I began this blog while participating in a class at Meadville/Lombard.  This past weekend, the students registered for credit decided to reply to last week’s Peter Morales “Congregations and Beyond” document based on their new learnings.  Since I was only auditing (and had three children’s birthday parties to deal with!) I chose not to participate.  I am mightily impressed by what the seminarians wrote and want to help them share this widely. so here it is:

A couple of weeks ago, we were part of a Meadville Lombard class that changed us dramatically. “Digital/Spiritual Literacy: Finding the Sacred in Virtual Space”  was our first significant window into the digital liberal religious world—Unitarian Universalist and otherwise.  We are newcomers to that world, and as such we feel we have a perspective that might be useful to you in your discussions.

Meadville/Lombard’s Digital/Spiritual Literacy class, January, 2012

Our class included self proclaimed “neo-luddites”, bloggers and Facebook addicts, an age range spanning from Millennial to Boomer, first-year seminarians to someone who had been a Minister for almost two decades,  people who weren’t  Unitarian Universalists at all, people who are involved with the UUA, and people from other countries. Yet, our responses to the class material were remarkably similar–delight, discovery, and definite surprise.

To organize our thoughts, we’ve borrowed (and altered the order of) the three main goals/ challenges for UUism outlined elsewhere by Rev. Peter Morales: Get religion, cross borders, and grow leaders.

Getting Religion

Many UU “immigrants” from other religions remember the exact moment when their eyes filled with tears and they thought “There’s a home for me here, even though I do/don’t believe ____”.  Finding out about our religion reaching out digitally had that same feeling for us, even though we didn’t initially understand why.

It was a feeling that directly translated into immediate action.  Some of us blogged about what we learned.  Some of us signed up for a Facebook account.  Some of us organized a phone meeting to craft this response, motivated both by the class itself and  Rev. Morales’ “Congregations and Beyond” white paper.  We got immediately active, in ways that had nothing to do with our assignments.

This is not our usual response to class work.

It was a feeling of “Getting Religion”.  Not in the way we might think of the term negatively–to mean hopping on to a ship with someone else at the helm.  Not the way we often use it in Unitarian Universalist circles–to mean beginning a debate on what we should mean by religion and creating a governance structure to decide how we will steer the ship.  We did not primarily “get religion” in our brains, but in our hearts and immediately following that our hands.

As a small group, we were able to find a common passion, and start living it in community immediately.  The fact that we didn’t need approval from all (or any) UUs  was a key part of the magic.  We beta tested our own experience as we went along.

The digital world has changed our culture from one of big structures in which people campaign to spread information and change direction, to one of small structures where a greater number of people have influence (but over a smaller pool).  In our discussions of culture during class, we repeatedly noticed this shift from institution-as-center to relationships-as-center.

One time  we were looking at websites, and our teacher commented about one guy who does great Facebook posts.  Three class members nodded, and the rest of us, seeing those nods, wrote down the name.  Rev. Morales’ memo came to us not via institutional channels, but through personal connections.  Then there’s the amount of times that the phrase “get religion, cross borders, grow leaders” was repeated, all over seminary, and the realization that it’s power came partly from the position of the man who spoke it.  But equally, it’s power came from the number of people “re-tweeting” it–literally or metaphorically.

As a movement, we are used to this.  Universalists were “going viral” long before computers were invented.  Unitarians were questioning authority long before it was easy, and even before it was allowed.  Word has always spread, and people excluded elsewhere have found a home here.

Crossing Borders

Why did that stop working? Why aren’t the people who are pouring out of other religions pouring into Unitarian Universalism?  Don’t we have what they want without restrictions? We have no checkpoint where we insist you believe a certain thing or adopt a certain identity.  The only thing we check for is… allegiance to the structure of church and of religion.

