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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Church in the Social Media Age

Presented by Rev. Diane Teichert and Erica Shadowsong, Director of Religious Exploration, with Celinda Marsh, Worship Associate

Church in the Social Media Age

Sermon by Rev. Diane Teichert, Minister, and Erica Shadowsong, Director of Religious Exploration

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

April 7, 2013


Last month, the pope quit his job as supreme head of the Catholic church, which had not been done in all of 600 years.  Everyone was buzzing about this, and it’s still pretty big news.  But did anyone else besides me happen to find it interesting that only three months before, the pope had gotten an account on Twitter?

I personally don’t think it’s coincidence, although I haven’t gotten anyone else on board yet to look into it.  Oh well.  But could you imagine being the Pope and having a Twitter account?  Those tweets?! 

Last year, I attended a Worship Arts Festival keynote talk by Presbyterian minister Carol Howard Merritt, author of Reframing Hope.  In her book and in her talk, she put into words and cultural context what I have been experiencing ever since social media exploded its way into my everyday life.  Much of what I will talk about goes back to one very important point she makes: that social media has provided a way for people to talk back to mainstream messages, to rally around ideas, to redistribute authority.

My husband once playfully accused me of using Facebook “wrong.”  He knows that when I log onto Facebook, I don’t just post funny messages and pictures that are popular on the internet.  Oh no.  I have fights on Facebook.  I argue with friends, family and acquaintances.  I spread news articles like they’re going out of style, and have involved conversations about them.  I confess that I can be a bit of a crusader on social media.  But the reason why I can’t stop using Facebook is because I love, more than anything, the way I get to hear other peoples’ stories.

Here’s what usually happens:

Someone who has the courage to speak finds him or herself being echoed by someone else who now has the courage to speak, and there is a cascading effect to these stories…the result often being a sense of relief and reassurance, as people realize they are not alone, and they’re not crazy.  I’ll get to a couple of those stories in a second, but first I’d like look at the power of that feeling, knowing that you’re not alone, and how the internet and social media can be tools that give people that power.

Many of you may know that I was brought up within a fundamentalist, nondenominational Christian community.  While the community I belonged to was not particularly abusive or extreme in its behaviors, it was very isolating.  The community defined my whole world and all my knowledge.  As an example, of what this has been like, I am embarrassed to admit I still do not understand human evolution, because I was conditioned to tune it out whenever it was taught.  I knew that, although I liked the people and they were nice enough, there was something different about the way I saw, experienced and thought about the world.  I did not really know that there were many, many kinds of Christians who might have some other things to offer than the group I belonged to, because I had been conditioned to believe that all other Christians weren’t real Christians, but people “lost” in mainstream Christianity who no longer understood why they did the things they did.  The narrative I was told was that I had been lucky enough somehow to be born to parents who had found the right Christians.

When I decided that I no longer believed everything I was taught by my community, and specifically beliefs about gendered hierarchy and GLBTQ inclusivity, I took to the internet.  I had never heard of “progressive” or “liberal” Christianity, but I saw and heard in the news that there were people of faith somehow contributing to the fight for GLBTQ rights, so that had to mean those people came from somewhere.  I wanted to know…and that is how I discovered that there were plenty of other narratives out there, and not all Christians were the same.  Through the internet, I found websites of progressive Christian churches. 

Merritt talks about websites being the new “front doors” of a church, and I can attest that that was true for me.  Though I am no longer Christian, the use of social media has similarly helped me stay connected with progressive Christians, which is important to me as a pagan.  Seeing them speak up about their own stories and taking back the narrative of Christianity from the extremists keeps me humble, and reminds me that my journey is not just one in reaction to a belief system, but one that I hope will honor true interfaith unity.

Some stories I come across are quite personal, and less formal in the sphere of social media, however.  They aren’t always in the form of groups who have rallied around a cause.  Sometimes they blog posts that get shared around, or even simply status updates and comments.  It’s incredible to me how even these stories, shared in this seemingly fleeting way, influence trends of change.

