Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Lowe Moment

Lowe's recently pulled advertising from the show All-American Muslim, bowing to pressure from conservative groups such as the Christian Florida Family Association.  The president of that group, David Katon, said this on NPR:
Our concern with ‘All American Muslim’ is that it does not accurately represent the term Muslim, which is a follower of Islam and a follower of Islam believes in radicalization, the use of Sharia law, which provides for honor killings, mutilation of women and numerous other atrocities to women.
Despite how often we hear anti-Muslim rhetoric in our society, this piece of vitriol really shocked me.  His objection to the show is that it portrays moderate, average, peaceful American Muslims.  Apparently a religious extremist like Katon can't believe that moderates within other religions exist.  He paints a caricature of Muslims and then claims that anyone who doesn't look like his caricature isn't Muslim, and that moderate, peaceful Islam doesn't exist.

Of course it does.  This is ridiculous.

The Muslims on All-American Muslim are more more peaceful, more American, and more Godly than Katon and his organization.  His statements are a disgrace to the faith of real Christians, and thank goodness we aren't using his beliefs to paint a caricature of the religion he claims to be a part of, because he gives Christianity a bad name.  I'll take Dearborn Muslims over his Florida Christians any day as my neighbors and friends.

I was excited to see the show air, by the way, and watched an episode or two, because it highlights the sort of people here in Michigan that I've gotten to know and care for as part of my community.  Unfortunately, I found the show rather boring, which is, really, pretty good news.  It turns out that All-American Muslims?  Well, they're just like us.  In truth, they are us.  And that's just not very exciting TV in my book.  Now, vampires or dragons or something, those are different.

Meanwhile, shame on Lowe's, which has offered this chicken-hearted response:
Lowe's has received a significant amount of communication on this program, from every perspective possible. Individuals and groups have strong political and societal views on this topic, and this program became a lighting rod for many of those views. As a result we did pull our advertising on this program. We believe it is best to respectfully defer to communities, individuals and groups to discuss and consider such issues of importance.
No, Lowe's, what you did wasn't a response to controversy; what you did was a response to bigotry.  The controversy wasn't something you acted in response to, it was something caused by your action.  And your non-apology of "If we have made anyone question that commitment (to allowing people to have 'different views'), we apologize" isn't going to throw us off track while you continue to bow to the wishes of the hate-mongering bigots by not advertising on a show which is all about showing this thing you've just stated you have a commitment to--differing views.  You're daring to tell us that you have a commitment to allowing different views, and then pulling ads from a show highlighting difference because the bigots say different views can't really exist?  

We call bullshit.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Girl Scouting and the UUA

Dashed off a letter to the UUA today.  Leaving off the official's name to whom I addressed it, the text of it was as follows:

I am writing to you as a Unitarian Universalist minister and as a Girl Scout Troop Leader and Girl Scout Troop Organizer. I’ve paid attention over many years to the “continuing struggle for inclusiveness” situation between the UUA and the Boy Scouts, as outlined at http://www.uua.org/re/children/scouting/169633.shtml.

I’m proud as a Girl Scout leader that Girl Scouts do not share the Boy Scouts’ discrimination towards atheist and agnostic scouts and troop leaders nor their discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender scouts and troop leaders. Indeed, I proudly tell my Brownie Girl Scouts on a regular basis that the Girl Scout Promise, which includes the word “God,” can be, according to Girl Scouts USA, replaced by any Girl Scout to reflect her own spiritual beliefs. I model this in my troop meetings by replacing the word “God” in the GS Promise with “love,” “earth,” “peace,” and another of other terms.

Similarly, Girl Scouts has recently been in the news for their inclusive policies on transgender Girl Scouts, and has come down on the side of believing that any child who considers herself a Girl and wants to be a Girl Scout is welcome in Girl Scouting. I confirmed this through calling GSUSA directly and asking about transgender girls being welcomed in scouting, and through conversations with my own area coordinator.

That’s why I am disturbed that right under the “UUA and BSA” page on the UUA’s website, the next link is to a list of “Alternative Scouting Organizations,” and that this page then begins with stating “In addition to the popular Boy Scouts of America and Girl Scouts of the USA, there are other scouting organizations.” (http://www.uua.org/re/children/scouting/169569.shtml.) This statement makes it look like the UUA has problems with Girl Scouts similar to the problems with Boy Scouts, and perpetuates a common misunderstanding that Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts are related organizations that share common policies and practices, when this is not the case. Girl Scouts ought to be listed as an “Alternative Scouting Organization” along with Camp Fire USA, Navigators USA, Scouting for All, and SpiralScouts. I grew up in Camp Fire, and can say that I have found Girl Scouts every bit as welcoming, if not more so, to girls of regardless of race, religion, socioeconomic status, disability, sexual orientation or other aspect of diversity. My little troop last year was a group of girls who through themselves and their parents represented every aspect of that list of diversity types, in fact!

I’m hoping the wording on the UUA’s webpage can be changed to represent the positive relationship that the UUA has with Girl Scouting. If you are not the person who this letter should be directed to, please tell me who I can refer this issue to. This March is the 100th anniversary of Girl Scouts, and I’ll be highlighting Girl Scouts in our church this year, where several Girl Scouts have earned their “My Promise, My Faith” badge for learning about how the Girl Scout Law relates to the Unitarian Universalist Principles. I would love it if by the 100th anniversary our organization could show more support for this inclusive and supportive scouting institution.

Thank you for your care and attention to this issue.

In faith,

Cynthia Landrum
Minister
Universalist Unitarian Church of East Liberty
Clarklake, MI
Girl Scout Troop Leader & Troop Organizer

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Random Acts of Kindness

I'd been having a rough day, when I came to the studio with my daughter to wait for an hour while she takes her class. In the last ten minutes, one stranger has offered to buy me a latte, and another has told me that I look really nice in purple.

Random acts of kindness, folks, go a long way. You never know when the person you just reached out to really needed that kind moment from a stranger.

Here's hoping I remember to pay it forward.

