate the tenure of their minister with resulting hard feelings and broadcast of the controversy through the local newspaper. Not a good scenario.

I worry about the digital divide, both in terms of class and age. While it would be desirable for every home to have computer and internet capability, that day is yet far off. If we hope to appeal to all economic strata and assume everyone has high speed internet, we may exclude many. And, while our people are by and large tech savvy, some of our older members, and even some others not bitten by the technobug, do not have – or even want – access.

Another possible danger is that technology may have the effect of promoting individualism instead of membership in a community. Our vaunted individualism in theology is a virtue, but too often that individualism – I can go it alone – is reflected in a weak sense of participation in a religious community. If we do through technology what we used to do face-to-face, we may be in danger of further accentuating individualism and turned that virtue into a vice. As Linda asked, what will be the ties binding us together? To the extent technology is isolating, it is detrimental to religious community. We will always need face-to-face interaction.

Years ago Marshall McLuhan wrote about the medium as the message, contrasting hot and cool media as central to consciousness. I fear that with our almost obsessive concern with the use of technology – used so effectively by the mega-churches and others – we will forget that it is our message that is central, not the technology that communicates it. The message of building Beloved Community and its meaning should not play second fiddle to chat rooms, video- streaming and virtual worship.

By contrast Angus MacLean's "the method is the message" theme is quite different. How we do religion in the world, how we connect with one another and with the wider community is at the heart of what we are. The way we practice what we preach, the way we embody our values, is central. As Angus said, you can't teach democracy through autocratic methods.

Linda talked a great deal about hugging as a metaphor for our personal relations, and that is hard to hug over the internet. As useful as our technologies are, they cannot replace human interactions. When a child is born, when a couple confesses their love, what we gather in worship to create a community greater than the sum of its parts, when a loved one dies and we celebrate their life, only a hug will do. Technology can never replicate true community.

Linda quoted the Pope as urging bishops to go forth and blog. And I would urge you to go forth and blog, but, more important, go forth and hug, because, as Linda said, our goal remains to build the Beloved Community in our congregations and in the wider world.

Respondent Leah Purcell

This Sunday, the 3 and 4 year olds at First UU in Albany are celebrating the joy that our world has sand and soil. As DRE, a big part of my job is supporting the volunteers. So before I left for my adventures this week, in their room, I laid out bins of sandbox sand and of potting soil. I put out dishpans, shovels, spoons, sieves, and pails. "Why?" you may ask. "Don't little kids go out and play in the mud anymore?" Maybe they do; maybe they don't. But the point this Sunday is for this group to do it together. It's to mix things up and to get their hands dirty and to go "oooo" and "ugg" in community.

What RE volunteers and youth and children tell me (in various ways) is that they want RE programming to be different from what they do the rest of the week. The want to be together as spiritual equals. And they want activities that are engaging and participatory. Creating those activities can be a lot of work. And for that we can turn to technology.

One of my RE volunteers pointed out that having artwork, photographs and maps, can help make the lessons more real for children. You can get these materials from the library, but it's a lot less work to just go on line. Some of our RE volunteers would like internet access in the classrooms. They want to be able to stream broadcasts, and download You Tube videos. They want to use the internet to address the questions that come up during discussions.

This year we began to use some of the Tapestry of Faith curriculum which is on line. There are lots of activities and resources for each lesson, and the best part is that it's all there! You still have to get some materials, but the all the stories, the scripts, masks, pictures, photographs, puzzles, links to the songs and music and dances, links for background information, messages for families about the lesson with ways to "bring it home" including family ceremonies, discussion topics and suggestions for social justice projects are all there, just waiting to be downloaded.

Ok so technology is a powerful tool, but does it have power over us? I put the question to our volunteers. One responded saying, "I think there is a very fine line between using technology to stimulate ideas and conversations and depending on it for the 'lesson'. Messy inter-active projects are more work; computers are neater and easier to control. What is our priority?"

The congregants and staff in Albany can tell you that I am not afraid of a little mess!

From conversations with my fellow religious educators, I can say that our priority is to help children and youth and adults become engaged and interact with both the material and with each other. As is often said, our religion is relational. So we want to foster relationships: to help create a spark; to get things happening.

RE participants want to be together, face to face. They want a place to share, to work, to sing, and move together, to gaze upon beauty, to sit in silence. They want to breathe the same air together. They want to get their hands dirty together. Our congregations are often the one place in their lives where they have an opportunity to do that.