The first checkpoint for a new person is the search to find us.  If you think to yourself “I want a spiritual community” and your history has taught you that “church” is the word for that, we’re visible to you.  If, however, your history has taught you that church is the word for social pressure, boredom, empty platitudes, homophobia, or self righteousness, the language and structure we use will shut you out.  By so often “branding” our activities as Unitarian Universalist, we make ourselves visible only to those who think of religion a certain way.  To others, we make our activities (and ourselves) invisible.

The second checkpoint occurs within our walls.  Put simply, you must be looking not only to have religious community, but also to have it within the paradigm of church.  Which means:

1) You have to like a specific style of Sunday Morning (or be willing to just sacrifice the time and tune out);

2) You have to be willing to group by geographical location rather than common identity;

3) You have to be willing to sort yourself into tight categories of “Member” or “Not” and adopt an extremely prescribed role; 4) You have to understand pretty intuitively why all of that is a good idea.

When the price of membership is conformity to a structure that is culturally foreign or negative, people might say “I’m a UU but not a church person”.  Unfortunately, “not a church person” currently translates into “nearly completely shut out of the movement.”

If we are to do what we have always done and make room for the people who have no religious family, we will need to meet them halfway.  We will need to treat our intersection as a cross cultural experience, and find out how they do church rather than just invite them to do it our way. “Church” can change structure without losing its core or its meaning.  Family did.

Growing Leaders

As seminarians, we are well acquainted with the process of “growing leaders.” We are waiting for the day when we will be considered ready to lead.  In our class and in the discussions following it, ideas kept coming to us.  As a movement, we could use a liturgical research and development team, for example.  As congregations try out new methods of liturgy, we need to share and publish that.  We could use a social media sudden response team–people who have the expertise and motivation to create Youtube videos quickly in response to what is happening in the world.

We had idea after idea, and no idea how to pitch in.  Then, we realized that these things may be happening already. We don’t know.  We don’t keep track of everything the UUA does because, like most people, there is way more information available to us than we are ever going to pay attention to.  Which begs the question, if the movement is going to grow leaders, how can it get people to stop and listen long enough to learn what they need to know?

Via relationship.  In a world where “going viral” is the our culture’s democratic broadcasting device, we need to create highly contagious messages, and lots of them.  We need to recognize that people hearing our message are listening as much to who is talking as they are to what the content of the message is.  It is not a matter of only selecting and growing a small percentage of people into highly effective leaders, but also of facilitating a broad base of interconnected people who lead in all kinds of ways.  It is about assuming people learn by leading, and that they are already leading, and about facilitating “points of contagion” for information and enthusiasm to spread.

Getting Religion, Crossing Borders, and Growing As Leaders

At one moment on Thursday afternoon, a passerby might have thought that our class had completely deteriorated.  One student was giving a presentation on a technological tool, and only three or four people were paying any attention.  Two people were working on their computer, and there were a couple of side conversations.  The presenter kept being interrupted, and at one point someone was drawing a side diagram on a whiteboard.

Except, one of the people working on their computer was posting a key insight from the class onto his blog, and another was looking up a question that the presenter hadn’t been able to answer.  The side conversations were made up of spontaneous pairings of people who were too advanced for the presenter’s content and people who weren’t advanced enough–a way to help people along at their level without sidetracking the class.  And the presenter, understanding this paradigmatic shift, was fine with being the center of focus and not the center of focus—at the same time. Like the spread of the Congregations and Beyond document, learning was happening by combining the traditional “wisdom from the front” model with a more relationship based and spontaneous way of working.

We’d like to think that someone walking by would have been able to see this–that the electricity and involvement of everyone in the room would have been palpable—and enticing.  We’d also like to think that this is but one small beginning step, and we look forward to a day when we will look back on that class as “when we first started to see what was possible”.

Get religion.  Cross Borders.  Grow Leaders.

In whatever format(s) work.

BTW some of these folks have their own blogs worth looking at: Liz James, Lyn Betz, Chris Jimmerson, Ed Proulx