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I was reading an article in Huffington Post by Skye Jethani about Megachurches (Megachurches: When Will The Bubble Burst?) when I ran across this unsettling quote: “On average 50 small churches close their doors every week in America.”Unitarian, universalist, church, online, ministry, welcoming, religion, beliefs, megachurches, small congregations, small churches What? Fifty small churches are closing their doors every week? That’s not very encouraging, especially for a denomination, like, say, the UUA, where two thirds of its congregations have 150 members or less. Does not bode well, if you ask me. And I think small congregations know this, too. Business as usual is not going to cut it any more. Small congregations in any denomination are going to find it more and more difficult to maintain the status quo, let alone grow. Which I why I’m so pleased that the Prairie Star District offered a Small Congregation Conference last weekend in Des Moines, Iowa.

The conference was the brainchild (love that word!) of the Rev. Michael Nelson of our congregation in Manhattan, Kansas (Go Wildcats!). Michael noticed that the UUA regularly sponsored conferences for large and midsize congregations, but had never, as far as he could tell, sponsored one for small congregations. So Michael contacted me and we talked things over and decided this needed to be done. Thanks to a Chalice Lighter grant from Prairie Star, we were able to afford to bring in a topnotch keynote speaker. And knowing that a prophet is seldom welcomed in his or her hometown, we decided to ask someone from outside of the district to be the main presenter at the conference. I’m happy to say that our choice, the Rev. Andrew Pakula from London, England, delivered the goods. Andy offered three presentations over the course of two days. On Friday he gave us the recent history of his congregation in London (check out their website at www.new-unity.org) which has gone from six members in the 2001 (yes, six) to around 35 in 2006 under the leadership of his predessor, and then from 35 to over 100 members in the last 5 years under Andy’s leadership. What’s really exciting about that growth is that 50% of those new members are young adults.

Andy’s follow up presentations on Saturday dealt with using social media and attracting young adults. We also had a variety of workshops led by some terrific people: the Rev. Meg Riley talked with folks about what CLF (Church of the Larger Fellowship) is doing to help small congregations; the Rev. Charlotte Cowtan offered information on the demographics of various communities around the district; the Rev. Thea Nietfield presented information on right relationships and conflict engagement; Lori Emison Clair and Moria Leu of the Des Moines congregation did workshops on membership and music, the Rev. Jill Jarvis & al. talked about moving toward ministry, and Tandi Rogers, UUA growth specialist, did two workshops on faith development in small congregations. The participants were equally stellar as well. We had 12 affilitated congregations from throughout the district represented, along with folks from three new fellowships forming in Prairie Star. All in all, it was a fantastic weekend. Hopefully there will be more events like this in the future.

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I’m probably not the best person to be writing on this subject. There are plenty of other bloggers (Unitarian Universalists and others) who are much better at the whole thing than I am. But I have been blogging for some time now (5 or 6 years at least), and I have learned a thing or two…even if I don’t always put those things into practice.

The first thing I’ve learned is that it pays to blog regularly. Of course there are selfish reasons for this: the more you blog, the more hits your blog gets, and the more hits your blog gets, the better you feel. It’s just human nature, I guess. But there are some other things involved here, too. Blogging is essentially journaling in public. And journaling, according to the Rev. Dr. Barry Andrews (religious educator extraordinaire and scholar…you can check out his web page here) was one of the spiritual disciplines of the American Transcendentalist. And since we Unitarian Universalists are the spiritual heirs of those folks, taking one of their spiritual disciplines seriously is pretty much a no-brainer. (That is, of course, if you like to write. If you don’t, there are a bunch of other Transcendentalist spiritual disciplines one can emulate.)

Like any sort of journaling, the more you do it, the greater the rewards. Those of you who have read Julia Cameron’s Artist Way are acquainted with her concept of Morning Pages. The idea is simple: you get up in the morning about 20 minutes earlier than you usually would and you just write. For twenty minutes. Without stopping. If you do this long enough, you may just begin to peel back some layers from your (overly?) critical mind to find some nuggets in your psyche that you weren’t even aware of. Yes, this could be dangerous for some, but all in all, humans are a pretty resilient bunch, and doing a little digging into one’s subconscious may not be a bad idea. Blogging may not allow you to go as deep as The Artist’s Way, but if you do it regularly, the very act of having to find something new to write about may just push you a little further than you would otherwise want to go.