Another Thing About GA

This is a shout-out to the GA Planning Committee, I suppose.  I know they're doing a lot of hard work, and I know that criticizing what they've done, when they have so many voices they've been asked to listen to and they've put a ton of thought & effort into things, is not helpful, constructive, or appreciated.  So without criticizing, what I want to say is that I want them to know how much work we, ought here in the non-UUA-committee world have been doing, as well.  We've been asked to prepare ourselves for this General Assembly, and I think we have been.  By the time I get to General Assembly, here's some of what I will have done:
  • Read the UUA's "Common Read" book for 2010-2011, The Death of Josseline.
  • Read other books on immigration.
  • Read just about everything on the UUA's webpage on immigration.
  • Read countless e-mails and websites from social justice agencies on the subject.  
  • Attended workshops designed to prepare us for "Justice GA" at my district annual assembly at two consecutive district assemblies.  
  • Attended a training from Standing on the Side of Love.
  • Attended workshops and discussions at past GAs on the subject.
  • Held congregational discussions on the subject.
  • Preached on the subject.
  • Participated in press conferences and social justice events at a state level.
  • Held a Community Forum on the subject with local experts.
  • Taken one or two semesters of Spanish and perhaps also immersed myself in an intensive study course, as urged in the Responsive Resolution from GA 2011.
  • Participated in a UUMA chapter gathering focused on immigration justice and preparing us for the "Justice GA."
That's what I can think of off the top of my head.  I don't think it's atypical for a UU clergy person--I think it's probably typical of the amount of work we're personally putting in to prepare ourselves for this GA.  I know that's not everything I need to know.  But I didn't start off this process knowing nothing about how to do justice work, either.  And I also know that there are people who will have done a lot more than me, and people who will have done a lot less.  And I'm sure that I will need some of the "education and preparation" times announced in the preliminary schedule.  Since those are all on the early days, though, I worry that the people who have prepared the most before coming are the ones who will get the most preparation there, and vice versa. 

I know there's no way to know the preparation level of each participant, and so things have to be somewhat geared towards the least prepared. But I'm just wanting to let folks out there know that when you ask us to do our homework, there are definitely those of us who are listening and doing so.  If there can be something of a advanced track that's geared to us who have done so, that would be great.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Writing Process

I'm pouring out post after post on 9/11 to get out of my system those things which I need to say but which don't belong in my sermon.  This is done in hopes that once these things are out, I can see what is left.  What I know is left right now is the stone of hope that is hewn out of the mountain of despair.  Perhaps it is connected to those five smooth stones.  Or perhaps it is one of them.  What mountains do we hew the other four stones out of, then?  Grief, hope, memory, and even joy are all the tumblers now as I polish the stones up. 

09/16/11 - The Stone of Hope

I've been rereading what I wrote in those days after September 11th, 2001.  Here's what I said at our water communion service on September 16th, 2001:

          Like many of you, I have been inundated with the thoughts of millions this week.  I hear speaker after speaker on television and radio, I read comment after comment in the papers and on e-mail.  They blur together--the President, a minister, a fireman, a friend, a teacher, a rabbi, a senator, an imam...  I marvel at their coherence sometimes, their ability to capture the depth of tragedy in a soundbite.  I found myself unable to put pen to paper all week, still soaking it all in, still trying to make sense out of chaos.  What follows here, therefore, is one person’s thoughts--still mutable, still very much in turmoil. 
          My first thoughts, of course, are for the victims and their families of this week’s horrible events.  I hear phrases like “an end to innocence” and “our world will never be the same,” being exchanged, and they resonate within me.  Certainly, it feels like a tragedy the likes of which we have not known in this country during my life time.  And I applaud the efforts of those who have rushed to help.  The way people can come together and set aside differences to work side by side and do what needs to be done is only a small solace, given the extent of tragedy, but it does warm my heart.  It is in this that I find hope, and comfort.
          As I gather my thoughts as to what the next steps in this country will be, I have two warring sides within me.  They are both crying out to be heard.  The first is the one we’ve been hearing the most of.  Part of me cries out that justice must be done, that war is needed.  This part of me suddenly finds myself crying at the words, “God Bless America” plastered on billboards all up and down the road.  I want national unity, a feeling of togetherness, of solidarity in this cause. 
          But inside myself, I find no unity.  The other side of me, too, cries for the victims.  It too, mourns endless tears for the people who got up and went to work, only to never come home.  But this side of me is critical of some of the rhetoric I’ve been hearing.  I stay with my earlier beliefs: that if there is a god or goddess or gods, he/she/they, if they are in the business of blessing at all, would certainly bless all people.  I fall back on Universalism, which says that all are loved by God, that whatever is ultimate in this world, we are equally blessed and embraced, and will all be treated equally in death.  This side of me, too, worries at a nation which seems to feel right now that they would give up endless civil liberties for a larger measure of safety.  It worries that rhetoric of war too quickly gets acted on in our own back yards against people, our Muslim and Arab-American neighbors, who are just as innocent as the victims of the plane crashes, and just as innocent as you and me.
          In such a confusing time, what solace does a religion of questions offer?  When we want answers so badly, how can we live with this ambiguity?  I want so badly at a time like this to have a certain God, a personal God, whom I can turn to, instead of my endless agnosticism, a field of only more and more questions. 
          But as events unfold, I know that there are numerous lights that our religion must hold up.  In an increasingly conservative world, in a country on the brink of an indefinable war, religious liberalism is needed more than ever.  There is a particular role to be filled by us, and only we can do it.
          One thing we must do, is stand with our Muslim brothers and sisters.  Stand up for them, ally with them, help protect him.  What we deplore is fanaticism and fundamentalism, and any disregard for life, not the religion of Islam itself.  Muslim organizations throughout this country have publicized their statements decrying the actions of the terrorists who struck on Tuesday.  Yet throughout this country, Muslims, Arabs, middle-easterners, anyone racially resembling an Arab, have found themselves targets of hate crimes.
          The Houston Chronicle reported in a small article this week that Arab-Americans have faced “backlash.”  They tell that six shots were fired at an Islamic center in a suburb of Dallas.  An Islamic bookstore in the suburbs of Washington had bricks thrown through it’s windows.  A sign announcing an Islamic community center in Dallas was defaced.  In Sterling, Virginia members of an Islamic community center found their buses defaced when they gathered to go together to donate blood.[1]  In Detroit, which has one of the largest Arab populations in this country, my mother asked her Lebanese co-worker about his personal experiences this week.  She said, “He seemed to be so relieved that someone would actually give him a chance to speak about them. He, too, has been attacked verbally many times already, and even “shunned” by one of our own staff members with whom he has worked for ten years!” 
          As religious liberals, the first thing we need to do is be the person who actually speaks to our Arab and Muslim neighbors.  We have to be better neighbors than ever before, because so many would dehumanize them, treat them as “other,” and not as ourselves. 
          Another thing we must do is stand up against other forms of hate, for they are also taking place.  Televangelist Jerry Falwell, who would have you believe that he is a man of God, has blamed the tragedy on all sorts of liberal groups, from gays and lesbians to Pagans to ACLU members to pro-choice individuals.  I think he covered, in his list, just about everybody I know, and much of what I hold dear.  Other liberals have found themselves attacked by friends and co-workers for being a voice of dissent, for being unwilling to jump on the bandwagon and immediately cry “War!”  Many are moving quickly from the passion of the moment to an unwillingness to allow for multiple voices in this country, an anger which is so deep from the horrible tragedy that has taken place gets quickly unleashed at the closest source they find. 
          I’m unwilling and unable to say yet, because of the deep confusion and divide in myself, that we must assume an attitude of war.  I’m also not about to say, “We brought this upon ourselves.”  I truly believe that these acts were in no way justified.  What I am willing to say is that the strength of our nation, like the strength of our liberal religion, is in our diversity.  Our strength is in being able to hear opinions we differ with and not resorting to name-calling and hatred ourselves, whether that cry is against those to the left or to the right of us.  Our strength is in respecting all of the world’s religions, and in trying to understand them better, to work with them to find common ground, rather than resorting to a rhetoric of a God who blesses only our country, or only our religion, or only those who believe exactly as we do.
          The strength of this country is not found in the quick answers of flag or anthems, it is found in the more difficult, onerous work of voting and of free presses, and of dissent.  Similarly, the strength of our faith is not that we have an absolute God to fall back on, that we can say will go to war against evil with us, but that we have freedom of belief, and that we embrace our diversity.  Our unity must be found in diversity, in knowing that we are a Muslim nation, and a Christian nation, and a Buddhist nation and an Atheist nation and a Pagan nation and a Jewish nation, and so on.  Our unity must be found through acts of reason, not passion.  Now is a time for deep consideration, as we forge a national identity, that it be one which doesn’t ignore these differences but rather embraces them and holds them up as a model for the world.  If we cannot avoid fighting against ourselves, against Muslim Americans, against Arab-Americans, against any who disagree with our views, if we cannot avoid terrorist actions against our next-door neighbors, we cannot, with integrity, proclaim this to be a great nation. 
          Within our own four walls, I hope that we model in our church the best of what this country is, and the best of ourselves.  This is the time which will test our faiths most, and the time in which we must not falter.  This week has been a time of much hate, but also much love.  May we embody the best of it, the pulling together, the helping and volunteering, even as we guard more vigilantly against the hatred which comes so easily.  May we live up to our values now, for now is the time when our values are needed in the world.
          I close with these words from Martin Luther King, Jr.:
          We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  There are some things in our social system to which all of us ought to be maladjusted.  Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear, only love can do that.  We must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation.  The foundation of such a method is love.  Before it is too late, we must narrow the gaping chasm between our proclamations of peace and our lowly deeds which precipitate and perpetuate war.  One day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek but a means by which we arrive at that goal.  We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means.  We shall hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.[2]


