For social media enthusiast Rev. Aaron Billard, the religious content he read online was always either too liturgical or too evangelical.
“The only prayers I ever saw going up on Twitter were people posting things from their prayer book,” Billard says. “‘Have mercy on us this night as we go to our slumbers’ and whatnot. I thought, ‘I just wish my kids would go to bed!’”
This United Church minister from Moncton, N.B., preferred something simpler. “‘Lord, for those children who would rather watch Caillou than go to sleep, we pray’ — that’s the kind of prayer that I could honestly offer up.”
So in 2010, Billard created Unvirtuous Abbey, the Twitter account of a fictional group of monks who are more approachable than pious as they tweet about first-world problems. But what began as an in-joke for his friends has attracted more than 30,000 followers in North America, England, Scotland and Ireland and has received international media attention. (As a comparison, The United Church of Canada and The Observer have about 4,000 followers each.)
Most of the time, this husband and father of two writes posts that serve as mini-bursts of stress relief in the bustle of daily life. But they can also be heartwarming. Billard once used a picture of someone dressed up as a Star Wars stormtrooper, visiting a children’s hospital. “For Storm Troopers who hold hands with little kids on their way for cancer treatments, we give thanks,” he tweeted. That post was retweeted over 3,400 times.
Sometimes, the monks also provide commentary on topics of social justice. “Lord, you who told Lazarus to ‘Come out!’, we pray for Christians who say it’s wrong to do that.”
Billard believes Unvirtuous Abbey has tapped into a much-ignored group: those on the fringes of church, along with atheists and secularists. He stresses that if church people want to be part of those communities, they have to connect with them in their own space.
“People are fed [at Unvirtuous Abbey]. They find something of value — something intelligent and faithful. You don’t have to check your brain at the door.”
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