Digital Bishop

This is the sermon that Bishop Kirk Smith of Arizona preached on Sunday at the consecration of Nick Knisely, former Cafe newsblogger, as Bishop of Rhode Island.

We have all been at meetings where the first thing the speaker does is to ask the audience to turn off their cell phones. This afternoon I am going to do just the opposite—I am going to ask you to take them out and to turn them on! Why? because you, my brothers and sisters, have a got yourselves a bishop for the 21st Century, a digital bishop, one who is going to help you communicate the Good News of Jesus Christ in a whole new and exciting way. So get those smart phones ready, because beginning today you are about to tweet, facebook, and social media your way into the minds and hearts of a new generation–those who may text dozens of messages everyday, but have never heard the Message, who belong to virtual communities but not to a community of faith, who may be Linked-In, but are not yet raised up. Who follow their friends on Facebook but who are not yet followers of Christ.

If you think that I am putting you on, that is because as Episcopalians we are seriously out of touch with a world where the average teenager sends over 3000 text messages a month, where the number one goal of nearly all Fortune 500 companies is to increase their social media presence, and where Facebook has over a billion users, making it the equivalent of the third largest country in the world. In the past, the church used the revolution caused by the printing press to share the Gospel with the world. It has pretty much dropped the ball ever since, missing out on the opportunities given to it by film, radio and television. Is it too late? Here are some are two scary facts—80% of people looking for a church to attend for the first time, go to the internet, and yet only 20% of Episcopal churches have an active and up-to-date website. Here is another one. There are 110 active bishops in this country, only six are on Twitter, and yet at our General Convention this summer, when we were discussing the blessings of same sex unions, over 10 million people worldwide were following us on Twitter! File this under #majorfail.

Of course your new bishop is one of those high tech bishops. In fact, he might be said, like Al Gore, to have invented the internet, at least for Episcopalians. You will probably hear from him the story of how as a graduate student back in the 1980’s he realized that the then clunky computers he was using would have tremendous potential, and he set out to learn all about them and especially about how the church could use the Web. By now you all know that Nick is a smart guy, how many bishops have an advanced degree in physics? What you may not know is how much he knows about technology. He taught our Arizona clergy how to blog, and as the cathedral Dean in Phoenix, so much of his time was spent consulting about IT, that I considered getting him a tee-shirt which read, “NO, I will not fix your computer.”

Your new bishop’s desire to embrace technology is motivated by far more than a desire to be cool, hip, or wired. It comes instead from a longing to connect, especially with those in our society who are often on the margins of the churches’ attention, especially young people.

Bishop Thomas Marsh Clark, fifth Bishop of Rhode Island told his convention in 1898: “Innovation is not always improvement, but there can be no improvement without innovations. That which is more familiar to us was a novelty once, and that which is new to us will become familiar in the process of time.”

Your new bishop embodies that tradition of Yankee innovation.

Those of you who were at the electing convention will remember that when Nick’s election was announced, you all sang his favorite hymn, “They cast their nets in Galilee.” We sang it again just now. This was more appropriate than you may know. Years ago, I served in a parish in Old Lyme Connecticut, not too far from here, and so my family would often come over Rhode Island to take the ferry to Block Island. That ferry leaves from—Galilee, Rhode Island! (As I recall there used to be a pretty good seafood restaurant there). Galilee, Rhode Island is named of course after the place where Jesus did most of his ministry, and from whence he called his disciples. Why did Jesus base his ministry in Galilee? It was not his hometown. He had to make quite a trip to get there. The answer I think is that Galilee was the cultural crossroads of Jesus’ day. It was home to many different ethnic groups, and hosted many different religious traditions. Even though it was rural, it was a melting pot, a kind of first century Times Square.

It is to that mix of culture and beliefs that Jesus preaches his message. His audience is not the good, temple-going, establishment type Jew of Jerusalem. But the marginalized and the forgotten. Remember all the dismissive comments from the Jewish establishment about Jesus “the Galilean”. Hence someone for them not to be taken seriously.

A digital bishop cannot but be concerned about one group found in our own modern Galilee of high tech pop culture, and that is youth. Its is to youth that the church must “cast its INTERnet.” Internet communication is not a toy for young people—it is a way of life. It is the language they speak, and if the church is going to grow, it will have to realize this. This fact is especially hard for Episcopalians, a greying denomination where the average age is 62, and where the average number of youth involved in an Episcopal parish is 8. We all say we want to attract young people and children and families, and yet most church budgets allocate more for coffee hour than they do for children and youth.

One of the few dioceses in this country that is growing in numbers has done so because of a concerted effort a decade ago to put a youth minister in every parish. Your new bishop will also make the needs of youth a priority. He talks to them, not down to them. And he speaks their language both online and offline. I have seen him do that at our Arizona diocesan camp and at the cathedral in Phoenix, which thanks to his efforts now does have a full time youth director. Nick knows that those fishermen in Galilee who followed Jesus were not the bearded figures we tend to imagine, but were all probably about 18-20 years old. When they followed the Savior, they left their old man, their father Zebedee in the boat. Hmm, I wonder what that might mean?

But there is no use in effectively communicating if we don’t have something to communicate. And your new bishop is clear as to what that is—the Good News of Jesus Christ. This might seem like a no-brainer, but sadly that is sometimes not the case in our church. I remember very well the meeting I had with the Arizona Cathedral Chapter just before they called Nick as their new Dean seven years ago. They were down to two candidates, and I was with them to help break the deadlock, I asked each member of the cathedral chapter to tell me what they liked most about the two finalists. One woman, said, “I really like that Nick Knisely, there is only one problem, in his interview he talked about Jesus an awful lot.” Another member of the chapter quickly chimed in. “Oh, don’t worry about that, he said, “It’s just a fad, they are all doing it these days!”

