Blogs gain popularity among UUs
by Donald E. Skinner
The Rev. Scott Wells is passionate about Universalist Christian theology. A year ago, he had basically three ways of conversing about it with more than one person at a time—his own ministry, an e-mail list, and the annual gathering of Unitarian Universalist Christians at General Assembly.
But now Wells has another way. He has a blog (www.universalistchurch.net/boyinthebands). Also known as a weblog, a blog is essentially an Internet diary that is usually a mixture of what's happening in a person's life and his or her observations on the larger world. Every day Wells, who lives in Washington, D.C., sits down at his computer and writes about what interests him and sends it out for the world to read. Back in March, the topics on his blog included his thoughts about The Passion of the Christ, the Georgia state flag, and the 1894 Universalist Book of Prayer. Unlike paper diaries, blogs welcome readers to leave comments in responses.
“Blogging is a way of sharing information with people you know are already interested in some of the same things you are,” he says. “It allows me to field ideas publicly and get feedback.” He believes blogging is simply the latest evolution of a centuries-long tradition of public journalism within Universalism that dates to early Universalist evangelist Hosea Ballou. “If Hosea Ballou were alive today he'd be a blogger,” Wells says.
Wells says blogging gives him the conversation he craves and his readers do likewise. He is one of a growing number of Unitarian Universalists who have discovered this new form of communication and are using it to express themselves about some aspect of their religion—and the world.
There are literally thousands of blogs on the Internet these days, ranging from teenagers writing about the travails of high school to political junkies expounding on a particular candidate (remember the Deaniacs?) or on the national and international scene. Blogging has been around for four or five years, but has come into its own in the past two as software has improved. And it's definitely age-related. The New York Times estimates that 90 percent of people with blogs are between 13 and 29.
Christopher L. Walton, senior editor of UU World, began blogging in 2003 and has one of the most active UU-related blogs (www.philocrites.com). He writes on a variety of UU and liberal religious themes. Many other UU-related blogs are listed on his blog site. “It's a place to put ideas that run around in my head, but don't flow naturally into my work,” he says. His site gets about 65 readers a day, but only a minority are UU. “My wife's boss, an Episcopal priest, reads it consistently and recommends it to his friends,” says Walton. “So it's become a little interfaith community.” His topics have included foreign policy, UU worship, and George Bush's religiosity.
People are still figuring out how to use blogs, says Walton. “It's a very new phenomenon and there's no clear vision for who the audience will be.” Conservative Christians caught on to this trend earlier, he says, and have been using blogs to reach young people. “From my point of view, this is a technology that's being used in interesting ways by journalists, academics, and consultants, and now some UUs are asking how can we use it? There aren't many answers yet.” He hopes blogs might become a way to create dialogue on issues within Unitarian Universalism and the UUA.
Unitarian Universalist bloggers can be found in several categories. There are ministers who blog as a way of publicizing their sermons. There are seminarians who use blogs as a way to create rich discussions about theology. There are practical blogs. One gives information on religious education resources (andrealernermny.blogspot.com). Another provides antiracism resources (stepbystep.blogs.com). A third (unitarianuniversalism.org/adventures/) provides information about small group ministry.
Heather Janules is a student at Meadville Lombard Theological School and a ministerial intern at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Lehigh Valley in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Inspired by a friend's blog, she started her own (thechrysalis.blogspot.com), where she describes the challenges and frustrations of ministry. Initially, the blog was a way to communicate with her ministerial sponsorship committee at her home church, the Arlington Street Church in Boston. “But then after a few months I discovered that other people were finding and reading it, and I began writing for that wider audience as well.
“One of the benefits to blogging is there are a lot of issues that we're facing as a denomination, and a blog is an efficient and exciting way to be in dialogue with people all over the continent,” she says. She has blogged about congregational growth, the UUA's ad campaign, and classism as well as the day-to-day life of intern ministry. She blogs less frequently than some, about once every three to four weeks. “It does take energy to keep up,” she says.
Blogs have the potential for creating online communities. From an initial discussion on his blog about a 1939 Lenten manual, ministry student Matthew Gatheringwater created a group of people in March who came together online to do Lenten meditations each day. “Not only was the quantity of responses high, but the quality of the conversation was very rewarding,” he says. But he also worries that the nature of online communication may exacerbate an existing tendency within Unitarian Universalism to separate into narrow interest groups. “Instead of diverse online communities with dissent and discussion, you end up with a small, homogenous group of people talking to themselves.”
Gatheringwater has used his blog, (matthewgatheringwater.blogspot.com), to call attention to perceived injustices within Unitarian Universalism, from laundry room rules at Meadville Lombard to the way UUs do social justice. “I see my blog primarily as a tool for personal growth, like a journal—a journal that allows me to get feedback, criticism, and support from a large and expanding community,” says Gatheringwater. “When I was struggling over the question of whether or not Unitarian Universalism is a religion, I didn't just anguish in isolation; 98 people wrote to share their answers to the question!”John Rakestraw, the UU World contributing editor responsible for “Testimony” and “Religion News” has a blog (www.onreligion.com), which first started out as a subscription news clipping service. It has evolved into commentary on religion stories in the media and culture. His clients include professors, ministers, and journalists. “I do it because I'm interested in religion and culture,” said the former professor of philosophy and religious studies. “And I'm something of a news junkie. I like publishing things that others find valuable.”