the virtual church

After I lost my previous attempt at this entry, I got frustrated and went off and did something else for a while. By the time I got back to it, I realized that most of what I’d written before wasn’t important (even in the world of blogs where the most trivial narcissistic thoughts can have some import). So I’ll leave out all the stuff about the bulk of the meeting, which was the last in a series of four orientation sessions for new and prospective members. I was there not as a new or prospective member, but to speak about VARUUM, our GLBT social/social action/education group, and about the Welcoming Congregation Program by which UU congregations become more intentionally inclusive.
Anyway, I’ve also been spending a lot of time lately thinking about technology vis a vis my church as it could apply to many of our issues, concerns, activities and practices. As in most large organizations (at 1000+ members, we’re not large as, say, Baptist churches go, but we’re one of the two or three largest UU churches in the denomination), some parts of the church are way ahead of others. The Young Adult group, as one might expect, has fully embraced email and the web, and uses these technologies almost exclusively for planning and advertising their events. The GLBT group, as well, has had a listserv for several years, and now a Yahoo Group.
But most of the church is woefully far behind. The email system for the ministers and church staff is unreliable; several times this past year it stopped functioning, but messages wouldn’t get bounced back for several weeks, so you assumed that your emails had gotten through when they were actually in limbo (where the unbaptized Catholic babies apparently were reading them).

I needed to contact another member of the church, who’s invited me to participate in a panel about inclusiveness as it might relate to race as well as sexual orientation, and I got out my copy of the membership directory. Published only once a year, in printed form only, I was shocked to find out that the October 2001 edition had no email addresses. I brought this up tonight with the membership coordinator, only to discover that the church’s membership database only just was updated with the capability to include email addresses; but it does not have the capability, as it does for phone numbers, to allow a toggle for whether or not the email address should be published, so they’re not now using it.
She also expressed concern about people’s email addresses changing so often, so I suggested we just give everyone in the church their own email address, and a web front end for accessing it. That way, there’d be no concerns about publishing their work email addresses; everyone would have an account that could be used for church business. So it looks like I may have volunteered myself to take that on.
Another of our problems is that we’re growing too large too quickly; we already hold two separate services on Sunday morning, but even so there are never enough parking spaces, and the later arriving have to walk several blocks. And there’s a psychological feeling of being “too crowded” in the sanctuary. So I’d started thinking about ways that we could address this at least partially with technology; we could start streaming the services over the web, for example, or do some of our educational and informational activities through online hypertext, etc. Obviously, you want to foster a sense of community, so the physical space will always be important and it will always be important for people to gather together, but certainly many of us have incredible experiences of finding, creating, and maintaining community in a virtual space, too.
I’m a member of the newly formed worship associates group, which is designed to allow lay people an opportunity to participate in planning, creating and implementing worship services, and to give the ministerial team additional support for brainstorming, critique and getting the work done. At our first meeting, I started talking about these ideas, of webcasting sermons, of shared blogs around our educational and social action activities, of web-based religious education materials, etc.
Amazingly, and gratifyingly, I didn’t get blank stares. I got some interest (from both ministers, though one of them particularly finds technology cool, and she’s an avowed Trekkie who has quoted JeanLuc Picard as well as Buckminster Fuller from the pulpit), though whether we have the resources to pull it off is another matter. We only have only a couple of full and part-time paid staff positions besides the ministers, and there’s not an IT person in the plan, much less a CIO. But I’ve planted the seeds, and I’m continuing to try to push us.