One day, a teen I know got stuck looking through photos with a friend’s mom. Later, he complained to me because as she went through the stack photo by photo, she’d say things like: “And this is the coffee shop—no, wait, that’s blurry, I have a better shot. Here it is—wait, let me find the good one that has Suzy in it…”.
“What on earth was she doing?” the teen asked. “Why print off all those crummy shots?”
“Maybe she was using film?” I asked. She wasn’t. What she was doing, was using her digital camera as though it were a film, printing off the whole “roll” without sorting it. The digital camera, in her hands, was a tool to more efficiently do things the same way she’d always done them. She couldn’t see it the difference. Neither could the teen—who understood film technology, but not the habits surrounding it.
I am of a unique age—old enough to be a digital native but young enough to translate. Like many people my age and like lots who aren’t my age, I might call myself a “milleni-almost”. And the interesting part of the translation is not about any particular technology, but about the cultural shifts that accompany them. Unitarians and Universalists see this in our religious lives all time—worship containing both theist and atheist perspectives (for example) has a richness and depth that neither group alone could achieve.
I still remember my eyes filling up with tears in my very first service as I heard the words “we welcome you as you are—with your doubts, as well as your convictions, with your hopes and your fears. Whatever your faith, whatever your heritage, whomever you love—today you are a part of our religious community.” A theologically powerful message.
One that is ruined if we add “so long as you’re on facebook and twitter, because that’s how we share all our news.” Useful and efficient as technological innovation, we have to be careful. We might shut our people out. The core of Unitarianism is undermined if we set up checkpoints. Barriers that mandate one common creed, or barriers that mandate one common format for communicating information and building relationships.
And I include church in that list of formats. Not the word “church”, but the actual experience. Sunday morning, the message from the pulpit, the building and bylaws, and all the associations. Above all, the fixed categories of relationship that are limited to “not here”, “member” and “member, but not a very good one”. That’s a pretty complex and rigid structure to ask people to buy into. The structure of church is definitely a kind of social media, and it definitely one that has a very strong generational preference. I’d go so far as to say that the habits surrounding it can be as incomprehensible to the uninitiated as the habits surrounding film cameras.
For every person saying “I don’t have time to be on twitter” there is someone saying “I don’t have time to go to church every Sunday”. For every person saying “What does a facebook ‘friend’ mean exactly” there is someone saying “What does church membership mean exactly?” and for every person saying “buying an iPhone and learning to use it seems like a giant investment of time and money and I’m not sure why it’s worth it” there is someone saying that about joining the church. If we identify being a Unitarian Universalist with going to church, we marginalize two thirds of the people who claim Unitarian Universalism as their religion.
We might shut our people out.
What can our response be? We can’t possibly ask exhausted ministers and congregations to extend further. Now we have to provide a sermon and a tweet and a blog post? Now we have to make it through coffee hour and read everyone’s facebook status? Now we have to provide for all these other cyber people, who probably aren’t ever going to become church members? No—that would be like trying to print every single photo my son has taken with his iPhone. It would be using new technologies in old ways. Not everything we touch is something we have to carry.
Digital spiritual literacy is not about being tech savvy. It’s about being cross-culturally savvy. Inter-faith savvy. We know about that. We don’t assume that we know what a burqa means to the woman wearing it. We know how to ask the atheists and the theists what they have in common—and how much power is found in that question. We are used to assuming that the Rabbi and the Imam are people we can collaborate with, without assuming that we need to tell them what to do or provide for their communities. We are used to an open idea of what shared ministry is, and committed to the idea that a church’s heart is found in the pew, not the pulpit.
As Ministerial students, we don’t necessarily need to know the mechanics of twitter any more than we need to know how to tie a hijab. We do need field trips into the digital world, not to master it, but to be culturally literate. Congregations don’t need us to become responsible for technology, they do need us to help them make sense of technology in their lives, and in their churches. We are not the ones who burst through the door to bring the digital world in and convince people to use it—we are the ones who make sure the door is unlocked.
They don’t need us to pull out smartphones every ten minutes, but they do need us to say “I hear what you’re saying. I thought the youth group was just ignoring me when they’d text, until I started a conversation about what role texting really has in their lives.” They don’t need us to program the website, but they do need us legitimize online religious life. They don’t need us to say “ah, what you’ve learned on iJourney is all stuff the whole church should adopt” but they do need us to say “this is valid spiritual practice, you belong in this community, and we’d love to hear about your story”. They don’t need us to provide a whole world of digital connection but they do need us to say “It can be frustrating, trying to find volunteers among a membership with a different understanding of shared ministry. Suzy was telling me the other day how hard it is to get out of the house with the baby—she used the funniest term. ‘Shared ministry from my facebook pulpit’. What do you suppose she meant?”.
And it is our role to say “not everybody can afford internet access—how can we make room for everyone?”
It is our role to be the gentle reminder—we might shut our people out.