[1] “Arab-Americans quickly faced backlash” by Hanna Rosin (Washington Post), The Houston Chronicle, Friday, Sept. 14, 2001, p.44A.
[2] #584, Singing the Living Tradition.

Visiting "Ground Zero"

9/11 had a large impact on my ministry.  About two years later, in 2003, now ministering in New England, my colleague Jennie Barrington and I, were talking often how 9/11 had shaped our ministry.  We also were big Simon and Garfunkel fans, and Simon and Garfunkel were doing their "Old Friends" reunion tour.  We bought two tickets to go see them in New Jersey, and we hit the road.  We went two places: the concert, and Ground Zero.  That was it -- we didn't do a Broadway show or see the Statue of Liberty, or go to the Met.  We had two things we wanted to do: that concert, and see Ground Zero for ourselves.

I had been to New York City only two or three times before -- once to visit a boyfriend in college over the summer, once with my college's Glee Club on a concert trip.  I had driven through it a couple of times on my way to New England, also, but all I can say about that is that the tunnels and bridges are expensive, and that driving through New York City six months after 9/11 with a truck full of furniture is a nerve-wracking experience.  I had never gone to see the World Trade Center when it was standing.  I've still never been to the Statue of Liberty, although I saw it from the ferry my first time there. 

So we drove with our bad Mapquest directions ("take the exit" -- which exit?) down to our hotel in New Jersey near the concert venue.  We listened to Simon and Garfunkel all the way down and all the way back, hearing some songs that we had never heard before on their newest release, such as "A Church Is Burning," which we heard with stunned ears, and replayed over and over again several times in a row, weeping, as we drove down.  We talked about how to use the song in worship, something I still haven't done.  And we went to the concert, which was a special treat not only getting to hear them, but hearing them in home turf, in the New York City area.

And then we went to Ground Zero.

There was no memorial there, of course.   What there was was a big pit where work was still going on uncovering things that had been pushed down into the earth by the collapse of the towers.  The area was surrounded by fences, tourists walking around, and people selling t-shirts and tchotchkes.  It was a strange and surreal experience standing there by the fence with nothing particular to say or do once we got there.  It had become more tourist site than memorial at that time.  Yet it was an important moment, this finally seeing it for ourselves, and understanding how big the area was.

I don't remember if we wept or if we prayed, or if we just walked around and looked.  I do remember that it changed us.

Do You Remember?

When I was younger, particularly, but really for a lifetime, I can remember instances where people were talking about how they remember where they were when they heard that John F. Kennedy was shot or that Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot.  I was born after both of those instances.  But I could tell that there was something important about sharing those memories.  For my generation, we had a bit of this with the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion.  I remember that I was in science class at school when I heard about it.  But for us, really, it's now 9/11 that holds this strange fixed moment in our cultural consciousness.  I think it's true not just for us, but maybe a bit more so, since we aren't old enough to have experienced those tragic deaths of JFK and MLK, much less the World War II moments that still loom large for that greatest generation.

My story of 9/11/01 is intricately woven with the beginning of my ministry.  I was in my first month of ministry, fresh out of seminary.  I had started about a week into August, and the Sunday following 9/11/01 would be our ingathering  Sunday, the official start to the church year.  I was at home in my new Houston apartment when I got a call from our music director.  She asked me if I had heard the news, if I had my television on.  I hadn't.  I remember her saying, "The World Trade Center is gone.  It' gone."  I turned on my television as she told me the news.  And she asked me, "Do you think we should have a vigil this evening?"  I said, "I'm not sure, I'll call you back in a few with a decision.  Let me process this."

Two more calls from church members followed in rapid succession to make sure I had heard the news and to find out if we would have a service.  By the second one, I said yes, and started to make all the plans -- called the music director to start planning the musical elements, called the president to start the phone tree so that people would get the news, and had somebody calling the television stations to get us on the list of services. 

In my memory it was that very day, but perhaps it was the next day, that I had a meeting with the local Houston-area UU ministers.  What a blessing that was.  They shared resources that they had been thinking about for vigils and for the following Sunday: Annie Dillard, Anne Frank, Adrienne Rich. 

I get the vigil we had and the following Sunday conflated in my memory.  I know at the Sunday service we had our usual water communion.  And I remember somebody bringing water from their trip to the World Trade Center.  Whether it was actual water from there or symbolic water, I can't tell you.  To me, it was water that came from the World Trade Center, and it was there with us in our water communion.  I've carried that water as part of our water communion since -- I took some water from that water communion with me to my next congregation, and to the one that followed (my current congregation), and saved water from year to year.  The World Trade Center is still there in the drops of water we pour every year into our common bowl at our water communion. 

Other things I remember from those services are that we had a fireman in our congregation who shared the Fireman's Prayer with us, and that even as far away as Houston, there were people with connections at the Pentagon and in New York City.  We shared with the entire country the pain, the fear, and the longing to get up and go and be of some help as we watched the endless process to try to find survivors and identify the dead unfold through our television sets.