Another way that blogging can be a spiritual discipline is by helping you engage on a deeper level with others. You can do this two ways: by taking the comments on your own blog seriously and responding to those comments in an open, honest, and timely way; and by commenting on other bloggers’ posts openly and honestly. I really have to confess that I’m not the best role model for this practice, but I’d like to do better. So right here and now I’m pledging to do one simple thing: read all of the blog posts mentioned in The Interdependent Web, Heather Christensen’s weekly roundup of UU blogs published by the uuworld.org; and in addition to reading all of the post, I promise to try to openly and honestly comment on as many of those posts as I feel I have something meaningful to say.

I truly feel that there’s still a place for blogs and blogging the brave world of social media. I also feel that by participating as both a creator of content and a commentator on others’ content, one can engage more spiritually in one’s world.

A friend and colleague of mine, the Rev. Scott McNeill, tweeted this intriguing question yesterday:

It didn’t take me long to find an answer. A couple of possibilities ran through my mind (The Wire, Breaking Bad, Dexter), but I soon realized that the one show that gets my theological wheels turning is Doctor Who. I’m talking about the reincarnated Doctor Who, of course. (No, wait a minute…all of the Doctors are reincarnated in a sense.) I mean the Russell T. Davies version that premiered half a decade ago. I really wasn’t planning on watching it, but after seeing and enjoying Steven Moffat’s retooling of Sherlock on PBS, I found out that Moffat had taken over the reins of the new Who for the fifth season. I definitely wanted to check it out, but I knew I’d need to start at the beginning. Not the William Hartnell beginning. The Christopher Eccleston beginning. And I have to confess that Eccleston’s one of my favorite actors (loved him in 28 Days Later), so getting through the first series was a breeze. Things only got better with David Tennant, of course, and Matt Smith is a blast. In other words, I’m hooked.

It’s curious that so many other Unitarian Universalists are hooked, too. I think there are a couple of reasons why. One, the Doctor continues to regenerate into younger and younger bodies, which I think is a metaphor for what needs to happen with our religious movement. It’s time for the Eleventh Doctor, Amy Pond, and Rory Williams to run the show (and by show, I mean our congregations as well as the entire UUA). And two, the Doctor has turned into quite the Universalist. One of the most amazing scenes I’ve seen in the entire series was at the end of “Last of the Time Lords,” where the most powerful thing the Doctor can do to the Master, the very person who had worked so hard to destroy him, is to say, “I forgive you.”

It reminded me of the story I’ve heard from the Anabaptist tradition about Dirk Willems who, according to Wikipedia, “is most famous for turning around to rescue his pursuer, who had fallen through thin ice while chasing Willems after his escape from prison.” Willems was recaptured and eventually burnt at the stake. Of course, he had no way of knowing for sure that was going to happen when he saved his pursuer. And the Doctor had no way of knowing what might happen if the Master had accepted his forgiveness. (Indeed, the Master does return to threaten the Doctor once again.) In both cases, though, compassion and forgiveness are the driving forces behind their actions, not revenge or retribution. That’s the kind of television I want to watch. And the kind of theology I would believe in.

If church had a Facebook page, I’d definitely like it. That’s because there are a lot of things I like about church. I like that we sing in church (there aren’t many places in American culture where people sing together, other than the Star Spangled Banner and Take Me Out to the Ball Game at Wrigley Field). We get to share our joys and concerns with a gathered community (I know, I know: J & S can be seriously abused…but when it’s handled well, say, when people have to write something down ahead of time and have it read by the minister, it’s a wonderful opportunity to feel like you’re part of something larger). I like to listen to choirs sing (my dad was a choir director…said that directing a choir was when he felt closest to God). I even like to hear a good sermon from time to time (but if you’ve read some of my previous posts, you know my tolerance for that is waning). I like teaching Sunday school (especially with the youngest ones…preschoolers need to know that there are people in the church who are really, really happy that they are here!). I freaking LOVE potlucks (fondest memories of my Methodist youth…where I first learned that you can use cottage cheese to replace some of the ricotta in lasagna). I love the way a sanctuary feels when nobody’s in it except for yourself (and perhaps the Deity Formerly Known as God). I love church libraries (they’re so earnest, especially the small ones). I love the trimmed lawns, the shade trees, the bushes, the flowers. I love that fact that people insist on supporting these institutions, and that they are there when we need them.

