Christianity on the digital frontier: Part II

Are 21st Century Christians around the world up to the challenge of witnessing to 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.

In the SECOND part of a special FIVE-part series, Adrian reports how online engagement is not only important for Christian ministry. It’s vital and urgent.
(Click here to read Part I: Reaching out to a virtual mission-field)

 

It can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer weight of facts about global shrinking of “mainline” church. But eFormation challenges participants to think about actively reaching out to people who aren’t at church, and what is involved in the engagement process. The conference brings together professionals in the fields of intergenerational faith development, congregational growth and development, basic marketing ideas for congregations, and experts in the fields of social justice and social media.

Meet people where they are

Many interactive sessions dealt with actual case studies and the various tools available. This included sessions that explained how to use the marketing tools Google provides. “This generation has all the same questions that previous generations did. The difference is they are not conditioned to go and ask these questions of a person wearing a clerical outfit to get those questions answered,” explained Rev. Jake Dell, Manager of Digital Marketing for the Episcopal Church
(New York diocese).

“They are not conditioned to walk into a local church and hear a sermon that might help them. They are not conditioned to browse the religious section of a bookstore and read a book on the topic. What they are conditioned to do is go to Google for answers.”

Lisa Kimball, Professor of Christian Formation and Congregational Leadership and Director of the Center for Ministry of Teaching at VTS, explained: Fundamentally we are following Jesus into a world of God’s making and we are all joining a mission that is God’s.”

Ms Kimball and Kyle Oliver, Digital Missioner and Learning Lab Coordinator, organised the eFormation conference. They carefully assembled the breadth of speakers and authors for sessions and “boot camps” over three intensive and informative days. Both are incredibly literate in the digital space. They do a fortnightly blog called Easter People (available on iTunes) and in the lead up to the conference Ms Kimball elaborated on its nature and purpose.

“We talk a lot about the fact that church leadership generally — clergy in particular, we would say — need a form of digital literacy today that is probably as sturdy as their knowledge of Biblical languages,” said Ms Kimball. “We need to be committed to help people become more digitally literate. But we want people to come [to eFormation] who are willing to learn, and together we ask questions. Digital literacy is ever-forming. It’s not static. It’s not an historic language; it’s a language of everyday practice.”

“In most contexts, I would say online engagement is at least important, if not urgent,” reiterated Mr Oliver on the need for the conference and digital literacy. “We know most people who arrive in churches have checked out their websites first. We know most adults are online and connect with their friends and family via social networks. We know old models of being church aren’t well set up to meet people where they are.”

Get active about online impact

“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 Mr Oliver. “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.”

Further reading (Yes, from books)

The Social Media Gospel, Meredith Gould

Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible, Elizabeth Drescher and Keith Anderson

The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World, Keith Anderson

Faith Formation 4.0: Introducing an Ecology of Faith in a Digital Age, Julie Anne Lytle

Reimagining Faith Formation for the 21st Century, John Roberto

Generations Together: Caring, Celebrating, Learning Praying, and Serving Faithfully (co-authored, 2014), John Roberto

Faith Formation 2020: Designing the Future of Faith, John Roberto

Read the full digital issue of Insights August/September issue 




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