The Digital Age: A Challenge for Christian Discipleship #ECSM2014


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In the twenty-first century churchgoing is no longer the ‘cultural norm’ for many in the UK. People don’t actively ignore the church: they don’t even think about it. For churches, websites and social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest have now effectively become the ‘front door’ to billions of digital users.  As Sara Batts research has shown us, many churches are finally starting to get that the online landscape is important, but still need convincing that something more radical is needed than a new website, as opportunities have arisen to embrace a more social ministry, where to ‘love your neighbour’ may include those from anywhere in the world.
The ‘digital age’ brings the opportunity for a wider range of voices to contribute to conversations: many online will engage with ‘church’ through their friends rather than formal Christian organisations. In 2010 ‘The BIGBible Project’ emerged to encourage those at all levels of theChristian sector to engage with digital culture, and to consider what this means for Christian communication practices, in a culture in which messages are both ephemerally ‘in the now’, and perpetually available.
Technologies have changed what is possible, and for many churches over the last few hundred years a model of passive, presentation-piece services has been adopted, heightened even more by a broadcast mode of media that we all got used to with the TV and the radio. Social media, however, offers much more space for questioning, and for congregations to actively engage with sermons through tweeting along, checking something on their online Bibles or Google, sharing photos of church activities, or being encouraged to continue discussions hyper-locally throughout the week through a Facebook group.
The BIGBible Project emphasises that disciples live at all times for God, whenever and wherever, and therefore all Christians need to take seriously their presence both online and offline. This paper will draw from over 2,000 contributions made to the The BIGBible blog, where over 120 Christians from across the ecumenical spectrum have contributed thoughts as to how discipleship is affected (and can affect, particularly behaviours) in the digital age and the digital spaces.

The Relevance of the Paper: According to the 2011 census, Christianity is the major religion in the UK. As a sector it offers an interesting case study of how longstanding faith groups are dealing with the challenges presented by the digital age, institutionally and individually.

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  • 20 MINUTE SESSION…. Overview – work on a blog which one of it’s questions is ‘what does it mean to be a Christian in a digital age’ – so let’s look at some of that…..
  • A popular concept is that we are now in ‘The Digital Age’ following ‘The Digital Revolution’ of the late twentieth century. See, as this flyer from a Christian/digital event in 2010 spelt out (read), for some technology and technological developments are defined as the key agents in history and social change…
  • Setting off the Gutenberg Klaxon…

    Vogt (2011:15) notes that in the fifteenth century, when Gutenberg developed the printing press, he influenced not only what Christians communicated but how. Through Gutenberg’s invention, religious texts were quickly produced, copied, and disseminated across the world. This shifted the focus of Christianity from listening to reading, from the community to the individual, and from concrete images to abstract theology.
  • Setting off the McLuhan Klaxon…

    McLuhan (1964) famously emphasised ‘The Medium is the Message’ - placing the main importance of a message in its medium or means of conveyance rather than its content.

    Technology is certainly not the only driver of change (technological determinism): factors such as culture and the economy also need to be considered.
  • Digital technology is addressed more within a framework of affordances and constraints (following Gibson, 1977): what does each new development in technology make possible, what does it limit, and what choices are therefore available? Dyer (2011: 25) offers caution for modern day disciples: “Technology should not dictate our values or our methods. Rather, we must use technology out of our convictions and values.”
  • 21st C = churchgoing = not the ‘cultural norm’, with alternative activities. People don’t actively ignore the church: they don’t even think about it.

    2011 census (most recent), still 59% = declared as Christians, although 4 million drop = possibly explained by ‘cultural Christians’, rather than active choice…
  • An extensive survey undertaken by Tearfund in 2005, where changing notions of what constituted a ‘churchgoer’ were discussed, and an increase in identification as ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious’ acknowledged (Ashworth & Farthing, 2007) – e.g. I am an active believer, but don’t go to church on a Sunday (other forms of service)

    Recent research by Goodhew (2012) demonstrates that although the consistent narrative in the media regarding Christianity in Britain is one of decline, there has also been significant and sustained growth, across a wide geographical range, and across a range of cultures.
  • How are faith groups dealing with the challenges/opportunities of a digital age?

