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Long, long ago, near the turn of the 21st century, the definition of “public ministry” (“how ministers, educators and laity relate to the public role of religious faith”) implied a limited set of ways to engage with the world. You had your professions from the pulpit, your op-ed pieces in the local paper, your presence at protests, and your occasional appearances on the local radio call-in program. All you needed was an issue on which to take a stand, some reflection on what you wanted to say about it, and a enough chutzpah to make yourself seen and heard. Actually, the chutzpah was a pretty integral part of the package. As former UUA president John Buehrens noted in a workshop on Public Ministry at the 2001 General Assembly in Cleveland, Ohio, “public ministry can be a stretch for many ministers, a large number of whom are introverts, preferring reading, reflection and introspection to recharge their energy.”

Fast forward ten years. While there are still plenty of opportunities for highly motivated (and/or caffeinated) ministers, educators, and laity to be seen and heard by the public using 20th century media, digital media and web technologies have opened up a whole new frontier. We now have WordPress, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumbler, YouTube, etc.—not only are these social media platforms changing the way ministers, et. al., do public ministry, they are changing the very nature of “the public role of religious faith” itself. To paraphrase UU singer/songwriter Peter Mayer, “Everything is public now.”

And believe it or not, this is good news for all ya’ll introverted ministers, educators and laity. Social media is like Garrison Keillor’s Powder Milk Biscuits: it gives “shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done.” For example, every time I’ve taken the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, I always score as an Introvert. I’m totally exhausted after any sort of work-related function that requires my interacting with a group of people larger that, say, twelve. But thanks to the miracle of digital technology, I’m able to connect with hundreds of people on a daily basis through this blog (as well as Facebook and Twitter).

Granted, I don’t regularly speak out on the important issues of the day (immigration, marriage equality, ethical eating, etc.), but I do feel an obligation to publicly share some of my thoughts and feelings about what it means to be a person of faith (thus the small group ministry sessions I post each week). Another example is the Rev. Naomi King’s steady stream of tweets about liberal religion, progressive spirituality, and Unitarian Universalism. Look up “inspirational” in the dictionary. You’ll find a picture of @revnaomi.

By the way, if I’ve mislabeled you as a introvert, Naomi, please let me know! Consider as well how the Rev. Dr. David Breeden, minister of the Minnesota Valley UU Fellowship, is using YouTube to publicly answer questions like: “Why Are There No UU Mega-Churches?”; “Is Garrison Keillor Right About Us?”; and “Are All Humanists Atheists?” Again, I’m not positive that David’s an introvert, but he was a poetry professor for a number years—a position not usually associated with raging extroverts.

The point here is that all three of us are doing very public ministry in ways that John Buehrens and his fellow presenters may never have dreamed of in 2001. Furthermore, this new public ministry encompasses more than the traditional model of advancing the social witness of a particular congregation. Naomi, David, and myself are bringing our faith (both individual and collective) to an online public of digital natives and digital immigrants who expect, maybe even demand, the opportunity to interact with us in ways that transcend the Sunday morning sermon or the monthly newsletter article. Speaking for myself, I would find it impossible to do that primarily as a face-to-face ministry. Yet thanks to digital media and web technology, I’m able to do it on a daily basis. Even without those biscuits.


No grungy fonts here, my friends. St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church’s website rocks like a cover band sleepwalking through the Eagle’s “Desparado.” But this series of posts isn’t about whether or not a church’s website is kinda hip, kinda now, kinda happening. It’s all about how well a congregation is using its website as a tool for faith development and spiritual growth. I have to confess, though, that I find it a little disheartening that the average mainstream Protestant website I’ve seen is about as fresh and edgy as a Rick Springfield video. Which means the average Unitarian Universalist website is, what? I’m thinking James Taylor.

So here’s what’s happenin’ with this site. I really love that users are able to download the sermon-based small group discussion questions. Someone who’s never darkened the door of Saint Andrew’s bricks-and-mortar campus could listen to a sermon online (or download the podcast) and snag a copy of the small group discussion questions for said sermon. An excellent example of offering web resources that enable non-attenders to get not just a taste of what Saint Andrew’s is like, but a fairly substantial spiritual meal. And of course, those same resources are available for the leaders of the congregation’s small groups to use for their face-to-face meetings. I also like that they’ve put together a CD Box Set of a recent sermon series call “WikiFaith.” Soft rock aficionados love CD box sets. Unfortunately the series isn’t offered in vinyl as well, so hipsters are out of luck.

Okay, so this church website doesn’t rock quite as hard as some of the others we’ve looked at, but that’s okay. After all, Redeemer Presbyterian Church is mainline Protestant, and it is on the East Coast. Even their tagline has a formal feel: “Seeking to Renew the City Socially, Spiritually, & Culturally.” That’s so far from Newsong‘s West Coast “…community of misfits…loving people on the fringes of our culture…” that it sounds downright Unitarian Universalist. Still, it makes sense that Redeemer’s website is a little more staid, a little more subdued. I doubt that Presbyterians have ever been on the cutting edge of popular culture. It still has some nice features, though.

Like…they’ve got an iPhone app. More and more young people are accessing the web with their mobile devices, so making sure your church’s website looks good on mobiles is crucial. Even better is having a downloadable app (although why limit yourself to iDevices…as we saw, Newsong has both Android and iPhone apps). More importantly, though, is their “Community Formation” links. Right there on the front page you can connect with Fellowship GroupsChildren’s MinistryJr. & Sr. High Student MinistryCollege MinistryCongregational LifeSchool of Gospel Foundations, and Counseling. As I’ve mentioned before, one of the main faith formation functions of a church’s website is bringing people into the church for face-to-face encounters. Clearly Redeemer Presbyterian understands this.