This was the beginning of my ministry as a UU minister.  And that I ministered through this time is still one of my biggest accomplishments as a minister.  Nothing in seminary had prepared us for this situation.  Those of us who were new in the field had had no training on how to craft a vigil after 9/11, how to minister to the fear and pain that was a national experience like this, how to be a non-anxious presence when the entire country was feeling the most anxiety it had ever felt in our lifetime.  We were new and green in a raw and earth-shattering moment. 

I didn't do everything perfectly, I know.  I remember the competing tensions even then about patriotism and religion -- Do we sing "God Bless America"?  Do we use a flag print cloth as our altar cover?  But as I look back now as a minister with ten years experience, and open the files and read my words from that time in 2001, I wouldn't do anything differently.  It was real and genuine.  I'll be using some of those same resources my Houston colleagues shared with me from 2001 in 2011, and am still grateful for what I learned from them on that September day.  

Friday, September 9, 2011

Talking to My Child About 9/11

There are a lot of people who have written a lot of wise words about how to talk to children about 9/11.  I'm not a child psychologist, or a teacher, or an expert on trauma.  I am a parent, though, and ultimately every parent has to handle this themselves, whether or not they are also a a child psychologist, teacher, or trauma expert.

So I talked to my child about 9/11 today on the way to school in the car.  She was born a few years after 9/11/01, so it wasn't something that had really come up before.  But we had switched the radio from NPR to her favorite music station--the one that plays all the pre-teen pop songs--and they were talking about 9/11.  So I just asked her, "Do you know what they're talking about when people are talking about 9-11 or September 11th?"  She didn't.  So I told her, in simple terms, that on September 11th, ten years ago, before she was born, some men, which we call terrorists, had taken over some planes, using knives, and wanted to kill everyone, so they flew the planes into buildings and crashed them, and that they did this with three planes, and two of the buildings, the World Trade Center or "Twin Towers" had completely collapsed, and a lot of people had died on that day.  And then I just answered her questions -- she's pretty bold about asking questions.  And that let me know where her thoughts were.  And I made sure to tell her two things -- first, that this was why they check people over a lot more now before we go on airplanes, so that would keep us safer, and, secondly, that there were a lot of people who were heroes on that day, like some people on a fourth plane who stopped that plane from hitting a fourth building. 

Her questions were:
Why do people want to remember this now, and talk about it?
Why did those people want to crash the planes?
Why did they hate us?

Ten years is a long time when you're not ten yet.  However, explaining why we want to remember, when people are still sad, is easy to do for a kid who has done funerals for her pets.  Answering "Why did they hate us?" on a car ride to school is less easy.  I told her that I didn't really completely understand this, either. 

How do we explain acts of violence to our children?  It's definitely not easy.  I'm still working on this one.  Meanwhile what I want her to know at her age, the age of nightmares, is that we've worked to make things safer, and that most people on that day acted in good ways, and that's a big part of what we want to remember.

Friday, August 19, 2011

It's No Wonder...

Almost two weeks ago, a blogger going by "Wondertwisted" wrote a blog post titled A 'Dear John' Letter to Unitarian Universalism.  (Her real name appears to be "Cindy" based on the responses to the post, but since I'm a Cindy, that's confusing, so we'll call her "WT.")  In her post, WT outlines the reasons why she's leaving Unitarian Universalism.  The blog post immediately got a lot of my colleagues talking about it, mostly on Facebook as they posted up the piece.  I've been thinking about WT's post since then, and am still not really ready to put out a full response, but here goes for a bit anyway.

I understand what it is my colleagues are saying when they are sympathizing with Wondertwisted.  They see in her post a desire for a deeper spiritual experience in Unitarian Universalism.  It's connected to the "Language of Reverence" discussions that went around a few years ago and the "Whose Are We" discussions the UUMA has started.  The recent UU World piece by David Bumbaugh articulated this neatly, as well. 

I also understand the yearning for a Unitarian Universalism that is more embracing of its Christian past.  I serve a church with a high percentage of UU Christians, and I'm the child of UU Christians, and I think it's very important to create a religious atmosphere in UU churches that is welcoming and embracing of UU Christians.  And I know that there are UU churches where UU Christians have felt the atmosphere to be hostile to their beliefs.  I've heard this from a family member, for one thing.  I've worked hard to discourage this kind of attitude whenever I've seen it.  And I know some see in WT an articulating of how hostile our churches can sometimes be.

I read Wondertwisted a little differently, however.  First of all, I'd like to say that while I want Unitarian Universalism to grow, I don't envision a world wherein everyone becomes Unitarian Universalist.  It's well and good that people are different religions--I like religious diversity in the world.  So I don't mourn that UCC members are members of the UCC and not the UUA.  That's great that the UCC is there and that we have so much in common with them.  And I think UU churches are sometimes a stopping point for religious wanderers on their way to somewhere else.  That's okay with me, too.  Not everybody who walks through our doors is really going to find that Unitarian Universalism is what that person is looking for.  And a lot of what people are looking for and not finding in our church is something a lot more Christian than what we are. 

So there are UU Christians and there are UUs who are not Christian and there are Christians who are not UU.  And it's good that there are all these categories.

I think Wondertwisted may be, as she describes herself, a "Unitarian Christian," but she's not a UU Christian, and it's great that she's figured that out and gone off to somewhere where they are more Christian and maybe less Unitarian, but more what she's looking for.  Let me explain.

It's comes down to this passage:
I was at a UU leadership function. I met a really smart, really energetic and sweet guy. The kind of guy that any church elder or pastor would love to recruit onto the board. He volunteered his path to me: “I’m a Buddhist-Humanist,” he said. Then he took a swig of fair trade coffee while I told every particle of my being that, no, I would NOT roll my eyes.

You can’t be a Buddhist-Humanist. You just can’t.
Here's the thing: Yes, you can.  And that's part of what Unitarian Universalism is about.  She says, "Be a Buddhist or a Humanist and do the work, because I suspect that claiming a hybrid philosophy might have something to do with wanting to be “spiritual” without the messy work of transformation."  But sometimes "doing the work" of theology is in studying and understanding multiple religious traditions and understanding that each of them have to be adapted in some way to fit with one's own spiritual beliefs.  I know there are critics of Building Your Own Theology out there, but I think it had a lot of things right.  In Unitarian Universalism we do pick and choose and create hybrid theologies.  And in many cases this is because we have "done the work" -- a lot more so than your average non-hybrid-believer.  By way of example, a recent Pew study showed that atheists know a lot more about religion than the average believer. 

It's frankly very easy to see how a UU can be a Buddhist-Humanist.  Those two faith traditions have a lot in common.  And neither Buddhism nor Humanism is a dead, unchanging, ungrowing thing.  They both have flexibility in them.  But one who sees the definitions of Humanism or Buddhism as so rigid that one can't find a home in both?  Well, it's not surprising to me to hear that person doesn't feel at home in Unitarian Universalism.