    For Christian churches, websites and social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest have now effectively become the ‘front door’ to billions of digital users. 
  • As Batts research (2013) has shown us, many churches are finally starting to get that the online landscape is important, but still need convincing that something more radical is needed than a new website, as opportunities have arisen to embrace a more social ministry, where to ‘love your neighbour’ may include those from anywhere in the world.
  • As Barley, Head of Research and Statistics for the Church of England, noted for the Tearfund report (Ashworth & Farthing, 2007):
    Mission opportunities are very different when to step over the church threshold is an unknown experience compared with attitudes when there is a known church to which they can return.

    How do we make that environment a ‘known’ one that is not ‘scary’ for people to engage with?
  • LICC (2003 onwards), focuses upon the making of “whole-life disciples who live and share the gospel wherever they relate to people in their daily lives.” Daily life for many includes the social networks, by 2013 = 78% of those 14+ are working online, 67% with multiple devices (most complement, rather than substitute face-to-face – one of the biggest fears for churches, etc.)
  • With such significant numbers using these digital spaces, it is important that the church seeks to understand and engage with the online culture.

    This is not an entirely new issue: Campbell (2012) gives an overview of the development of what she terms ‘digital religion’ since the early years of the Internet…

    Sharon Watkins is quoted in Dresher (2011: 108): “God never told the world to go to church; but God did tell the church to go to the world.”
  • As the church has previously sought to understand overseas cultures, for the purposes of both discipleship and mission, so now it seeks to engage with digital culture – a space where many spend a considerable amount of time daily. Pope Benedict XVI put it this way (2013): [quote]

    The Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 9:22-23) was mission-centric, respecting and adapting to the culture in which he found himself, rather than imposing himself upon it.
  • The church has never been about ‘bums on seats’ but transformational living. Many of those who enjoy the digital spaces are skeptical about being ‘preached to’. We live in a world of “pull” rather than “push” media (show me why I will be interested, rather than tell me I should be interested), but as Drescher (2011, 127) from Santa Clara University says: [quote]
  • Byers, theological consultant for The BIGBible Project (2013: 196), notes that if we ourselves are the [quote]

    The basic message of Christianity remains the same, and Byers challenges Christians not to be competent with digital media, but inept with the media of God.
  • Online, with relationships/trust developed – people are prepared to ask questions - Emma Major said in 2012, where a friend said to her: “Christianity seems safer online; I can ask the questions without having to look stupid for asking them.” Emma noted that [quote] – as it takes away the formality that many associate with church.
  • CODEC existed since 2009, BIGBible since 2010 (to encourage increased Biblical literacy – alongside digital literacy) – at least 140k unique visitors, lots of downloading but little engagement ON THE PLATFORM, but lots on other platforms & seen huge number of relationships created through the project.

    Seek to be change agents within culture (as many e-learning specialists in universities would be), and recent funding bids have emphasised that NOW is crucial!

    Project draws on voices from the pew, the pulpit and the academy - #Digidisciple(s) have written on a huge range of topics, including tweeting in church (controversial), legal and ethical questions, reviews of the latest scholarship, demonstrating graceful communication, thinking before tweeting, the importance of listening, undertaken a digital pilgrimage, relationship development online, authenticity, drawing upon best practice in the secular world, the use of language, attitude, and wellbeing – including taking digital time out. Overall, the group explores how digital practices and values (e.g. social, always-on, immediate, responsive, iterative, accountable, avatar use) contribute to contemporary discipleship and how discipleship values (e.g. authenticity, integrity, discernment) shape the digital environments that are engaged with.
  • Have worked in Christian digital sector for 4 years … seen question change from “we’re so busy, why would we want to engage with that?”, to “we understand we need to do it, but don’t understand how” – uptake for ‘social media for the scared’.

