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Re: Discussion on Youth Group/Busy World

Posted by Carey McDonald // December 4th 2012 // soundings, Stories and Voices, youth // no comments

Following the Youth Group in a Busy World blog post, I traded emails with my friend Kathy Smith, Director of Religious Education at Community Unitarian Universalist Church in Plano, TX. Below is an edited version of our exchange. – C.M.


Hi, Carey –

I read your latest blog post.  I think I’m going to take Faith Formation training myself, but I can tell you that I’m having a lot of struggle with it.  One of the basic premises of Faith Formation (and Congregations and Beyond) seems to be that church structures are basically obsolete – that we need to stop thinking about getting people together face-to-face and start relying on other means of gathering as a regular thing.

…human beings are hardwired to need community…

The problem with that from my perspective is that human beings are hardwired to need community and conversation and intimacy and touch, and those things are much more possible in person than at a distance. I’d point out that both of the examples linked in your article are face-to-face communities with a lot of face time.

In faith, Kathy


Hi Kathy!

Thanks for your thoughtful email. I’ve come to believe there’s a deeper truth at play here than “online vs. in person.” The 21st Century Faith Formation training makes a very compelling case about how the world is changing all around us, and points out that church life as we know it made sense historically only because it mapped onto a culturally similar, geographically defined community that already existed.. As those things change, what does it mean for church?

[Training facilitator John] Roberto argues we need to now instead serve “networked individuals,” and that churches should serve as “curators” of resources, which include but are not limited to the traditional elements of Sunday worship as well as lots of other stuff out there that the church points to but doesn’t create itself. But what is missing for me is that all these options are presented as co-equal, as if they have no relationship to one another (e.g. an online discussion is the same as a prayer vigil after a traumatic event). Just look at one of his typical graphics, on page 12 or 13 of this handout.

So what if these approaches in a “network” had a consistent relationship? What if, rather than substituting for in person interaction, technology amplified our in person interactions? The fact that you and I spent a week together in Phoenix at Justice General Assembly last summer makes this email conversation more valuable, and vice versa: the time we spent building a relationship in Phoenix has additional impact because we can continue to communicate online. And today I can send you links to all of Roberto’s presentations, which are also online. Rather than assuming that formulaic in person interaction is the only mode of church, we can recognize that it’s hard to get people together, and so we make their precious time with one another more valuable by buttressing it with other ways of connecting when they’re not together. That’s what I was trying to get at in the article, anyways. Because you’re absolutely right, the time that, for example, youth spend with one another in Youth Caucus is irreplaceable.

Can social media and technology heighten the value of our limited time together, rather than replace it?

Can social media and technology heighten the value of our limited time together, rather than replace it? Can it be a way to hold onto folks who would otherwise simply drift away because they can’t find their way to a service that speaks to them on a Sunday morning? And even better, can we use these multiple approaches to create a continuum of meaning and involvement that leads to ever-deeper spiritual practice? That’s what excites me.

What do you think?

Warmly, Carey


Hi Carey,

YES!  I’m absolutely with you on so much of what you’re saying: that an online chat or a Facebook group does not have equal weight with a prayer vigil, that churches done “the old way” do rely on an older cultural paradigm, and that we need to recognize our time together as precious and limited.  Technology can and should buttress what we have together face-to-face.  The piece I struggle with is exactly what you pinpointed: when I see it discussed, very often technology approaches are seen as equal to or surpassing more traditional approaches.

…I think it is those ways of being in community that are changing, not our need for community.

What I believe deeply is human beings are hardwired to need people contact – skin-to-skin, voice-to-ear, eye-to-eye, emotionally engaging and physically satisfying contact with each other.  I think that there is also a huge spiritual/emotional component to this – that human beings are also hard-wired to need meaning in their lives. I personally think that we are going to see a resurgence of people gathering in community, face-to-face, using those technology pieces to figure out where and how and what happens.  What I think may not happen is the traditional time (Sunday morning) or delivery (sermon sandwich) because I think it is those ways of being in community that are changing, not our need for community.

To address another question, why do we consider Sunday morning a higher priority in church life than any other?  I think it is because it is one of the few things that our churches do that are actually focused on spiritual things.  So many of our activities are intended as social gatherings to build community.  To use some of the activities sponsored by the church I serve: bridge group, genealogy group, book club, game night, circle suppers, classic movie nights, a folksinging group… the list goes on.  While these things could be structured as spiritual experiences meant to deepen one’s connection with the divine or with the spirit within, they currently aren’t.  I suspect my church is not alone.  As we begin to develop more activities in our churches that are spiritual in focus (small group ministry, radical hospitality dinners, service trips), we can begin to focus on that “bank of resources” that Roberto talks about.  But you don’t build those things online – you build them with face-to-face work, supported by all the technology you can muster at your fingertips.

It does make sense that way.

Thank you for the discussion.  It will make my participation in the Faith Formation workshop coming in January in Dallas a little richer.

In faith, Kathy


About the Author

Carey is the Chief Operating Officer for the UUA.
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