Social Media and Congregations Lost In Time

Image of an old pocket watch

Recently I had the honor of collaborating with my friend and colleague, the Rev. Naomi King, on the 2013 Minns Lecture “Ministry in the Age of Collaboration.”    We were asked to speak on social media and Unitarian Universalism in the 2st Century.

We are both  sharing core messages from our talks via our blogs, and videos of the lectures will be available later this month.

For this first post of mine, before I start in on social media,  I think it is helpful to speak to the issue of our congregations being out of synch with time.  I’ve discussed with United Church of Christ colleagues  the fact that the UCC seems, to me, 10 years ahead of the Unitarian Universalist Association in some regards.  They in turn chuckle and say they feel the UCC is 10 years behind where they should be.  That puts us, if you do the math, 20 years behind!

Our lagging leads to significant problems with our ministry.  Most frequent in my conversations with our leaders:

  • Why don’t our children grow up to be adult Unitarian Universalists?
  • Why aren’t families participating the way they use to?
  • Why aren’t we attracting all those  spiritual and not religious people, the nones?
  • And while we’re at it, why aren’t people drawn to, and participating in the work of good institutions like ours the way they use to?

These are complex issues with no one simple answer or quick fix. But there is a common problem plaguing many of our congregations which is directly contributing to them.

Our congregations?  They’ve gotten lost in time…. I know, it sounds like science fiction, doesn’t it?

Ministry Time Bubbles


Many congregations are living in what I call “ministry time bubbles.”  You see, for many congregations — maybe yours —  the world has changed around you.   Not a little.  Not a lot.  We’re talking massive mighty change impacting every aspect of our human society.

How did some congregations get stuck in time?  A content membership, leadership and staff with enough money to care for themselves, coupled with sudden rapid technological innovation in the world at large.

When a congregation has stable membership numbers, enough funds to meet its own needs, it is easy to focus on caring for that immediate community.  That’s the congregation as “safe harbor.”  And believe me, plenty of people are looking for a safe harbor, including being sheltered from change.

With a reasonable membership and sufficient budget, a congregation can go about its ministry in this way, with attention on its membership and little attention on the rest of the world for years.

To create a significant ministry time bubble, take this set up and crank up the rate of change in the larger world. Presto!

In this illustration you can see a congregation starting in synch with the world – blue, then while they were busy with their internal ministry, the rate of change outside picked up.  Uh oh…

Ministry Time Bubbles

Accelerating Change

For  a very long time  change in our world came at a rate that was challenging, but not too drastic.  The difference between “congregational time” and “world time” was reasonable.  Leaders were able to slowly soak in the change. Taking  time was okay.  A decade to get the congregation set up on email? No problem!  Five years to debate a new website?  Why not!

Things are different today.  We’ve recently gone through three major technological revolutions:

  1. Development of the internet
  2. Creation and proliferation of social media
  3. All that tech in your pocket thanks to mobile computing

These technologies are fundamentally changing the culture, norms and expectations of human society.  And not just once, they’re impacting human behavior day after day after day.

While many congregations have been going about their business of faithfully changing the world locally (focus on core membership), the very world they’re called to change — it changed. Result?  A congregation out of synch with time, technology and culture.

These ministry time bubble, they may be fine  for a while.  But increasingly the discrepancies are  too great to maintain.   And what was chalked up to technology becomes a matter of clashing cultures.

UU Exit Sign

New Norms for Humanity

These discrepancies between how our congregations are going about ministry and what is increasingly mainstream culture –  big problem.  It is easy to discount technology we don’t care for.   But we can’t minister effectively if we discount a changing human culture.  And that’s the scale of what we’re talking about.

Think about that.  Your congregation, if you aren’t actively staying in touch with present day technology and resulting culture — and this is a moving target — will be increasingly out of touch with the culture of those people you are seeking to minister to and with.

What culture am I talking about?

We’ve been globalized, interconnected and sci-fi like devices have been placed in our pockets giving us mind boggling creative, collaborative, and coordinating powers!   These powers are rapidly changing how we  do everything from work and play, to how we learn and organize ourselves to face the injustices of our time.

 Unfortunately, this growing culture clash isn’t readily apparent to many of our leaders.   Why? Because our culture being out of whack with what is becoming mainstream present day human culture simply results in humanity wanting nothing to do with us.  It is like a silent force gently pushing people away from us, including our young people who want to be active and effective agents for change.

You might say that we raised our very smart children well enough for them to know that our congregations, those stuck in time, are not the best places to invest their time and energy.  Great leaders (and aspiring leaders) don’t suffer through mediocre leadership. They find an institution or revolution ready to help them be of service.

(C) istockphoto

The Good News!

The good news is that our mission, our purpose, that change we  and our congregations are (hopefully) called to make in the world — there are more people than ever interested in that.  We know this because we’re increasingly networked together.

But….   (Drat! You knew there was a but.)

But the people we are trying to minister to and with are different now.   You see, we’re all adapting to this new world.  We are learning to do amazing things with the creative, collaborative, democratizing, gamified, hierarchy crushing, grassroots coordinating, rapid response, instantaneous, “fail often, fail fast, fail forward” tools and culture of this time.

We need your Unitarian Universalist religious leadership more than ever!

We just need you to be a religious leader differently.

We need you to understand the cultural shifts that are reshaping our human society, reshaping the world, and how to harness them to unleash our shared ministry in a world increasingly characterized by connectivity and openness.

