General Assembly: GA Presentations: Presenter views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UUA.

Inside & Out: Congregations and Beyond

General Assembly 2013 Event 2019

Program Description

Speaker: Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley

What people hope for in spiritual communities and the ways in which they wish to experience community are changing dramatically. We look at what these changes augur for congregations and for our larger movement. Some new opportunities and strategies are explored.

Presentation Materials


TERESA COOLEY: For the purpose of this recording, this is a workshop on Congregations Inside and Out on Congregations and Beyond. I am Teresa Cooley. I am currently the director of congregational life at the Unitarian Universalist Association. And in about a week I am going to be the program and strategy officer for the UUA, which means that—


TERESA COOLEY: Which means that what I will be doing is overseeing all of the program areas of the Association, but particularly doing so with the lens of how are we advancing the strategic directions that we need to move toward? So it's an exciting opportunity to bring all of our program groups together and really look seriously at the values that we're trying to produce in the world. So I'm very excited about that, and I'm very excited about the series of initiatives that we are undertaking that we call Congregations and Beyond. And I will explain what that means in a moment.

But first of all, I want to give you some sense of why we are thinking about this at all. And you heard some of this if you heard Peter's speech during plenary this morning. A lot of this Peter's been talking about for a long time, and a lot of this grew out of a paper that Peter wrote about a year and a half ago outlining his desires and visions for how we need to pay attention to these trends.

But Peter often says that my job is to scare him. And I will just warn you that my job in this workshop is to scare you a little bit to help you begin to think about how the impact of how the world is changing, what that has on your congregations or on your religious communities, or on your life, even.

So I really get tired of this phrase, the world is changing. I really do. It's like, well, of course. The only constant is change, right? And it's really changing. It's really changing incredibly rapidly. And right now I think we're at a [? pinion ?] and moving into a very different kind of phase of history.

And what we're moving from, I think, is a consumerist, passive culture into an interactive culture. And we've already made that transition to some extent. But by virtue of the internet, particularly interactive kinds of media, people are able to actually involve themselves in things that they used to have to sit back and passively choose.

So there's a great book by Clay Shirky, who talks about the ways in which new kinds of technology completely change the way our culture works. And so when books were introduced, for example, what happens? We have a religious transformation because people were able to read the Bible and understand it for themselves. So a new technology created an entirely new movement in culture.

When the technologies of radio and television appeared, what happened? We developed a consumerist society in which people's role was simply to sit back and choose which channel they wanted to watch or listen to. They didn't have an ability to impact what they were listening to. Do you see how those things interact?

And so now with the introduction of interactive technologies, we have an opportunity to truly have impact on our culture in ways that did not exist before, in a grassroots kind of way.

So we are moving from a kind of emphasis on institutions through which people have to do their work-- they have to be able to find an institution in order to interact with society-- to a place where individuals can interact with society in a holistic and grassroots kind of way. Very different.

Are you already seeing some of the impact this might have on religion? And we're moving from a place where face-to-face was really the only way in which people could have profound connections. And now people can actually—it may be diminished. It may not be completely dimensional, but have deep and meaningful interactions online. In virtual ways, people can connect to one another in ways that simply were not possible before.

So these are just kind of the general scope of transformations that I think are happening in our society right now. And what that requires of us is what I call spiritual innovation.

There's a great book called The Invention of Air, which is by Steven Johnson, which is about Joseph Priestley, who did not, obviously, invent air. Air actually existed before Joseph Priestley came along.

But what Joseph Priestley was able to do was through a series of experiments actually notice it, pay attention to it, be able to tell us how it worked in the world. But he wasn't able to do that just because Joseph Priestley was a brilliant innovator. He was. He was able to do that because he was in a community of innovators. He belonged to a group of people that-- Benjamin Franklin was one—that met in coffee shops and were able to share.

There was no such thing as copyright at the time. People weren't paying attention to which experiments were mine and which experiments were yours. They were able to share their ideas in an incredibly collaborative sort of way.

And a lot of people say Joseph Priestley would never have been able to invent air if it had not been for that community of collaborators. And I think we're in a phase of the development of history where we're looking at that kind of revolution that is going to require not one particular genius or one particular inventive person but a community of innovators. It's what we all have to do together.

And I already just said that, didn't I?

And what that requires of us is what I call adaptive change. There's a distinction between changes that are technical, where all we have to do is learn a particular kind of skill or be able to apply a particular kind of technology, and then there are adaptive changes that require an entire culture to shift, that require communal learning, that require us to engage in thinking about new paradigms. And I think that's the phase that we're in.

I wish that it were possible for us to have an app for this, but we don't. We can have some apps that will help.

So just to kind of emphasize what I've been talking about in terms of the revolution of life, this was the majority of people's experience up until the 19th century. It was living in an agrarian kind of situation. How many of you have your ancestors or your parents, grandparents, grew up in rural? Yeah. How many of you grew up in rural, agrarian? Interesting. Yeah, that is dramatically changing.

And, of course, that changed a lot with the introduction of new technologies which brought people together in cities around different kinds of industrial areas. But that kind of agrarian economy is almost disappearing in terms of the number of people that it involves. Our economies and our way of life is moving almost entirely into a much broader scope of communal interaction. It's not quite as bad as this all the time.

And literally the ways in which we move around obviously are changing. This is actually the first invented car. People don't know this. I hate to say this to you Detroiters, but Mercedes-Benz actually invented the first car. This is really what it looked like. And then a new Mercedes-Benz. We have many experimentations in how we move through the world that are dramatically different.

So what does that mean? That means people are able to move in the world much more quickly and much more dynamically in ways that allow interactions that were not possible before.

We have changes in the way in which people actually interact with the earth. So this was the primary way in which people were fed before. Farm to table, that's how everybody got their food for centuries.

And then we had the lovely phase where everything was prefab. Do you remember that phase where it was like frozen food was just the greatest thing ever invented? My parents didn't do that, but this was primarily the way in which people ate, and still do to some extent. And now we are moving back to a farm-to-table kind of thing.

And yet, how are people able to make that transition from the kind of lifestyle that requires prefab to the kind of lifestyle that encourages farm to table again? What does that say about what changes people have to make in their day-to-day lives when they don't live on the farms that produce these things? What does that say?

Obviously, big changes in communication to the point where all we really need is one thing. This one thing has replaced everything else—this screen, when you think about it. So what does that kind of accessibility to knowledge mean? We're going to explore this in a minute. But, of course, the greatest impact is that of social media, just to really scare you.


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