Not everyone is comfortable with ambiguity, with gray areas, with the lack of rigid definitions, of course.  I often say that what makes UU Christians and UU Buddhists and UU Pagans and UU Humanists all UU is that we all believe we don't have all of the answers, and that we can learn from one another.  We believe in the value of coming together in religious diversity and sharing our religious journeys. 

So blessings on your journey, Wondertwisted.  I'm glad you've figured out where your religious home is.  And it's okay that it's not us. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Pronoun Usage: Where Grammar and Justice Meet

As many of you may be aware, I have my bachelor's and an M.A. in English literature, and I often teach introduction to composition at the local community college in addition to ministry.  I'm teaching again this fall, and am thinking over my point of view about pronouns, specifically the use of "they" as a singular gender-neutral third-person pronoun.

My previous perspective had been that I was there to teach them to abide by the MLA style, and that the MLA style did not (yet) allow for the singular use of "they."  Therefore, I have been marking this as a pronoun/noun error on papers for years.  As far as I can determine, the MLA, Chicago, and APA style manuals all still recommend "he or she" or "he/she" or making the subject plural.  The Chicago Style Manual states:
A singular antecedent requires a singular referent pronoun. Because he is no longer accepted as a generic pronoun referring to a person of either sex, it has become common in speech and in informal writing to substitute the third-person plural pronouns they, them, their, and themselves, and the nonstandard singular themself. While this usage is accepted in casual contexts, it is still considered ungrammatical in formal writing.
 The Chicago Style Manual recommends all the usual work-arounds: "he or she," plural subjects, imperative mood, rewrite the noun, revise the sentence, etc.  I couldn't find as clear a statement out of the MLA or APA, but my understanding is that they offer the same options.  The textbook I'm using for my class, The Little Seagull Handbook, offers these same work-arounds. 

My job, as I saw it, was to teach them to learn to use the MLA style and their handbook, and so I followed its rules.

However, there is one big problem with the he/she-type work-around: it leaves out people who do not use male or female pronouns to describe themselves.  And in the transgender community, use of alternative pronouns is becoming more common, particularly use of "zhe" or "hir."  Not everyone considers themselves as someone either male or female--we don't all fit neatly into two little boxes.  I could have students list all the pronouns, but as awkward as "he or she" is, certainly something like "he, she, zhe, or hir" would be more awkward. 

There's an interesting story here about how we took a situation that was understood as sexist--the use of "he" to mean people of all genders--and then created a popular usage, "he or she," that was still discriminatory.  And the grammar handbooks are still fighting the first problem and sometimes not even acknowledging the second one.  For example, the Little Seagull Handbook says, "Sexist language is language that stereotypes or ignores women or men... Writers once used he, him, and other pronouns as a default to refer to people whose sex was unknown to them...  Use both masculine and feminine pronouns joined by or."  The Chicago Manual of Style similarly gives this as an option without recognition of the justice problem that it creates in section 5.225--Nine techniques for achieving gender neutrality: "Use he or she (sparingly)."

There's one clear answer to this justice problem, and it's the one they all avoid: "they."  I try to avoid it in formal writing, but I do it in speech all the time.  It's being used commonly in speech, and grammar rules should follow usage, not dictate usage, is one argument.  It's a similar situation, one can argue, to what happened with the word "you."  "You" was originally a plural pronoun, and the singular was "thou."  Now we use a plural pronoun as a singular one with no issue, except for the need to create a new plural such as y'all.  (Heavens, let's hope we don't get a "th'all" emerging!)

We don't really, however, use "they" in a complete singular way.  We switch our sentences mid-stream to plural.  So we don't take the sentence, "A student can use whichever pronoun he or she wants" and replace "he or she" with "they" and say, "A student can use whichever pronoun they wants."  We say, rather, "A student can use whichever pronoun they want."  We change the verb there at the end to reflect the fact that "they" is a plural pronoun.  If I'm allowing for a singular "they" it should be followed by a singular verb, yes?  But that's not what we're doing in speech.  And we're not going to drop "he" or "she" as pronouns anytime soon and just move to totally using they and having plural verbs for singular subjects.  So it's still all mixed up.

I've explained all this to my students, and told them that I want them to learn to use the style recommended and that I think this will change in the next few years and the style manuals will accept "they" as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, but until they do, I want them to be aware of how they're using their pronouns and follow the style manual.

But I'm swayed now by the justice argument.  I was told of a situation in which the University of Michigan, my alma mater, dealt with this in a policy and ended up rewriting the sentences to avoid "he or she" or the singular "they" in order to be both grammatically and politically correct, when the justice advocates and the rhetoricians couldn't agree.  The UU Ministers Association, I learned recently, embraces the singular "they" as a solution. 

I would like to allow my students to use the singular "they," but at the same time I want them to be aware of what they're doing.  I'm thinking of some sort of solution where they indicate their awareness through asterisks or brackets or italics: they, *they*, [they].  That would show they're aware of the singular pronoun, and I would like them to be.  But that's as disruptive to the eye, on an aesthetic level, as people would think something like "z/s/he" would be. 

So what will I do?  I think, in the end, there's only one solution: explain it all, but let the student do whatever they want.  There's still no reason I can't crack down on apostrophes.  Thank goodness, because as fond as I was of pointing out pronoun/noun disagreements, the apostrophes are where my real passion is. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Trouble with Bookstores, Redux

A few months ago, as Borders closed some of its stores, I wrote this blog post.  This week we get the word that Borders is completely liquidating and will be no more. 

When I came to Jackson, Michigan, seven years ago, we had several small bookstores.  None of them were great.  Almost all of them are now out of business.   What's gone?  Best Books in Jackson Crossing, a small bookstore in a strip mall on West Ave., another small bookstore that was on West Ave. (I can't even remember their names), the Nomad Bookstore on Mechanic (which both came and went during these years), and now, we'll see the Waldenbooks in Jackson Crossing close, as well.

Where can you buy a book, other than online, in town?
  • You can buy textbooks at Baker College and Jackson Community College.
  • You can buy Christian books at Agape in Jackson Crossing.
  • You can buy children's books at the Toy House and a lesser number at Toys R Us.
  • You can buy comic books at Nostalgia, Ink
  • You can buy used books at the Jackson Book Exchange.
  • And you can buy bestsellers at Meijer, Target, and I think K-Mart and Wal-Mart (I seldom shop at these two). 
Honestly, our book selection won't be much different with Waldenbooks gone -- which perhaps was part of the problem.  The real loss was the Nomad, which carried a somewhat different selection from all the rest, although it was still not the selection I was usually looking for. 

