Christianity on the digital frontier: Part I
Are 21st Century Christians around the world up to the challenge of witnessing in the 21st Century? Are the ways of “doing” church meeting the needs of those who now turn to the internet for everything, including “what’s the meaning of life?” Perhaps answers lie within the digital realm itself.
Insights editor Adrian Drayton attended the eFormation Conference in Washington DC this year. To find out how and what Christianity can be online, for you, me and those constantly searching.
In the FIRST part of a special FIVE-part series, we introduce you to the virtual mission-field where the good news of Jesus can be productively proclaimed. For real.
“Yet, O Lord, you are our God; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” Isaiah 64:8
Digital faith formation: How vital is it for the future of the Church?
Faith formation is at the heart of what the Christian life is all about.
In many ways, we engage in the practices of our daily lives and the rituals of our faith communities — through worship, mission, working for justice and peace, evangelism, and education — so that our faith may be nurtured, enlivened, sustained, and formed.
One of the important ways many of us engage in faith formation is through our Church communities. But does our view of the way we ‘do’ Church meet the needs of a generation who, characteristically, are turning to the internet for answers to the meaning of life? Seeking answers online before they would darken the doors of a local church or clergy member?
Every day, millions of internet users ask Google some of life’s most difficult questions, big and small. So are we – the Church – set up to understand how we can be responding to these questions?
While this issue should give us pause to consider what we’re already doing, more importantly it should spur on our thinking and testing in the area of digital faith formation. How we might engage people where they already are — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and so on. And so on.
The list of social and professional networking sites — like the possibility of reaching out in these spaces — seems endless, daunting and hard to navigate. But challenges for the future of the Church are being posed by these dominant forms of communication.
So, here’s the big question: Are we as a Church up for the challenge?
Is the Church in decline?
It would be easy to assume that the issue of declining Church membership is unique to the Uniting Church in Australia. But look a little deeper and you realise its reach is far broader. Over the past few years, the issue has drawn thought leadership from across the globe to an annual conference at the Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS) in Alexandria, Washington DC, USA. Here you’ll find people from all walks of religious life sharing practical ways churches can engage in faith formation for the 21st century.
The eFormation conference is an interactive laboratory and ecumenical resource of ideas and innovation. This year’s sessions were led by authors and practitioners who are trying to make sense of how Christians can operate effectively in an exponentially increasing digital landscape. They even dared to suggest we can bring faith formation into the digital space, and that existing communities of faith can be enhanced and grown. Also, new communities of faith may be grown in the process.
“In a time when fewer people are finding their way into the church, it is essential that we intentionally seek out and connect with them rather than wait for them to show up at our doors”, said Keith Anderson, author of The Digital Cathedral and a speaker on congregational growth and development.
While declining church membership poses many challenges, technology offers us new ways of reaching out to and engaging with those for whom searching for questions of meaning at the local church is a foreign concept.
John Roberto, a thought leader in the area of 21st century intergenerational faith formation, captured the sentiment perfectly in his session: “Most parents are ill-equipped to pass on their own faith to their children. Second generations are not religiously affiliated households.”
Statistics both overseas and in Australia suggest an entire generation is looking for meaning in life but are not turning to a church for the answers.
As a conference-goer noted: “We need to work on helping people see there isn’t a ‘digital’ world and ‘real’ world anymore — they are one and the same, and we need to be there to help people meet God.”
The Pew Research Centre in the United States refers to this generation as the “nones” — a diverse age group who are spiritual but with no denominational affiliation. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, 35 per cent of American millennials (people born 1981–1996), are “nones”. That’s more than twice the number of Baby Boomers who are “nones”, and more than three times the “Silent Generation” (born 1928-45).
In Australia, “nones” are identified by McCrindle research as “spiritual but not religious”. The number of this group has risen 269 per cent during the past few years. Combine this with the fact that church attendance is down by 48 per cent and Christianity down 22 per cent, and you can really start to understand the drive for changing approaches.
“Research tells us that it’s no longer your grandchild’s internet anymore,” explained Randall Curtis, the Ministry Developer for Young Adults and Youth in the Episcopal Church in Arkansas.
“It is really an imperative for churches to at least be involved in areas such as social media, regardless of whether they have young people in their congregations. If we are serious about living out God’s words, we must reach out in this way.”
Remapping our future
“While we wouldn’t go as far as to say effective engagement will save a rapidly declining church on its own, we are confident that much of the hope for revitalising our churches and sustaining their good work in the world is related to the ability of leaders in ministry to engage people exactly where they are,” wrote Elizabeth Drescher and Keith Anderson in their book Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible. “Where they are increasingly includes social media spaces like Facebook, Twitter [and] YouTube.”
No matter how we like to be engaged in the digital realm, increasingly there are tools to assist congregations to market themselves to people online and to design church services that include intergenerational worship. But the important work remains: we need to rise to the opportunities that this new digital ecology offers us.
The narrative of decline and death is a passive one that precludes growth and development from the equation. It is also an admission that faith formation is passive. But learning and growing in ones’ faith is active. By simply and passively dying, we are ignoring one of the imperatives of the Gospel.
“Digital media skills can help us rise to the occasion and meet these 21st century challenges and opportunities,” said Kyle Oliver, one of the organisers of E-Formation.
“These skills develop best when we are not afraid to experiment. The motto of eFormation is, in many ways, ‘learn by doing.’ Let’s be action researchers and share our learning with each other.
“I’ve seen the very young and the very old have a huge impact online, many of them with very modest digital skills and experience. These environments are the mainline Church’s opportunity to shine. We can be thoughtful, present, and engaged in ways that resonate deeply in our communities and serve as part of a foundation for a renewed sense of calling and partnership with neighbours and new friends.”
Want to learn more about e-Formation?
- Key Resources website at Virginia Theological Seminary
From the faith formation curators in the Center for the Ministry of Teaching, this is an excellent website full of resources, reviews, tutorials and even links to apps.
Click here to check it out.
- Discover e-Formation presentations
If you aren’t on Pintrest, you should be if you want to access every presentation from eFormation.
Click here for eFormation on Pinterest.
- Be part of e-Formation yourself
For the low cost of $US79, you can experience eFormation for yourself via online webinars.
Click here to register for access.
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