    Anecdotal evidence supports Baym’s (2013: 1) findings that when new forms of communication are introduced, people either feel that personal relationships are under threat as communication becomes increasingly shallow, or excitement is felt as opportunities for newer and stronger connections is felt. Either way, our social connections are changing in a digital age.

    (Including possibilities of practice IN church - The churches natural style fits the pattern of the social media world - that of participation and creativity rather than a broadcast hierarchical structure, although many churches have grown used to a model of passive, presentation-piece services over the past couple of hundred years (as illustrated here – pews fixed in place, etc.), heightened even more by a broadcast mode of media that all have got used to with the TV and the radio. Members of the congregation physically present can engage with sermons through tweeting along, checking something on their online Bibles or Google, sharing photos of church activities, or reflecting upon the sermon with live blogging (something that many have done for years in paper journals). Moreover, digital communication allows for communication with those we cannot speak to already. It allows us to break out of the same old voices feeding into our worship. Guest speakers can be invited from all over the world (using tools such as Skype); the housebound can be invited to both enjoy and participate in church services (using tools such as live streaming). People can request and be offered prayer, whenever and wherever it is needed, notices can be texted out, offerings given through digital banking, and share the fullness of discipleship living through all kinds of media. People are no longer limited to their geographical or ‘Sunday’ lives, which allow churches to practice whole-life community, actively engaging with what is going on in the world, to listen and to respond with what is going on in local, national and international communities in ways that are meaningful to those who are listening.)
  • Jennifer Fulwiler (in Vogt, 2013: 45-53) writes of her experience growing up in a culture where a worldview of non-belief was considered the norm, with known Christians appearing simplistic in theory and lukewarm in practice.

    In the early days of blogging, she discovered thoughtful and educated Christian bloggers who challenged her fixed thinking through their colourful daily lives, challenging her worldview.

    She has since come across Christian bloggers who are caustic, sneering, and dismissive, which effectively closes the door on communication for others….
  • Turkle (2011) refers to ‘photoshopped selves’ produced online = deliberately positive. However, do we not contextualise in all circumstances …

    Convergence = more difficult, become more comfortable in ‘digital skin’… aspects of Christian daily living come under more transparent scrutiny.

    If faith has become an integral part of full lives, then it needs to be more than a ‘Godslot’, or with random depersonalised Bible verses unaccompanied by personal comment.
  • In a world where the church seems daunting and unapproachable, the relationship feel that Facebook gives is really important. David Keen, a vicar in Yeovil, offered a community Facebook chat (2013) because he felt that “the church has often been accused of answering questions nobody is asking”, and this gave an opportunity to be asked ‘real’ questions in an interactive, rather than a broadcast, way.
    The answers didn’t need to be ‘right’, but the participants needed to feel listened to, and that they could relate to the conversation on their own terms, rather than as subjects of an evangelistic agenda: [quote]
  • Disciples who are being open about their faith online need to have the confidence to be able to share what they believe, and fulfill the scripture from 1 Peter 3:15 “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,…”

    Pope Francis drew on the passage about the Emmaus Road on World Communications Day 2014, defining ‘effective Christian witness’ as being available to answer questions and engage with doubts whilst people are searching for the meaning of human existence, rather than bombarding people with broadcast messages. He also emphasized that [quote]
  • Much has changed, but much remains the same, and without previous communications developments we wouldn’t use contemporary media in the way that we do.

    Discipleship is as much about belonging as much as about believing or behaving. A significant number of Christian disciples are in the online spaces, with concerns about Christian presence online – how we are impacted, and how we can impact – with theological questions of ‘being’, and more practical questions related to ethics and practice.