But since we don't have much selection here, much less a bookstore with a comfy chair to curl up in, I did most of my book shopping in Ann Arbor or Lansing.  In Ann Arbor, there were three big Borders a year ago, and one Barnes and Noble.  I suspect that Barnes and Noble will become very overrun unless another big store pops up in town.  Ann Arbor, you would think, could support at least one more bookstore in town.  Hopefully Barnes and Noble or Books-a-Million will seize the opportunity.  Meanwhile, I may head to Lansing, which still has all of its big bookstores -- two Barnes and Nobles, and, even better, two Schuler's Books.  I've just discovered they have weekly online coupons, which makes them more price-competitive, and they're locally owned--like Borders once was.



*sigh*  I will miss it.  Goodbye, Ann Arbor institution.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Two Cents on the Justice GA

For the record, I'm not really opinionated about what is being called the "hot mess" -- the resignation of two members of the GA Planning Committee. I don't know enough about the internal politics of the GAPC or the UUA Board to really weigh in on the issue.  Kim Hampton's post about the roll of worship and the SLT in the Justice GA is informed and informative.  And I think Tom Schade is right on point to say, "It's always useful to remember that the future hasn't happened yet."

I am opinionated about the "Justice GA," on the other hand.  And I know for every person who was sitting in the Plenary Hall when we voted for a "Justice GA" there was a separate opinion, and not all of our expectations can be met.  Half of us probably think that there should be a Service of the Living Tradition, and half of us don't.  Half of us think there should be an exhibit hall, and half of us don't.  And the half that do and the half that don't for each item are a mix of those interested in the idea of the Justice GA and those that aren't. But I know this: there are a lot of people who've never gone to at GA before who are considering going to this one, because they understand that this year our denomination is doing something important and meaningful and different.  There are people who can only go a GA once in a while who are making a special point to be at this one.  The energy and excitement about the possibilities are high.

What we voted on was, to my mind, instead of doing business and usual and in lieu of cancelling or moving the 2012 General Assembly, to have a Justice GA where business as usual was minimized.  My fear is that "business as usual" will be taken to mean only the actual business of the General Assembly -- the business resolutions, Actions of Immediate Witness, and other such business of the plenary. 

On the other hand, I am also concerned that for people with mobility issues there will be nothing that they can attend if more and more is focused on off-site justice work.  I'm personally dedicating myself to starting to learn Spanish this year in preparation for the Justice GA, as suggested to us in one of this year's Responsive Resolution--this represents a real investment of both time and money, neither of which I have a lot to spare. 

And at the same time, I'm worried that I won't be able to even attend GA because I don't handle a lot of heat well, nor a lot of walking and standing, and if everything involves a combination of the two, it will be extremely difficult for me.  This year and past years have been a "hot mess" for me when it comes to how we handle accessibility.  During one GA (Ft. Worth), I very badly sprained my ankle -- it dislocated and then popped back into place in the process.  I needed help with mobility.  The planning for GA didn't include extra scooters; I was very lucky that one person who had ordered one had never shown up.  This year, when our Standing on the Side of Love rally was a bit of a hike in the hot weather, I heard the announcement that if we needed to take a cab, we could get reimbursed later (already not the best system), and that cabs would be waiting outside the conference center.  I didn't hear that it was at a different door, so I followed the crowd out the side door -- no cabs.  I went back in and found out where I was supposed to go, and went out -- no cabs were waiting.  This was not a particularly well-orchestrated initiative, from my point of view.  It's very important for the Justice GA to remember that what is a "short walk" for one person in a huge obstacle for another, particularly in heat that many are not used to dealing with.

So, with all that said, here's what I, personally, would love to see:
  • No exhibit hall.  It's become more and more pointless anyway.  All of these agencies can be found online.  We can shop online, and we can see their justice issues online.  Instead, create a virtual exhibit hall that people can visit from anywhere.
  • A Justice Hall instead.  If people need downtime and a place to wander or socialize, give them small tasks to do, like letters to write to elected officials. 
  • One or two workshop slots only.  There may be some workshops that are essential to hold, or exiting lecturers that we really want to feature, and there can be a some large justice-oriented workshops on how to build a movement, how to do social justice, how to engage cooperatively with other organizations, ARAOM work, etc.  
  • Instead of workshop slots, we have justice slots.  As for the all-justice slots, I would like to see not just large social justice rallies in these spots, but places where small groups go off into different parts of the area to work with local organizations on different projects.  There needs to be great variety.  And this probably means a sort of schedule where we commit to what we're doing in advance.  And it means buses. 
  • I would like to see the following cornerstone elements of GA: the Ware Lecture, the Service of the Living Tradition, and the Sunday morning worship service (which I would love to be the SLT again, but that's a whole other argument).  I think all can be themed around this justice work, and all are important to what makes up a General Assembly.  For the newcomers to GA, they would give the important taste of what GA is usually about.
  • All Reports -- all reports -- given in written and video ahead of time and no reports -- no reports -- presented verbally during plenaries.  We can do our homework ahead of time.  
  • A single plenary session to deal with all remaining business that we haven't been able to put off or voted this year to do next year.
  • Yes, more worship.  When we can't be doing justice work, we should be praying, singing, and celebrating.
  • I would like to see Ministry Days themed around the Justice GA in the following ways: a Berry Street Address that's on theme; minimal business; a group action project; drop the "collegial conversations" element in favor of group social action; drop the usual conversation with the UUA President in favor of having him lead us in justice work as well.
Most of all, I want this experience to be meaningful and transformative for me and for our movement.

Obviously I'm not going to get all my wishes.  Nor is anybody else.  Meanwhile, let's have patience and understanding with the Board and Planning Committee as they do the hard work of creating a GA experience unlike any other.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Design Your Church a Mobile Website! - Maps Addendum

It turns out I was over-thinking the maps option.  I had created a page called "Directions" which had the address and phone number and an embedded customized Google map of  the church in it (200x300 pixels).  This was entirely workable.  Someone could change the size of the map and move it up & down and so forth, to see what they wanted to see.  It was pretty much like this:


View Larger Map

But this wasn't what I really wanted.  I wanted to click on it and have the option pop up of going to my navigation app on the phone.

I discovered that if I clicked on the (plain text--no hyperlink) address itself that I had typed above the embedded map, I would get such a pop-up asking if I wanted to do that.  But this wasn't intuitive enough and some people might not know their phones work this way (and some phones might not do it, for all I know).

Then this weekend someone sent me directions to an event using Mapquest. When I went to print the directions, Mapquest asked me if I wanted to send the directions by text message to my phone.  When I did this, and the text message had a simple link.  When I tried clicking on that link, I had the option of using my navigation app or going to the browser.  Unfortunately, when I clicked navigation, it didn't work right -- it didn't put in the address.  When I went to the browser, however, I was then able to go back over to the navigation app and have the address appear in there to navigate to.

So I tried just putting a Mapquest link to the church on the mobile Directions page that was like this:  MAP.  My phone, when I clicked on it, didn't offer me the navigation app option.  So much for that. But it did take me to a very nice little Mapquest mobile version (which I do have to say seemed to offer more choices than Google's). 

