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A radical proposal for digital literacy


One of the grumbles I hear in UU circles is about our congregations’ invisible buildings. We have tucked our churches into residential neighborhoods, hidden them behind trees, and set them back from the street by wide expanses of lawn.

Reticence about self-promotion seems to be part of our UU DNA. Rather than actively seeking those who would flourish as members of our congregations, we prefer that they find us––and we don’t make it easy for them to do so. Then we wonder why we’re not growing in numbers.*

I’ve been thinking about our hidden buildings as a metaphor for a lack of digital visibility in many of our congregations. In this digital age, congregations need vibrant, informative, easily accessible web pages, and an active Facebook presence as well. Twitter is quickly becoming another necessity. Visitors no longer discover a new faith community by driving by a building. They find it online, and if we’re digitally invisible, how can we hope to grow?

Last Saturday on Facebook, the Rev. Phillip Lund mentioned that he’s teaching a January Intensive at Meadville-Lombard about digital/spiritual literacy. That got me thinking about the digital skills of UU clergy.

In my work editing The Interdependent Web, I interact with the subset of UU clergy who blog. Many of them are also very active on Facebook and Twitter. Because almost all of the UU clergy I know are these bloggers, my sense of how tech-literate UU clergy really are is skewed. I think it’s worth figuring out just what percentage of UU clergy are developing their digital skills. I also think 100% digital literacy is a worthy and necessary goal.

So here’s my radical proposal: let’s make digital literacy required for all UU ministers––not just those seeking preliminary or final fellowship.**

A recent post on the MediaShift blog quoted media scholar Henry Jenkins: “Traditionally we wouldn’t consider someone literate if they could read but not write. And today we shouldn’t consider someone literate if they can consume but not produce media.”

It’s no longer enough for clergy to know how to check their email and surf the web. If we want our congregations to be digitally visible, our clergy need to be both spiritually literate and digitally literate.

So what are the requirements for digital literacy?

Here’s the bare minimum, as I see it: every UU minister needs to have a blog, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and a willingness to stay digitally current.***

I suspect that we’re letting a lot of clergy off the hook at the moment. We’re allowing ourselves to think of Facebook and Twitter (and other social media) as toys, as entertainment, and not as essential tools for a new way of being in community. We hide behind concerns about privacy, about too much screen time, rather than jumping in and helping solve these problems from the inside out. We make excuses for our illiteracy, claiming we’re “just not computer people,” rather than acknowledging our fears and our reluctance to do the hard work of learning something new.****

Unitarian Universalism has so much to offer, particularly to those without a spiritual home. We are not what everyone needs, but we are uniquely positioned to be “a religion for our time.”

But we can’t be a religion for the digital age if those who have embraced digital media have no idea that we exist. If we’re hidden behind outdated websites. If we’re silent on Facebook and Twitter. And if our clergy speak only from pulpits and printed newsletters.


*Obviously, this is a broad generalization, with many exceptions.
**I know that this is a practical impossibility.  🙂
***I’m looking forward to hearing what others of you think should be “required.”
****As I wrote this paragraph, I found myself thinking about a recent study that claims Alaskans are crankiest in the fall.


6 thoughts on “A radical proposal for digital literacy

  1. Of course I totally agree! I’m thinking of this quote from Elizabeth Drescher in Tweet If You ♥ Jesus: “The Internet is not merely a thing we use to get a message out to more people, but rather a place we enter to engage others.” We’ve got to seriously start engaging.

  2. Sometime I want to write a longer piece on this. But something about the always-connnected, always posting some piece of trivia (“Am having breakfast now”), non-contemplative aspect of Facebook and Twitter bothers me. Blogs are a long form, hopefully with some mindfulness behind them, to be read by someone else at their leisure. But twitter and facebook have something about them that strikes me as (possibly) negative spiritual energy. In the physical world we are (sometimes) concerned about the consumerist nature of our culture. Is there such a thing as over-consumption/attention to the digital world? If I should be characterized as a Luddite, I’m an odd subspecies – I’m a software professional, in front of the screen at least eight hours a day; but I don’t see what I would gain by tweeting, and find my facebook account mainly a source of annoyance.