What’s more, if you explore some of those links a little further, you’ll find yourself directed to good things like articles to read, mp3s to listen to, and books to buy from Also, the Fellowship Groups seem to offer exactly what the Faith Formation 2020 folks suggest: resources to help “regular attenders” practice their faith. All in all, Redeemer’s got a pretty good web presence. And “pretty good” is relatively high praise up here in Minnesota.

When I wrote last week about just how awesome the Unitarian Universalist Church of Indianapolis‘ website was, I registered one relatively minor (teensy-weensy, really, hardly worth mentioning) complaint: there wasn’t a direct link to podcasts and videos on the front page. I heard back from Lori Stone Sirtosky, one of UUI’s web gurus, who said that they usually had podcasts featured in the middle of the page, and that they were going to add them to the “Highlights” section at the bottom of the page. Hooray! (Lori also mentioned that there were some folks interested in doing some videos, too. O frabjous day!) I bring this up here because The North Coast Church—today’s rockin’ church website—puts those two things (videos and podcasts) right up front and center. Check ’em out.

I like the way they lead with their current sermon series, followed by “Most Recent Sermon Video” and “Most Recent Sermon Audio.” What’s more, they have a link to “Growth Group Homework” right there as well—a perfect example of what the Faith Formation 2020 folks see as one of the two main faith formation goals for a church website: augment face-to-face learning with online learning activities. (The other goal, of course, is to invite people into the church for face-to-face learning after they’ve experience online learning activities.) And in case you’re wondering what a “Growth Group” is, their FAQ page says, “A Growth Group is a home fellowship made up of 10-16 people who meet weekly to share, study and support one another. A trained leader and host lead each group. An average meeting lasts for an hour and a half, followed by light refreshments.” Sound familiar? Like “Small Group Ministry” familiar?

Note, too, how prominent the “Visitor”  link is. You CAN’T MISS IT! I also like the “Regular Attender” wording for the link next to it. Kind of sorts out the whole “members and friends” thing a lot of UU congregations engage in. Rather than implying that there are multiple tiers of involvement available at the church (members, pledging non-members, friends), North Coast presents two levels of involvement: Visitor or Regular Attender. That’s really about all we need to know from the website. I’m sure deeper levels of involvement naturally occur once regular attenders are more attentive to attending more regularly (or something like that).

The interweb is abuzz today with Unitarian Universalists writing about a subject they should know well: Universalism. UUA President Peter Morales has written about it at Huffington Post; the Twitterverse is full of tweets hashtagged #universalism; and individual bloggers (UU and otherwise) are blogging the bejasus out of the subject here, here, and here. Why the sudden interest? The imminent release of bestselling author and megachurch pastor Rob Bell’s Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Here’s what Bell’s publisher has to say about the book:

Rob Bell reveals a secret deep in the heart of millions of Christians–they don’t believe what they have been taught are the essential truths of their faith. Out of respect for their tradition, they keep quiet, confiding to a few close friends their doubts and questions about salvation, Jesus, and, of course, God.

Bell brings out to the open and faces squarely the questions on everyone’s mind: Does it really make sense that God is a loving, kind, compassionate God who wants to know people in a personal way, but if they reject this relationship with Jesus, they will be sent to hell where God will eternally punish them forever?

In Love Wins, Bell goes to the heart of these issues and argues that the church’s traditional understanding of heaven and hell is actually not taught by the Bible. Bell is emphatically not offering a new view of heaven and hell; instead, he closely examines every verse in the Bible on heaven and hell and shows what they really teach. And he discovers that Jesus’s most fundamental teaching about heaven and hell is, “Love wins.”

This should be, of course, good news for Unitarian Universalists who think of their congregations as places of refuge for those Christians who “don’t believe what they have been taught are the essential truths of their faith.” After all, that’s pretty much the reason a lot of us became Unitarian Universalists in the first place. It’s been my experience, however, that many UUs think that people should have taken care of their relationship to God, Jesus, Heaven, and Hell before they set foot in their local UU congregation because, well, that’s they way they did it. As far as they’re concerned, those questions were asked and answered a long time ago, which is why you don’t see many UU congregations spending too much time helping Christians work through their thoughts and feelings about some of the more troubling “essential truths of their faith.” And that’s shame.

You see, I really do believe that UU congregations should be the absolutely best place on Earth for Christians to explore their relationship with God and Jesus, Heaven and Hell. Why? Because our non-creedal religion offers each individual the opportunity to start from scratch when it comes to working out his or her own salvation—not with “fear and trembling,” as Saint Paul put it (Philippians 2:12-13), but with hope and support. But that’s not what goes on in most of our churches, fellowships, and societies. Instead you find people getting their knickers in a twist about words like “worship,” “sanctuary,” “spirituality,” and “faith.”

So, what’s a UU congregation to do? Well, if you’re seriously interested in helping our Christian neighbors explore their relationship to God and the religion their were raised in, take a look at this excellent article by Philip Clayton: “Theology and the Church After Google.” Pay special attention to these “recurring questions that every Christian wonders about as he or she struggles to be a Jesus disciple”:

  • Who is God?
  • What are human beings?
  • How are we separated from God, and how can that separation be overcome
  • Who is Jesus Christ?
  • What or Who is the Spirit?
  • What is the church, and what should it be doing?
  • And what is our hope for the final future of the cosmos and humanity?

Now, check your feelings and choose one: Do you find the thought of a bunch of Christians coming to your congregation searching for the answers to these questions a) attractive, or b) repulsive? You can probably guess what my answer is. Feel free to leave a comment and tell me yours.

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