So then I went back to Google, wondering what would happen if I just linked to the map rather than embedding it, like this:  MAP.  Success!  Clicking on it offered me the directions of going to Google's very nice mobile version of their map, or using my app.  I switched my directions page on the Mobile home page to be linked to the map, rather than linked to a page with the link on it, and it's done! 

Moral of the story: Whether you have a mobile version of your church webpage or not, instead of embedding the map, it would be good to provide a link to the Google map (or do both).  That way mobile users--at least those with Android phones like mine--will have the option of getting their navigation app to give them directions on how to get to your church as they drive there.  And even if it doesn't, Google will automatically route them to a mobile version of their map, which will be sized more appropriately for the phone than your embedded map is.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Design Your Church a Mobile Website!

Why?

Some time ago I installed a button from Extreme Tracking on the bottom of my church website, inconspicuously, I hoped.  I don't pay for the service, so I only get the free version, which tells me about the last twenty people to visit the website.  At the time, I was noticing the diversity of browsers people were using--the usage had changed from almost exclusively Internet Explorer to a diversity of browsers with Explorer representing the largest percentage, but less than half, and Firefox hot on its heels.  The big question then was how to design a page such that it looked good at different resolutions and through different browsers.  That was just a couple of years ago.  Earlier this week when I looked at data on the last twenty users, six were from mobile phones (one of which I could rule out as mine).  With one-fourth of the users looking at the website from mobiles, I knew I needed a church webpage that was friendlier to mobile usage.  I suspect that mobile phone users are more likely to be "seekers" than members, but I have no data to back that up, except that I could see search terms and know that some were coming from Google, some from my blog page, and some were going to the site directly.

So this week I've been working on a mobile version of the webpage.  It's available at http://www.libertyuu.org/mobile, if you want to check it out.  (Our regular page, for comparison, is at http://www.libertyuu.org, although I hope to redesign it next week because I'm pretty unhappy with its look currently.)  I suggest you check the mobile site out on a phone, as that's what it's made for, and it looks strange on a PC.  I don't yet have the script in place that would automatically route mobile users to it, but am working toward that goal.  And there's a big question about iPad and other tablet users, whether they should be directed to the mobile site or the full site.

Content

I don't have any digital video or audio capability at my church, so both webpages are heavily text-based, and the mobile site more so, since I didn't want to direct them off too often to outside pages.  The goal here was to keep information as brief as possible, and put up the things that seekers would most want to find.  Brevity is not my strong suit, as anyone who knows me can attest to, so I'm still working on trimming it down.  But I finally settled on nine links: Sunday Services, Directions, Religious Education, Social Justice, Newsletter, Beliefs, Shop, Phone, and More Information.  I figured that what seekers want to know is when, where, and what they'd be getting from us, so "Worship" tells the "when," "Directions" (and "Phone") tells the "where," and all the rest are the key pieces for the "what" -- worship, religious education, social justice, and newsletter.  The "More Information" lists staff members and the church e-mail and phone (again).  "Shop" lets people go through our Amazon Associates account to shop on Amazon.com, guessing that some people might do this from their phones (although maybe, like me, they go through their Amazon apps, so this might have little appeal).  There's a lot on our regular webpage that there's no link to here -- staff bios, church history, sermons, forms, by-laws.  All that is stuff I'm guessing the average mobile user doesn't need.  But I do intend to go back and add a link to the full site.  And then, at the bottom, I have links to our Facebook page, Twitter, and all the icons that usually appear to tell people we're welcoming, accessible, etc.  The other icons are all linked to a page that explains what they all are.

How to Do This:

The biggest question for me in doing this wasn't the question of what content to put on the page, but how to make what I call "the box" -- how to size my page correctly so that it's the right size for mobile phones.  This is particularly complicated since mobile phones have a wide range of screen sizes.   My father, William Landrum, is my tech support, but he hadn't done this before either, so we went through some trial and error before we got it to where I think it's right for most phones.  It turns out it's not so much about creating a page where we create everything in a small box.  When we did that, we got a phone screen where all the date was in a smaller box on the corner of the phone screen.  The key is having a piece in there that tells the phone that this is designed for it.  In the code, before head, even before where it says html, it says:
{?xml version = '1.0' encoding = 'UTF-8'?}
{!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//WAPFORUM//DTD XHTML Mobile 1.0//EN" "http://www.wapforum.org/DTD/xhtml-mobile10.dtd"}
except that { and } are lesser-than and greater-than symbols -- I can't seem to type them in my blog without it becoming the code.  I'm too lazy right now to figure out the work-around which I assume is pretty simple although complicated to Google, so I'm going this route. If you look at the code on the page, you'll see everything easily.  It's in pretty-straight-forward html without bells and whistles.  Anyway, that code does the trick, and the webpage is sized correctly.  As long as whatever tables (and the cells in the table) you're using don't have a specified width or height, everything will wrap to fit on the mobile screen.  Then it's just a matter of designing it such that you're not putting too much text up there, so that people don't have to scroll too much.  You do want fonts and icons bigger than usual to make them easier to tap on.  I'm going with font sized 5 (18pt), and it's workable, although perhaps still on the small side for larger fingers.  My icons on the bottom are sized about 32 pixels high, and again they're on the small side to easily tap on. 

One trick we've learned is that just like you can make a link on e-mail addresses that opens up an e-mail program to send mail, you can make a link that will have people's phones go straight to their dialer.  This is something that often really irritates me when browsing the web on my phone, that I can't just tap on the phone and have the phone dial.  It turns out it's because people haven't coded the phone number to do so, because they're assuming browsing from a PC, where you can look at the number and pick up your phone and dial it while still looking at the number.  I can't count the number of times I've had to search for something to write on while holding my phone, so that I could dial and look at the phone number at the same time (no, I can't remember a ten digits easily, and that may be true for more people than you think, especially with a small child in the back of the car making all sorts of noise).  So even if you don't design a mobile webpage, go to your existing page and hyperlink your phone number, people.  Inside the angle brackets just type something that looks like a href="tel:5175294221", only with your phone number instead of my church's.  It's that simple.  Can you believe that every company isn't doing this?  Ridiculous, when you think about it.  But, like many of us, they're not realizing yet that a) a lot of their traffic is coming from phones and b) those people want to call for information or reservations or something, and c) it's this easy!  Yes, if you're using an app to find your restaurant or other business, the app will often do this.  But sometimes people search through a browser, too--and maybe more often for a church than for a restaurant. Can you tell I feel strongly about this?  Nobody is clicking on your phone number from their phone hoping to be able to write it down on paper and use it later.  They're happy it goes straight to the dialer, where they can hit "send" or they can save it in their contacts for later.  Trust me.

Now, if only I could figure out how to link the address such that it opens up their navigation app, I'd be set.  And, sadly, the Twitter and Facebook go to the mobile browser version, not to the often nicer apps.  I want to put a link up for Gowalla and Foursquare to our locations, although this will have the same issue.  And I'm thinking adding a "like" button for Facebook and a "+1" button for Google wouldn't hurt, either, although then I'm getting into space limitations again.  And then if the church gets a Google+ presence, there'll be that to deal with, too.

