Evangelism in a digital age - 5
I recently listened in to an online discussion on evangelism in a digital age hosted by Fresh Expressions. Each guest presented some of their reflections on The Mission of God In A Digital Age. These have been captured in a book - Missio Dei in a Digital Age.
The previous reflection is here.
Let's hear from Pete Phillips - Director of the Centre for Digital Theology at Durham University, Research Fellow in the Department of Theology and Religion and Head of Digital Theology at Premier Christian Media. He's recently been working on biblical literacy in digital culture and on exploring digital theology in all its forms.
At a church meeting the other day, the Chair shared a word of wisdom, "The pandemic hasn't broken us; it's broken us up.".
The first bit is, at best, a half truth. The pandemic has broken things. It's fatally broken 125,000 lives at least and devastated so many others with grief, poverty, desperation, and loneliness. That's just in this country. It's broken our economy. It may have broken the viability of many of our churches. We lost lots of people who decided the pandemic was an opportunity to have a sabbatical from church, to break the habit of church-going. And so it has been suggested that up to 30% of congregations may well have drifted off. Will they come back?
But the second half of that phrase, the pandemic has broken us up, is a wonderful insight. We've been broken up like soil prepared for planting, broken apart and made ready to receive seeds. The pandemic has been a time when God has prepared us for the new thing. Look at all the discipleship activities that have been developed. More people praying, more people doing spiritual support groups, more people reading their Bible, more people being creative, more people bathing in God's awesome creation, etc.
We've moved from enabling physical church to happen on screen, just setting the camera up and filming physical church as though that was taking it in the right direction. We've extended that offer into hybrid models of church, where we match digital and physical provision, or into building a community online. We've begun a process of disruption, opening up the ground for new things to grow, for new opportunities for people to engage with God, for new ways to share the love of God with all people.
And of course, I'm not saying that new things can only happen in digital. There have been examples of people holding services in a village square, on their street, etc.
We need to think of ways that God has opened us up for new opportunities to do what we do best. In what way are we prepared as the soil which would bear new plants, new fruit, new harvest in the post pandemic world? How is God preparing us during this pandemic time? You know, we're all working our socks off. It's harder for us to do anything. And yet I wonder whether the core thing that we should be doing is stopping and thinking and spending time with God and saying, "God, will you till this soil because the soil needs preparation for what the new thing might be."?
There was a joke at the beginning of the pandemic when churches closed. A cartoon of Satan saying he shut the church down with just a microvirus and a nice white-bearded God replying that He'd actually opened a new branch in every house. We need to remember that our network digital society allowed the church to go online, or rather, allowed those of us in offline church to join the thousands already engaged in online ministry, often the disabled, the chronically ill, the house-bound, those scared of coming into a crowd, those who have been put off by the church.
The opportunity that the shift online has given us cannot be downplayed. Our research at Durham University with ComRes showed that 24% to 28% of the general public are now engaged in online organised devotion at least once a month. Many of them, young people. Some of our figures suggest half of all the young people, young adults, are attending online worship of some kind, many of them saying that we've provided a safe place to encounter the church. We've provided a safe sofa behind the back pew; a place where they can come and come to the church on their terms rather than on ours, because churches are such scary places to come.
While we have rows about whether the digital church is real church, people are dropping into our online presence and seeking to hear about God, to encounter God, to see if God encounters them. They couldn't care less if the church has validated digital church. They just found a safe place to find their answers about God and they come in their droves, seeking to hear about Him, to encounter Him.
They are not asking about the doctrines of the church, or what's a vicar or a minister, etc. They are asking, "How do I pray? How do I address God? If I get my words wrong, is God going to punish me?". God has incarnated Himself again on digital. God has made Himself present online where in fact He has been ever since the first networks were developed in the last century. God is a networking God, but He's there. He's present. He seeks us to follow him and meet Him and meet the people who are dropping in, looking for Him. We have the possibility, the privilege of being engaged in digital ministry.
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