    The digital age offers a wide range of voices from the pews, the pulpit and the academy to contribute to these debates.
  • The Digital Age: A Challenge for Christian Discipleship #ECSM2014

    1. 1. The Digital Age: A Challenge for Christian Discipleship? Dr Bex Lewis, Research Fellow in Social Media and Online Learning, CODEC, St John’s, Durham University The European Conference on Social Media, Brighton, July 2014 @drbexl #ECSM2014
    2. 2. “There is a revolution sweeping across the globe, driven by the massive growth of the internet and internet related technologies. Known as the Digital Revolution it is on par with other great global shifts such as the Agrarian Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. And it is completely changing the landscape of how we communicate, how we influence, how we relate. This isn’t simply about coming to grips with a new technology to assist us in our work, but requires of us a fundamental shift in our processes, our structures and approaches. If we don’t respond then as Eric Hoffer states, we will find ourselves, ‘beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.’” Event Publicity, 2010 The Digital Revolution? @drbexl
    3. 3. 15th C: The Printing Press Image Source: Wikipedia @drbexl
    4. 4. 1964: Marshall McLuhan Image Source: Wikipedia @drbexl
    5. 5. “Technology should not dictate our values or our methods. Rather, we must use technology out of our convictions and values.” Dyer (2011: 5) @drbexl
    6. 6. Christians and Churchgoing
    7. 7. Churchgoing in Decline?
    8. 8. The Church Front Door? For many churchgoing is no longer the ‘cultural norm’. People don’t actively ignore the church: they don’t even think about it. … With literally billions in the digital spaces, the online social spaces presented by churches need to be appealing, welcoming, and not look like they are just an afterthought: they are now effectively the ‘front door’ to your church for digital users, and you ignore those spaces at your peril. Image Credit:
    9. 9. Batts (2013)
    10. 10. Mission opportunities are very different… when to step over the church threshold is an unknown experience compared with attitudes when there is a known church to which they can return. Rev Lynda Barley, Head of Research and Statistics for the Church of England @drbexl
    11. 11. The Growth of the Internet @drbexl
    12. 12. Understanding Digital Culture @drbexl
    13. 13. The digital environment is not a parallel or purely virtual world, but is part of the daily experience of many people, especially the young. Social networks are the result of human interaction, but for their part they also reshape the dynamics of communication, which builds relationships: a considered understanding of this environment is therefore a prerequisite for a significant presence there. Pope Benedict XVI (2013) @drbexl
    14. 14. We are not selling something to the world that will make more people like us, believe in our story, join our churches. We are trying to be something in the world that invites connection and compassion, encourages comfort and healing for those in need, and challenges those in power to use that power in the service of justice and love. Elizabeth Drescher, Tweet if You Heart Jesus (2011, 127) @drbexl
    15. 15. [If we are…] means by which God communicates and reveals himself through his Spirit, then our blog posts, status updates, tweets, artistic images, and online comments should be products of a life transformed by Christ and indwelled by his Spirit. As restored image bearers, our online presence and activity should image the Triune God. Byers, A. Theomedia (2013, 196) @drbexl
    16. 16. It’s something about the informality and distance; the ability to pause and think, which can be difficult in a conversation; and the way discussions can pick up where they left off several hours, days or weeks later. Emma Major, BIGBible Post, 2012 @drbexl
    17. 17. #DIGIDisciple those who seek to live out their Biblically-informed Christian faith in the digital space, exploring both what it means to be a disciple in the digital age, and also how the digital age affects or alters discipleship. @drbexl
    18. 18. A moral panic may be defined as an episode, often triggered by alarming media stories and reinforced by reactive laws and public policy, of exaggerated or misdirected public concern, anxiety, fear, or anger over a perceived threat to social order. Companion-to-Moral-Panics-Intro.pdf Image Credit: Stockfresh @drbexl