Ironically, what takes up the most space is the name of my church -- Universalist Unitarian Church of East Liberty.  It wraps to take up three lines of space once I put it next to a chalice picture.  For a seeker site, I don't like the acronym option, so I think I'm stuck with it, but it's wasted space on a phone.  That's something that, for example, Micah's Porch or our local nondenominational Westwinds has right.  I remember when the first church I served, the Northwest Community Unitarian Universalist Church, whose acronym is nearly as long as "Westwinds," took a vote, which narrowly failed, to change their name.  I can't remember for sure what the other option was (a lot had been discussed, and this is ten years ago now), but I think it was "Harmony Church."  I'm guessing when any of you are designing a mobile page you'll be wishing, as I do, for a name more like "Harmony Church" and less like "First Unitarian Universalist Society of Eastern Suburb of Big City."  I appreciate the desire to have our heritage and denomination present in our naming of ourselves, and I wouldn't propose going through a name change, having seen how difficult a subject it is, but never has it been more awkward than in designing for a screen about 200 pixels wide.

Well, that's all there is to it.  I appreciate comments & suggestions for improvement, and am happy to answer questions if I know the answer.  I've often felt like saying, however, in my best Bones McCoy voice (if I had one, which I don't--really), "Damn it, Jim, I'm a minister, not a website designer!"

Evolving Worship in the Social Networking Age - Part 3: Possibilities & Opportunities

In Part 1 of this series I wrote about a proposal being generated through blog discussion about shorter sermons tied to social media in new ways.  In Part 2 I wrote about some of the limitations as I see it.  The main take-away there is that while some populations of some churches may be ready for this, others are not over the threshold yet.  The problem is that we're on a cusp right now, where some "digital natives" are ready for something different, not everyone is comfortable with the use of it.  As you go up by age/generation, a smaller percentage of people are using social networking. 



So what can we do?  Well, there's still a lot.  I think for now it still means that for many congregations, having a physical space in which one holds worship is still necessary, and the cornerstone of that service is still the sermon.  And, at the same time, the UUA General Assembly changed the definition of congregation such that this is no longer the only way (except for CLF) to be a congregation. The possibilities of what that can look like are endless.  And social media is evolving so quickly that whatever one creates right now has to be dynamic and flexible.  This week, for example, I got on Google+ for the first time.  Will it make other social networks obsolete?  Will it be a big failure?  Only time will tell. 

What I can do, right now, is dependent upon what will be supported by my congregation and has the most ability to be attractive to newcomers, as well.  We don't have a critical mass on Twitter or MySpace, and responding to blog posts is sporadic but increasing.  Facebook conversation, however, is plentiful.  So what is possible is putting out, primarily through blog and Facebook, a conversation starter leading into the worship service that helps shape and inform it, and after the worship service putting out some summary that continues the conversation.  This could be tied into a way to also have this conversation in a physical space before and after, for those wanting the face-to-face connection.  We have no way to record audio or video digitally at the church--when we do, it's with borrowed equipment--so that remains in the future dreams list.  The degree to which social media shapes the worship, then, is the degree to which people participate in these types of forums.

What I think is that for a time, this is going to look like not much happening.  But eventually, it has the power to shape and transform worship.  What it amounts to now is just an opening up and demystifying of the process--less of me going into the office and shutting the door and emerging with a worship service like Athena coming fully-formed out of Zeus' head, and more like writing with a bunch of people chatting around me in a coffee shop and sometimes stopping by the table.  Can I write that way?  Time will tell.  I've gotten lots of practice by having a child popping in constantly -- about ten times while writing this blog post alone.  Having constructive adults popping into the conversation should be a welcome change.

Phil Lund suggested we turn the sermon inside-out.  I'm not doing that yet, but the first step to turning something inside-out is opening it up and showing the center.  That's where I propose starting for now.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Evolving Worship in the Social Networking Age - Part 2: Limitations & Expectations

So in my last post I talked about a proposal being generated to look at worship, particularly the sermon, in a new way in the light of social networking.  I think it's worth noting that the authors of the three posts I cited are all people who are not full-time solo ministers with the corresponding preaching schedule that such demands, and that Dan Harper, who comes the closest to that role in his role as Associate Minister, is in a large church with presumably some staff, and in Silicon Valley, as well.  What he describes seems less doable in a small country church such as I serve.  So here's what I see as the limitations to the model he proposes:

1.  Podcasting/Live streaming/any audio or video component -- Much as I love the idea of it, I don't have the technology for it.  And should I have the technology, I still don't have the tech support that I personally would need.  I could acquire the know-how to do it all on my own, given the technology, but right now that's beyond me.

2.  Level of feedback/discussion -- right now, when I do post a sermon on my blog, or just on blog posts in general, I'm getting one or two comments, at most, and often times none, from members of my congregation.  I think that some would be interested in the types of discussions Harper suggests, but it'd be hit or miss on participation.  In a small church there just might not be the critical mass to have this kind of discussion going.

3.  Receptivity -- My cell phone has no bars at my church.  Now, I'm on the comparatively lousy Sprint network, and I know some church members have better coverage at my church, but not all of them.  So Twittering during the service is narrowed down from just the people with phones that can tweet to people with phones that can tweet who aren't on roaming.

3.  Accessibility -- I'm guessing about 75% of my church is on e-mail and Facebook, and another 10% are on e-mail but no other social media, but the other 15% (mostly seniors) are not online at all.  (All numbers pure guesses, although I could go person-by-person and get real stats later.)  If the entire nature of a sermon is changed such that it doesn't feel complete without online participation, what does that mean for the 15%?

This brings me to the expectations.  Both Lund & Wells talk about the changing expectations for a sermon.  Wells talks about thinking that if he were to give a 20-minute sermon that people would be fact-checking his data on their smart phones.  I regularly give 15-20 minute sermons (I think my average is more like 15 minutes, really), and have yet to have someone whipping out the phone and telling me my information was wrong.  Sure, I do occasionally get a fact wrong.  But that culture hasn't pervaded the sanctuary yet.  The assumption of both Lund and Wells is that people are wanting something different out of their sermon than the model we've been using for hundreds of years.  I think that they're right for the percentage of the culture that is digital natives, but the question is when has an individual church reached that point?  My church, I'm feeling, is not there yet.  People generally seem to like the longer sermons (to a point), and when the sermons are shorter and there are more other elements in the service, I get more complaints.  So my reality is not matching with what the new media guys are suggesting. Of course, and here's the rub: maybe the people who want something different are not coming, and our adherence to old forms is limiting growth.  Is it?  Quite possibly.

And so, with those limitations & expectations  in mind, next I will address what I think the evolving model could looks like, and what I think is currently possible in a small, low-tech church.