Whether it was the use of Roman roads to carry letter dispatches from the apostles to local churches in the first century, or the widespread adoption of radio and television for evangelism and Christian education in the 20th, the church has often been an early adopter of new technology, driven by a calling to participate in God’s reconciliatory mission in the world.
For many church leaders, it is difficult to keep up with technology advances while juggling the demands of ministry. But if we’re not careful, we can overlook the tremendous potential for missional impact that current and emerging technologies present to us. Just as our spiritual mothers and fathers who used the technology of their day, we carry the same call to leverage everything at our disposal to carry the gospel to the nations. But amid such rapid change today, it’s not always easy to know what shifts to make to enhance your church’s digital ministry practices.
Currently, I serve as lead researcher of the Digital Mission Consortia at the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center*, where we are exploring the landscape of digital ministry and seeking to equip churches with the postures and practices they need to thrive in ministry online. I want to propose eight shifts you and your church can make to thrive in ministry in online environments.
Shift 1: Adopt a Hybrid Mentality. We no longer live in a world where we are either offline or online. Think about it: When was the last time you “logged online?” We now live in a hybrid world, where our lives are seamlessly online and offline simultaneously. This dramatically impacts how we think about ministry, because if people’s lives are simultaneously online and offline, the church’s presence should be as well.
[Editor’s Note: Keep an eye out for a panel discussion on hybrid ministry titled “Church Without Walls” in the upcoming November/December issue of Outreach magazine. Subscribe today!]
Shift 2: Prioritize Digital Ministry. Many churches still view digital ministry as a peripheral priority or even a luxury. But digital anthropologist Genevieve Bell reminds us in her 2017 Boyer lecture, “Fast, Smart and Connected: What Is It to Be Human, and Australian, in a Digital World?” that even for those who are largely disengaged from the internet, they still live in a world that is profoundly shaped by digital technology. Digital environments are here to stay, and they’re where the people we serve spend a vast majority of their time. If we care about what God cares about––and God cares about people––we need to go where people are. And people are online.
Shift 3: Forget the “Digital Replacement” Myth. Many church leaders fear that if they lean too hard into digital technology (especially livestreaming and forms of digital church), then people won’t show up in person. But our research indicated that this was actually a myth. Most people do not choose to intentionally stay home on Sunday and engage online if they have the option to be physically present, but the research showed that your most engaged people online are likely also your most engaged people in your in-person gatherings.
Shift 4: From Content to Community. Digital technology has produced an explosion in content production. For centuries in the West, pastors have functioned as dispensers of religious knowledge. But increasingly, pastors will need to view themselves less as providers of spiritual information and more as architects of environments of transformation. In digital environments, this requires an intentional focus toward creating and stewarding environments where people can virtually gather, share experiences, build relationship, and learn from one another.
Shift 5: Toward Digital Exegesis. You may have heard the term “exegeting your context”––the process of studying the intricacies of the community to which God has called you and learning how to contextualize the timeless truth of the gospel. We must make a shift that incorporates digital aspects of our church life and community into how we exegete our context. This includes identifying how your community uses social media, in both healthy and destructive ways. It requires discerning the digital “wells” from which people regularly draw––does your community have a large community that plays fantasy football or World of Warcraft? How can you create missional strategies that integrate into the digital rhythms and communities that already exist instead of trying to create something new?
Shift 6: Empower the Next Generation. Many church leaders are scratching their heads trying to figure out how to involve Gen Z in their church. But while we’re trying to convince them to join the door greeter team, they might be livestreaming to 20,000 fans on TikTok. A vital part of empowering this generation is to listen to their passions and skills, identifying where God is already at work in their lives––and joining him in developing that for both their sake and for the sake of the gospel.
Shift 7: Create Digital Pathways. The churches and ministries that are most effective at walking alongside people’s spiritual growth in digital environments are intentional about cultivating digital pathways. Some refer to these as “pipelines” or “funnels,” but whatever term you use, having a clear pathway for people to journey, both into deepened spiritual formation and into deepened relationship is important.
Shift 8: Creating Missionally-Focused Discipleship. While God calls each of his daughters and sons to participate on mission with him, many Christians do not even know what the mission of God is. A 2018 study by Lifeway Research revealed that only 1 in 5 participants had heard of the term “Great Commission” and knew what it even was. Cultivating a heart for missional living requires intentionality and consistency. My doctoral research at Fuller Theological Seminary showed that good formation for missional engagement involves helping people embrace several characteristics about their faith:
- Kingdom Identity. Helping people understand what it means to belong to the family of God, both theologically (the “big C” church), and practically (the local church).
- Priestly Calling. Empowering people to understand the call of God on their lives, both theologically (their place in the mission of God) and practically (the unique calling and giftings on their life).
- Demonstrated Faith. Helping people move their faith toward demonstrated action and practically knowing how to walk other people along in their journey toward Jesus.
If we want to participate in God’s reconciliatory mission in the world in the 21st century, participation in digital mission is an absolute must. Digital technology provides the church with greater opportunity to equip and commission the priesthood of all believers to do the work of the ministry than ever before. In order to do that well, we must make necessary shifts in our present ministry practices to position ourselves for future effectiveness in living out the call God has given to all of us.
* Read our Summer 2023 white paper of initial findings and more free resources at WheatonBillyGraham.com/digital.