An Open World

In my next post I want to talk to you about our world’s increasing culture of openess. You can get ready by watching Don Tapscott’s Ted Talk, Four principles for the open world.

I’ll reference his four principles in my next post. They are:

  1. Collaboration
  2. Transparency
  3. Sharing
  4. Empowerment

3 thoughts on “Social Media and Congregations Lost In Time

  1. A thoughtful post but as a lapsed United Methodist and then a lapsed UU, I will tell you that the reason you don’t attract the “nones” is because for all the liberal rhetoric, UU is still a religion and, even more, a church and that’s what “nones” are talking about when they say they are spiritual but not religious. They have their own community that exists outside the confines of the naturally occuring group think that happens even within the most open of congregations. I finally left the UUs because I tired of them telling me how open minded they were only to turn around and feel free to make fun of Christians.

  2. Gosh, what a timely post. I’ve been researching UU for quite a bit now after having had a disheartening experience at a relatively large institution in the southeast. I’m entirely unsurprised that it has a growth problem as well as an identity issue to boot.

    I’m an African American atheist. I found the UUs after looking for a place for my children to escape the apocolyptic ferver of their local environment and respectfully learn about world religions without indoctrination. The UUs seemed like the ideal place, a place where (com)passionate people gather for common purposes with a visions towards a world in which being a good person is not a function of your belief or disbelief in the supernatural or spiritual.

    The current UU structure makes this ideal utterly impossible. The UU powers that be have adopted a strategy that mimicks the typical church, undifferentiated from the rest. From the organizational structure to the Christ church centered language, at the most superficial, UU is telling everyone how different it is, all the while its largest congregations are near carbon copies of the Christian church next door.

    Additionally, it’s bad business to openly invite atheist and agnostics into your home, and then openly disparge them as though they are not sitting right on your couch as they’re just beginning to believe themselves to be in friendly company. It’s equally distasteful to treat people as second class citizens, tolerated in your midst, as though you are extending them a special favor, when the truth is, they were invited in as equals. For all the talk of diversity, UUs seem to understand very little about the realities of being members of a maligned minority class; ironic, considering their position in the world of religion. Perhaps if disgruntled minorities left their collective cultural baggage on the well manicured lawn so as to not upset the status quo, UUs could feel better about them and have better luck in recruiting them? Ultimately, I wonder if the mostly white, wealthy, educated, ex-Protestants really wish to rub shoulders on Sunday with blacks, Hispanics, Asians, atheist, middle classers, blue collar workers, and the “others” whose traditions they so enthusiastically borrow from for the sake of intellectual stimulation and personal fulfillment, in order to realize their dreams of a happy world? Doubtful, as far as I can see.

    I for one will not return to my local UU(which is an area that is over 50% black and 35% white, but has only one handful of African Americans in attendance at a time in a congregation in the double-triple hundreds) again until it figures out what it wants and who it wants to be. Are you a religion 1b defined by Webster as “the service and worship of God or the supernatural”? Or a religion Webster 4, known as “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith”. By definition, atheist and secular Humanist will be disinterested in religion 1b as the two are in conflict and so there is no need to pretend to welcome and affirm a group which cannot be. To cease claiming to welcome this group is far better than the confusion that occurs, and the subsequent disparging of this group in a failure of affirmation(quite different from tolerating, btw) and interest.

    If the UU is to survive at all, it will have to be true to itself as a non-creedal church which affirms(not tolerates, tolerating people when you said you affirmed them pisses them off because they feel lied to and shamed!) theistic and non theistic diversity. Currently, UUs do not share a 1b religion, they share a Webster 4 religion, based on shared principles. I get that UUs are all different, some more open to certain beliefs than others, and I don’t know whether or not ministers get diversity training, but if so, it is terribly insufficient for the UUs unique makeup. If not, then it is desperately needed for an organization that sends callings out to people from so many walks of life. Mandatory diversity training would help UU ministers stay in line with the ideals of the organization, which are to remain non creedal and bound by shared principles, and help to retain all members which are attracted to UU as a result of its pulbic mission statement.

    There are a number of UUs in my area, all of them openly welcoming to the LGBT community with their Rainbow flags displayed online and within the churches. But there is no equivalently consistent and overt call for diversity in any other area: no flags of the world flying about, or web page translations in languages other than English, or Spanish language interpreters at the fellowship I attended. There isn’t any representative leadership of color in this mostly African American location. And while there may be no official doctrine or creed, the unofficial one is most certainly Christianity. And how does the UUs focus on religious language and affliation benefit a non creedal organization? If people want a liberal Christian religion that accepts LGBT and views Christ and gods in the abstract, they have growing options that are far more traditional than UU.

    Ultimately, UUs need to ask themselves why the people it courts would wish to attend their church. Why would African Americans want to attend your church when they have hundreds of other churches to choose from? Why would atheist choose to wake up on a Sunday morning and bring their family to your church versus comfortably and respectfully sleeping in? Why would a Jew or a pagan or a Hindu wish to attend your church? What do you have for the sports enthusiastic who may not be cerebral in nature? What are you offering, which is the answer to why you aren’t growing and also to how you can choose growth moving forward.

    1. You have hit the nail on the head. My metaphor points to the simple fact that what you are saying is correct. UU’s are for the most part are getting whiter, older, and poorer.

Comments are closed.