The decision to hold General Council 44 online is the fulfillment of a long dream for early adapters of technology in the church.

Rev. David Shearman shares a history of online communications and community in The United Church of Canada; originally presented at the Centre for Practical Theology's 2019 Revitalize 3 conference in London, ON.
Published On: April 8, 2021

The announcement was short and brief but exciting to read. A dream I have had for 30 years will be fulfilled in the summer of 2022.

Back in the late 1980s I was one of the early adopters of computer technology in the church. I bought my first computer in 1989. I discovered the on-line world of computer community.

In those early days, personal computers were not for the faint of heart. The operating software, known as DOS, required you to know some fairly complicated commands. And the wrong command could wipe out all your storage and everything you were doing.

Fortunately, my purchase had included a day-long course in computer system language. Like any unfamiliar tongue, I became more fluent the more I used it. I did wipe out my program and my work once, but never again.

The computer came equipped with a device called a modem. Plugged into a telephone line, it allowed my computer to talk to other computers in Canada, the U.S., and on the other side of the world.

I was hooked. Watching the characters crawl across the screen in an amber on a dark background was mesmerizing. I was doing something more exciting that I had ever dreamed of. Soon I had friends and colleagues across Canada, the U.S., and Europe. It became a hobby and then an increasingly important part of how I did my work.

I started to use my computer to prepare my worship services and write sermons. I found resources for church work and new ideas. I heard, first hand, about natural disasters, and discovered the perils of speaking truth.

When people wanted to send their stuff to hurricane-ravaged Florida, I suggested people send money to relief agencies instead. I had read, via computer, directly from workers on the ground assisting the victims, they what was needed as not used clothing or shoes or furniture, but money. That way they could but things locally and really help people in need. I heard stories of piles of relief goods unloaded from trucks, dumped in fields, and left to rot in the mud and rain because there was no storage space and no use for 1000 pairs of ladies slippers.

In 2021, the use of computers in this way is almost universal. The power of a smart phone dwarfs the capacity and processing power of my first desktop. With the Internet I can connect to anywhere in the world and speeds I never even dreamed of in 1989.

Back in the early days of computer use on the church, my colleagues and I wondered how church meetings might be held if everyone had access to a device and were connected on line. What would be different and what would be the same?

But we dreamed of the possibilities, not even knowing the technology which would be needed.

COVID-19 changed all that. Churches have, by and large, adapted to this new reality. One church I serve has said very clearly that they like church meetings on Zoom. It’s efficient, it’s safe and as we become more comfortable with the technology, it becomes easier to use.

We have also adapted to worship on line, learning new ways and becoming adapted to what we do and how we worship.

And my dream?

In 2022, the General Council of the United Church, the denomination’s largest governing body with members from across Canada and Bermuda, will meet, not in person in Calgary as was planned, but online. Virtually. For the first time in 97 years.

What we dreamed in 1990 has come to fruition. Our dreams have been made real. And in all honesty, I have to pinch myself.

—David Shearman is an active, retired United Church minister living in Owen Sound, ON and serving Highland and Dundalk United Churches in Western Ontario Waterways Region. This article was originally published in the Owen Sound Sun Times (and other local Postmedia newspapers) on March 23, 2021. Watch a full presentation by David Shearman on the history of online communications and community in the United Church, originally presented at the Centre for Practical Theology’s 2019 Revitalize 3 conference in London, ON.


The views contained within these blogs are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of The United Church of Canada.