One of the things I care a lot about, if you haven’t figured it out already, is the subject of women’s rights.  I ashamed to say, however, that I have never felt I contributed much to the cause in my life.  That’s because, like many other women, I often found myself in groups or circles of people who accepted ideas I wanted to question or argue with, but to do so would not have been emotionally safe.  If there’s one thing human beings are good at, it’s surviving, and survival for those who are easily oppressed depends a great deal on being able to accept and go with the dominant social structure. 

I don’t know if this is true of all generations represented here, but for myself, to talk about women’s rights as a girl, a teenager or young women was to brand myself an outcast.  The word “feminist” has always been, in my experience, thrown around like a dirty word.  Sometimes it felt like the worst thing you could be called, especially if you were single.  As a woman, I learned that sometimes you had to put up with a certain amount of sexism just to live in peace.

But I see that changing, thanks to social media. 

Very recently, I read a story someone posted on Facebook.  It was a blog post by a woman who is a video game industry professional.  In her story, she speaks about having an epiphany while considering this question:  What would you do if you weren’t afraid?  “I’d write this blog,” she says.  She goes on to describe the rampant culture of sexism and harassment that she has had to endure as a professional in an industry dominated by men, and that is committed to men’s entertainment.  Although this trend is changing, as she acknowledges, she realizes that she has been very good about sticking up for others, but has been silent for herself.  No more, though…and just like the book she read that asked her to consider that question, which was written by another woman just telling her story, this woman’s story sparks the sharing of similar stories in hundreds and hundreds of comments.  Over and over, the affirmation of her story is echoed, and people become bolder.

One of the best stories I saw was shared by a woman who is gay, was legally married, and is now legally divorced.  Some of you who use social media, and especially Facebook, probably remember last week, when all your friends were changing their profile pictures to the red equal sign, the HRC logo, to show their support for marriage equality?  Well, my friend didn’t say anything for a day or two, even though everyone else was posting pictures of protest signs, themselves at the Supreme Court, or messages in general support.  Finally, she spoke up.  She told us that she felt “muted.”  She expressed concern that her divorce might lend credence to opponents of marriage equality, and tempt them to see her story as a failure.  But she didn’t stop there.

“The bottom line is,” she said, “I'm not in a divorce because I'm gay. I'm in a divorce because I was in a relationship that, for WHATEVER the reasons, was not sustainable…I do believe in the power of marriage in the ceremonial sense. I believe that the person I chose to marry will always be my family, regardless of how much grows between us. I hope someday that she and I can find a way to be a part of each other's lives again, albeit, not in the way we had once planned to be.”

As I finished reading her post, I saw her reclaiming her power to speak right in front of me…almost in real time. 



Erica told us about a woman who blogs about the computer gaming industry. For those who don’t know, bloggers write the equivalent of newsletter columns that they publish on-line and for which they hope to earn a following. And Tweets, if you don’t already know, are like very short blogs but with a 140-character limit.

The blogger who goes by PeaceBang is also the minister of the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Norwell, MA, Rev. Victoria Weinstein. PeaceBang poses the question: Is the Internet good for religion? (http://www.peacebang.com/2013/03/16/is-the-internet-good-for-religion/).

Here is PeaceBang’s answer to the question:  the Internet is good for liberal religion but not for all religion. That’s because, “Liberal religion is about interpreting, evolving, being open to the cross-pollination of ideas and theologies. Liberal religion has inquiry at its heart and delights in challenge (or should!). [But], I don’t know if it has been as good for orthodoxy, which is dedicated to tradition, hierarchy and authoritative interpretations… The Internet is essentially a creative space for the free and ephemeral exchange of ideas, feelings and questions. Orthodox religion doesn’t thrive in that atmosphere.”

As a liberal religion, Unitarian Universalism is definitely benefitting from the Internet. Perhaps that’s not surprising, since the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berner-Lee, is a Unitarian Universalist!

But, I’m thinking more specifically of a particular website which probably has brought more people to UUism than any other:  beliefnet.com where you can answer twenty-questions and Belief-O-Matic™ will tell you what religion (if any) you practice...or ought to consider practicing. I did it once, when the website was new – it told me I was a Unitarian Universalist – good thing, as I was a minister already!