    Good web site – absolutely.
    E-mail – absolutely.
    facebook – for lurking/going to group sites.
    twitter – maybe for organizing demonstrations

    • Is there such a thing as over-consumption? Absolutely. Just as there is with food. The trick is knowing when it’s over-consumption/attention, and when it’s a new form of community, in which it’s natural to have a flow of conversation throughout the day.

      Facebook has absolutely enriched my participation in the local UU fellowship. I feel much more connected with the other members than I did before Facebook.

      I still don’t really get Twitter. For some reason, on Twitter I feel like the awkward kid who came late to the party. There seems to be an “in” way to do things, and I don’t have those patterns down yet.

      For all of these things–blogs, websites, Facebook, Twitter–we each choose our own way of doing them, and we’re each going to be more or less skilled. The key is to at least have a basic knowledge of how they work, and to participate in them in whatever way feels comfortable. More on that later, probably.

  3. “We have tucked our churches into residential neighborhoods, hidden them behind trees, and set them back from the street by wide expanses of lawn.”


    I well remember visiting the Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta Georgia. I was told that it was at the intersection of two streets and, as I approached the church driving up Walton Way I was quite impressed by its large size, pristine appearance, and very ample parking lot filled with cars. As I entered the parking lot I was more than a little bit surprised to see that a large proportion of its numerous membership were African Americans dressed up in their “Sunday Best” with only a small handful of WASPs aka WASU*Us. 😉

    *Very* unusual for a Unitarian Universalist church. . .

    And of course it turned out to be the First Baptist Church of Augusta NOT the Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta Georgia which is not to be confused with the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Augusta Maine. . . So, I looked around the immediate area for a nearby Unitarian Universalist church and could not see one. I wondered if perhaps the Baptists had “bought out” the Augusta GA UU church but it seemed rather unlikely. I decided to drive around a bit and see if I could find the UU church somewhat further afield and had no luck. I stopped at a nearby gas station and asked the people there if they knew where the Unitarian church was. They did not…

    Finally, pretty much giving up, I decided to drive back to downtown Augusta the way that I had come. In doing so I noticed a small derelict sign next to an almost invisible “dirt road” style driveway entrance in the thick hedge directly across from the First Baptist Church of Augusta and yes, UUs guessed it. . . it *was* indeed the poorly marked “less than visible” entrance to the comparatively small “dirt road” style driveway and parking lot of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta Georgia. Unless one already previously knew *exactly* where the Augusta GA UU church was located at the intwersection of Walton Way and Jackson Road/Walton Way Ext. it was very easy to drive right by it without seeing the driveway entrance. The church property was mostly hidden by a high and thick “hedge” composed largely of full grown trees.

    Should I mention that, when I finally did enter the Augusta GA UU church with the Sunday service now in progress, it was only to see the seemingly rather sheepish (if not down-trodden) male minister delivering his “swan song” sermon as he was being unceremoniously ushered out the door for some real or imagined transgression against the congregation and/or church lay leaders, with several glowering male congregants standing and sternly (if not grimly) glowering at him throughout his sayonara sermon with their arms crossed* in front of their chests?

    Yes, I think I should. . .

    This Google maps satellite imagery will bear out my testimony about the rather low visibility of the Augusta GA UU church, which is largely hidden by tall trees (especially when driving west from downtown Augusta on Walton Way) and the far more impressive First Baptist Church of Augusta property which directly across the street.

    * Can U*Us say “body language”?

  4. Reblogged this on uuresource and commented:
    The author’s suggests a contemporary standard for who we consider functionally literate and who we do not. At the dawn of the 21st century a literate person might rightly be one who is not only able to access and enjoy the wealth of digital resources available through the internet but one who also is able to and does produce and publish original digital content. As our author reminds us a person living in the recent or distant past would hardly have been considered truly literate if though he could read he could not himself write. This provocative but persuasive premise is then directed toward our UU clergy and a challenge is issued which in many ways has been accepted and met as we see a growing proliferation of UU content online. However I regret that rich visual content and content that employs the latest interactive capabilities is scarce and in this area we miss such opportunity.

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