Happily we have come a long way since then. The cathedral in Phoenix has seen a nearly threefold increase in attendance since six years ago, due mainly to Nick’s instance that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is to be proclaimed in that place with power, clarity and conviction. Nationally too, we have learned the hard way that merely resting on our laurels as genteel post-Victorian protestants is not going to bring new people in. We need to be absolutely focused on our mission and unapologetic about our church: Episcopalian and proud of it!

We need to be clear in our theology: No more Unitarians in vestments. We must be compelling in our worship—(no more mumbling our way through the prayer book and droning hymns by 19th Century dead white guys.) We have to be demanding in our formation as disciples—no more confirmation classes in which a few weeks of instruction to bored eighth graders is the standard for joining the church.

Bishop Andy Doyle of Texas (another digital bishop) has a new book called Unabashedly Episcopalian in which he rightly challenges us to fall in love once again with our Episcopal church. It’s not enough just aspire to follow Jesus, we must live our out discipleship in a unique church community with a particularly rich theology and tradition which we can be proud of. In his words:

“I am not challenging you to come up with your own really cool understanding of our church, but rather to choose to form people of every age in the way of the Episcopal Church…to be unabashedly Episcopalian.”

Nick, we are all called to be unabashedly Episcopalian, and today, we call you to be our bishop unabashedly! And so I would ask you to now stand.

You stand facing the altar, but you also stand with with 200 years of history and ministry of the Diocese of Rhode Island, standing behind you. You stand on the shoulders of its previous twelve bishops, most importantly those of Gerry Wolfe, and the clergy and lay leadership who elected you. They have chosen to consecrate you on the feast day of two great bishops of the medieval English Church, Hugh of Lincoln and Robert Grosseteste. Hugh, because he was known for his great personal piety, and his gentle pastoring of his clergy and people. Legend has it that as he traveled around his diocese he was so humble that he chose to walk rather than ride his horse. Although this might in fact be possible given the compact nature of your diocese, I do understand they have provided you with a Toyota. Robert Grosseteste on the other hand was noted for his intellect. He was chancellor of Oxford University before he was elected bishop of Lincoln, where he wrote on physics and astronomy and pioneered the scientific method–sound familiar? His great learning earned him his surname of Grosseteste which means literally “swelled head,” or “egg head,” as we might say today–so be careful! It is these two qualities of pastor and teacher that this diocese was looking for, and it is these two gifts that you will bring them. Indeed, you have already began to care for them when you contacted every congregation after Hurricane Sandy, and you have already begun to teach them on your online blog. As you continue this Episcopal ministry, always be mindful the changing nature of the church you serve. Be to them a true digital bishop, using technology to strengthen relationships, to reach the unchurched, and to proclaim the Good News.

And Karen and Kenney, I would ask you to stand. For you have an important job too. Your task is to remind Nick that his ministry begins at home, and that his care for you is to be above all others. I once heard a wise old priest say that in ministry, the clergy person is required to keep many different balls in the air–some of them are made of rubber and some are made of glass. The rubber ones represent work, the glass ones, family. If you should happen to drop one of the rubber balls, it will bounce, but the glass ones will shatter. So Karen and Kenny, remind your husband and father that he may be the chief pastor of the Diocese, but you are his most important flock.

And the rest of you, members of this great Diocese, would you all please stand. You have probably all noticed that you are not standing in church building today, but on an athletic playing field. I hope this symbolism in not lost on you, for you are all called upon to be part of a team. Nick may be your new captain, but he can’t play the game without all of you, from those who are the starting players, to those who spend most of their time on the bench, or carrying water. The team called the Diocese of Rhode Island needs all of you. And it needs you to both treat your captain with respect and with care. No intentional fouls, no elbowing on the court, no playing out of bounds, and make sure you all call for plenty of time-outs. Talk to your captain and not about him. Make sure he takes his day off, and remember you are all wearing the same uniform–you know, the one which has written on it, “the cross is my anchor.”

Now sit down and get out your phones. To paraphrase Jesus in our Gospel for today, “Be dressed for action and with your phones turned on!” Before you leave here today I want you to text, twitter, or post an important message. Your message is going to reach more people than has ever happened before in the Diocese of Rhode Island. Here is the math–the average smartphone user has about 100 friends or followers. There are about 2000 people here today. So that means nearly a quarter of million people are going to receive this proclamation:

“The Episcopal Church in Rhode Island is a church for the 21st Century.

You invited to join us in the name of Jesus.

For we have a great new bishop–thanks be to God!

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5 Comments
  1. Just fantastic. So very encouraging to this tweeting, blogging, Facebooking Episcopalian.

    Although I do love me some dead-guy hymns, tbh.

    ;)

  2. billydinpvd

    Speaking as a white guy who is planning on being dead some day, I rather resent being squeezed out of the scene. ;-)

    Seriously, though, the idea that the principle selection criterion of a piece of liturgical music is the ethnicity of its writer/composer is troubling. It was the only bit of Saturday’s service that I found jarring.

    Bill Dilworth

  3. Judith Davis

    Bishop Smith’s sermon was great and relevant and current. It was hilarious when he asked people to turn ON their smart phones, but by the time i got back to Cape Cod from the consecration, many images were already on facebook–like a great church time warp. thanks be to God for this new life in RI.

  4. Grace Burson

    I’m with Beth. :)

    And “I understand they have provided you with a Toyota.” Hee.

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