    19. 19. Christian Bloggers Image Source: RGBStock@drbexl
    20. 20. Photoshopped Selves? Image Source: Stockfresh@drbexl
    21. 21. On the Emmaus Road, Jesus was recognized in the breaking of bread rather than in the exegesis of Scripture. That’s an intriguing lesson to learn when so much of the web and so much of digital communication is about proclamation rather than reception. Phillips et al, 2013: 10 @drbexl
    22. 22. “We should not overlook the fact that those who for whatever reason lack access to social media run the risk of being left behind,” with a reminder that communication is ultimately a human rather than a technological achievement. Pope Francis, World Communications Day, 2014 @drbexl
    23. 23. The Digital Age? Image Source: RGBStock@drbexl
    24. 24. References Ashworth, J. and Farthing, I. (2007) “Churchgoing in the UK: A Research Report from Tearfund on church attendance in the UK”, [online], Tearfund, Batts, S. (2013) “Informing, inviting or ignoring? Understanding how English Christian churches use the internet”, [online], Unpublished PhD, Baym, N. (2013) Personal Connections in the Digital Age, Cambridge: Polity Benedictus XVI (2013), “"Social Networks: portals of truth and faith; new spaces for evangelization."”, [online], 47th World Communications Day, Booth, R. (2012) “Census reveals decline of Christianity and rise in foreign born to one in eight”, [online], The Guardian, decline-rise-born-abroad Byers, A. (2013) Theomedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age, Oregon: Cascade Campbell, H. (Eds) (2012) Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds, New York: Routledge CODEC, (2009), The National Biblical Literacy Survey, Durham: CODEC Cray, G. (2009), “Fresh Expressions: An Introduction by Graham Cray”, [online], Drescher, E. (2011), Tweet if you Heart Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation, New York: Morehouse Dutton, W.H. and Blank, G. (2013). “Cultures of the Internet: The Internet in Britain”, [online], Oxford Internet Surveys (OXIS), Dyer, J. (2011) From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology, Grand Rapids: Kregel Francis I (2014), “Pope Francis: Communication must promote culture of encounter”, [online], Vatican Radio Goodhew, D. (2012) Church Growth in Britain: 1980 to the Present, Farnham: Ashgate Gould, M. (2013) The Social Media Gospel, Minnesota: Liturgical Press Heim, T. and Birdsong, T. (2012) @StickyJesus: How to Live Out Your Faith Online, Nashville: Abingdon Hill, D. (2012), “Posts, Promises and Perenniel Issues”, [online], The BIGBible Project, Hutchings, T. (2013), “The Bible and Persuasive Technology”, [online], The BIGBible Project, Hutchings, T. (2013b), “Is piracy stealing? Thoughts on ethics and the Internet”, [online], The BIGBible Project, Keen, D. (2013), “2-Faced Facebook”, [online], Opinionated Vicar, Lewis, B. (2014) Raising Children in a Digital Age: Enjoying the Best, Avoiding the Worst, Oxford: Lion Hudson Lewis, B. and Rush, D. (2013) “Experience of developing Twitter-based communities of practice in higher education”, [online], Research in Learning Technology, London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC), (2003), “Imagine Church: The Big Picture”, [online], Major, E. (2012), “Seeking God Online”, [online] McGrory, R. (2014), “UK Social Media Statistics for 2014”, [online] , McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Whitby: McGraw-Hill Office for National Statistics (ONS), (2011) “Full story: What does the Census tell us about religion in 2011?”, [online], characteristics-for-local-authorities-in-england-and-wales/rpt---religion.html Phillips, P., Lewis, B., Bruce, K. (2013) “Digital Communication, the Church and Mission”, [online] Church Growth Resourcing Mission Bulletin, Skinner, S. (2012), “UK Christians turning to Facebook to share their faith”, [online], New Media Centre of Excellence,” Smith, P. (2014), “Lead like Hezekiah”, [online], The BIGBible Project, Sutherland, R. (2013), “What does it mean to be a digital disciple with @changingworship”, [online], Audioboo, disciple-with-changingworship Taylor, B. (2014), “How are people sharing their faith online?”, [online],, Turkle, S. (2011), Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, New York: Basic Books Vogt, B. (2011) The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor @drbexl
    25. 25. Image Source: iStockphoto @drbexl