From time to time, newcomers here tell me they first heard about UUism from beliefnet.com, and went from there to the Unitarian Universalist Association website where they clicked on “Find a congregation near you,” entered their zip code and ended up coming here, no doubt after checking out our website first! How many of you have answered Belief-O-Matic’s twenty questions?

I got a chuckle from the small print that says: “WARNING: Belief-O-Matic™ assumes no legal liability for the ultimate fate of your soul.”

Now the thing is, how many people who were told they should consider Unitarian Universalism by Belief-O-Matic™ have NOT ever visited a UU congregation? Or tried once, and didn’t return? National surveys have been saying for decades that ten times as many people identify as Unitarian Universalists than we have Members in our one thousand congregations. We used to groan and moan about that and wonder how we could get all those people to actually join a UU church!

But now UUism is seeing our presence on the Internet as part of our ministry. We are feeling encouraged about our share of the religious market and, therefore, about the growing influence of our values in society. We are wondering how we can increase our Internet and social media presence to better serve the needs of those people even though they are, and may remain, outside the walls of our congregations.

In fact, the UUA’s Church of the Larger Fellowship, founded in 1944 as an international by-mail congregation of UU’s scattered around the world, has become in the last fifteen years, thanks to the World Wide Web, a growing on-line congregation with an active prison ministry, Facebook groups, pastoral care, blogs, podcasts, and more. The Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF for short) even has on-line worship services. They’re not on Sunday morning, so you can check them out without missing the in-person, real-time Beloved Community here!

Apropos of the Worship Associate’s Chalice Reflection this morning, anyone can go to the CLF website and light a virtual candle for your joy or sorrow! I wish we had the projection technology and a drop-down screen, so we could show you how it works:  you hover over the flickering flame in the chalice on the screen and move it over to the wick of one of the candles in a bowl of sand which then lights with its own flickering flame! You have the choice of typing in what your joy or sorrow is or remaining anonymous. People can then comment, offering you words of congratulations or support! On-line caring in action!

All this on-line capacity for growing our faith is well and good, but Erica and I agree with PeaceBang that the really important question for a real-time, bricks-and-mortar-and wooden-deck in the woods kind of UU congregation like ours is the one that is printed at the top of your Order of Service this morning: How can we transform our congregational culture so that it better reflects the things that make digital ministry so appealing and so effective?


If people (especially the Gen X’ers born between 1965 and 1980 and the Millennials born 1981 or later) who are so adept at, and at home in, on-line social networking and the other capacities of the Internet are finding spiritual community on-line, what can we learn from that? Does the experience they would have here, if they took the chance of checking us out in person, afford them those same qualities… plus the emotional and tactile benefits of eye-to-eye contact, visible facial expressions and body language, hand-shakes, and hugs!

What is it that people experience in on-line social networking? As Erica was saying, she values social media because through it new voices are heard and authorities are challenged. When Gen x and Millennial folks speak here, are they heard? What if they want to do things differently than the ways in which things “have always been done at Paint Branch” what happens?

As Celinda was saying, she values social media because it affords her glimpses into the joys and sorrows of friends and family, glimpses she would not otherwise have because of time or distance. And, similarly, I value social media for the honest intimacy with which people share their most momentary and/or most momentous experiences. When Gen X and Millennial folks make their way here, will they find honestly intimate interactions? Will they find hearts and minds open to the joys and sorrows, momentary and momentous, of their lives?

We believe that many of the people who are told they should consider practicing UUism by Belief-O-Matic will really enjoy the sense of community in our congregation.  They will thrive and grow spiritually here. They will bring their friends, and make friends. They will sing and dance and hang their artwork. They will convert their yearnings for peace and justice into actions. They will teach and learn and plan and lead. Some might marry and raise children here. All would love that this is a place for healing and hope, helping and rejoicing.

But many of them have yet to even try to find a real-life community that has the kind of integrity and awesomeness for which they flock to the Internet. They don’t know YET that even though our congregation is not perfect, we do practice integrity and awesomeness here. And when we are getting it right, it’s not just on a screen: we see and hear it in person, smell, taste, touch and feel it in the flesh, in the present moment!

We say YES to being a church in, and for, the social media age!

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Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church • 3215 Powder Mill Road • Adelphi, Maryland 20783-1097
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