However, liking or loving church, no matter how genuine the emotion, is not going to be enough to save these institutions. If we’re going to survive, we need to bring new people into our doors, and new people aren’t going to be showing up just because some of us like church. It’s going to take a whole lot more. And that reminds me of this TED Talk by Benjamin Zander on music and passion (see below). I was introduced to it by John Roberto at a Faith Formation 2020 class. The big take away here comes at minute 16:51 when Zimmer says this about classical music:

Now, how would you walk — because you know, my profession, the music profession doesn’t see it that way. They say 3 percent of the population likes classical music. If only we could move it to 4 percent our problems would be over. I say, “How would you walk? How would you talk? How would you be if you thought 3 percent of the population likes classical music? If only we could move it to 4 percent. How would you walk? How would you talk? How would you be if you thought everybody loves classical music — they just haven’t found out about it yet.” (Laughter) See, these are totally different worlds.

I think that if church is going to survive, we need to act as if we thought everybody loves church as much as we do. That doesn’t mean, of course, that 100% of the people in the United States are going to start going to church if we walked that way. But it does mean, perhaps, that more people are going to find out why we church lovers think it’s so important. So…do you love church? And if so, what do you love the most about it?

For the last few months I’ve been trying to take an “Internet Sabbath” on Sundays at home. And I have to say that I’ve had varying degrees of success. For example, one Sunday I felt incredibly anxious about not being able to check in with my various social media networks. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was missing something: a good conversation on Twitter, some news from Facebook friends about how their weekends were going, updates from Google+ about who was adding me to one of their circles…things that I would normally do without a second thought on a regular weekday or Saturday. But I resisted the temptation to hop online, even for a few minutes, to see what was up. And you know what? I survived. I was able to check in once my Sabbath was over (I usually try to go from, say, 12:01 a.m. on Sunday morning to 12:01 on Monday morning). The online world had carried on nicely without me, and I was able to once again step into the digital stream renewed and refreshed—which is pretty much what I understand Sabbath time is all about.

This kind of Sabbath might be a little more complicated than a traditional Sabbath (“In Sabbath time,” Wayne Muller tells us, “we remember to celebrate what is beautiful and sacred; we light candles, sing songs, tell stories, eat, nap, and make love”). An Internet Sabbath calls into question one’s entire relationship with media and web technology, and the reasons for taking one need to be clear. Here’s what Elizabeth Drescher says about unplugging from the internet in Tweet If You ♥ Jesus:

Efforts to “unplug” are laudable when they invite us to reflect on the transformation in which we are currently participating so that we can make better choices about how we live our lives in the context of our most important relationships and most deeply held beliefs. But they are misguided when they contribute to the illusion that the effects of digital culture on our daily lives, including our religious and spiritual practice, are something from which we can truly opt out, even temporarily.

I do find that for me Internet Sabbaths are a time of reflection. These Sabbaths give me the opportunity to pause quietly for a moment and think about my relationships, with family, friends (both those with whom I have face-to-face relationships and those with whom our interactions are primarily virtual), and the wider world. And these Sabbaths have become a chance to re-engage with some forgotten pleasures from days gone by: looking through the Sunday New York Times, listening to classical music on Minnesota Public Radio, actually reading a book (not on my iPad, but an real live book). All in all, I’d have to say that the benefits of these Sabbaths outweigh any sort of detriments regarding my online presence. Of course, if I wake up some Monday morning and find that my Klout score has dropped significantly, I may have to re-examine the whole undertaking. But until then, I’m content to spend my Sundays unplugged.

For more information on Internet Sabbaths, check out the National Day of Unplugging website and “Author Disconnects From Communication Devices to Reconnect With Life” about William Powers, author of Hamlet’s BlackBerry.

N.B. I wrote this post more than a week ago as a fifteen minute free writing exercise. Since then, I’ve shared the following article on Twitter: “People deprived of the internet feel ‘upset and lonely’ and find going offline as hard as quitting smoking or drinking,” which drew a response from my friend and colleague the Rev. Naomi King, (@revnaomi on Twitter). Naomi asked:

Long story short, Naomi and I have agree to have a dialogue about this on our blogs. Since I already had this post ready to go, I thought I’d start with it. Future posts will address specific questions, like “What’s your spiritual practice re: turning off the media feed? Why?” and “How do you reflect on your relationships? How does that include social media supported relationships?” I’m looking forward to the exchange.

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