The church and building community in the digital age


Discipleship has existed since the church came into existence and while the importance of deepening faith, learning God's word, and becoming more effective witnesses has not changed, the context has and Christians are now having to think through what discipleship means in the digital age.

Why does it matter so much? Because there are an estimated two billion-plus internet users around the world and that means huge opportunities that the church cannot afford to miss out on, says Dr Bex Lewis.

She is part of the team at CODEC (Christian Communication in the Digital Age), a research project committed to exploring the newest forms of social and digital media, and how the Good News, one of the oldest messages in the world, can be decoded and encoded in digital spaces.

The Good News will not spread itself on the internet, Dr Lewis points out, and that means we as Christian have to do it. We have to think of ourselves as "digital disciples", she says.

Digital discipleship is the core of The Big Bible Project she helped create in 2011. The Big Bible Project was a response to research by CODEC which found low levels of Biblical literacy among UK Christians.

The idea is to encourage every Christian, from the pew, to the pulpit, to the academy, to contribute to conversations around the Bible with other Christians.

In days gone by, connecting on a large scale meant Christians having to meet in person, in conference centres or church halls. Now, Christians anywhere and everywhere can connect with each other online every day.

A virtual community has built up around the Bible thanks to The Big Bible Project, which currently has 60 active contributors and has around 148,000 visitors to the website.

And there are other possibilities through existing social networks like Facebook, with its 700 million active users, and Twitter, with its 300 million active users.

The Twurch of England is tapping into these possibilities by building a virtual community on Twitter around tweets related to the Church of England. Peter Ould, Church of England priest and Twurch founder, believes the Twitter initiative is helping "Anglican tweeters to feel they belong" and build a social media community within the Church of England.

Twurch follows over a thousand Anglican organisations and individuals, including bishops and other clergy, but the target audience is those in the Church of England as well as those beyond it.

"Beyond the Church we help to show the wider world that the Church of England is as engaged with social media as the rest of secular society, if not more so," he says.

Twurch is not an official ministry of the Church of England but they have "very friendly" relations.

"The Church of England has been showing in the past year or so that it's really getting to grips with the challenge," he says.

Ould reminds us that "the sense of being in community is the heart of what it means to be the Church" and social media can help the Church do this.

Like all communication we need to think about what we say and how it will be received.
Peter Ould

"It's important for the Church to make use of modern technology and Christians up and down the country are showing that they not only understand the challenges of an e-age but also are able to make the best use of it."

He adds: "As Web2.0 makes way for Web3.0 and cloud management becomes mainstream the internet will become vital to everyday life and integral to the way people think about how they interact with others."

This change in the way we interact is also impacting seminaries and theological colleges. The London School of Theology and All Nations Christian College both say they have benefited from the digital age.

Students "share experiences, interact critically, reflect on practice and contextualise what they are learning", explains Dr Marvin Oxenham, Applied Theology lecturer at the LST.

This has been the case particularly for distance learners. Previously, it was a one-way, one dimension communication via mail – students receiving course materials in the post from their teachers, students sending it back in the post. There was little to embed them in the student community or connect them with other distance learners. Now they can do all that through the web.

It's about creating "communities of learning", explains Dr Oxenham.

"Students acquire knowledge and understanding through written text and a variety of other media, but then they engage with each other and their tutors participating in forums, wikis and discussions on blogging platforms."

He adds: "This is also a place where friendships and genuine relationships are being formed, despite the lack of embodied presence."

Most observers will agree that we are squarely in the middle of the Web 2.0 revolution, which is strongly linked to the theory of knowledge called constructivism. Although as theologians we need to carefully evaluate the epistemological premises of constructivism, we cannot simply enter the world of eLearning with the "grocery truck model" in which there is a one-way download of information and knowledge. Students want to participate in their learning and never before have there been so many connecting technologies that allow for this. Both of these are good things and we must capitalise on them.
Dr Marvin Oxenham

For Clive Thomas, All Nations e-learning technical coordinator, the internet has revolutionised communication between missionaries and their supporters.

"Travel costs have been reduced as a result of holding virtual meetings and time previously allocated to travelling can be re-assigned to other tasks. Geographical restrictions, including hostile terrain, no longer provide the constraints that they once did as support and management can be provided remotely," he says.

Most of us are not overseas missionaries, but we are not less bound to witness to those around us, believes Dr Lewis. The virtual world is a place we should be demonstrating a Christlike attitude too.

"To many, the church is a place full of smoke and mirrors, irrelevant, full of homophobic misogynists," she says.

Two people she thinks are doing a great job of demonstrating Christ online are the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby, and Pope Francis, who are sharing their thoughts with thousands of people on Twitter (@ABCJustin and @Pontifex).

Whereas the physical church is always looking for ways to get out of the building to where the people are, digital media is about creating attractive content that brings people into the church's online spaces. Social media is a "pull media" rather than a "push media", she explains, and this means we have to get people's interest by what we post.

She points to her Facebook page as a good example of this. Posting the odd thought on church sermons alongside funny pictures and birthday wishes may not seem like a big deal, but three people came to church as a result of what she was posting, she says.

If we just "be ourselves, be interesting, be relevant, be honest", Dr Lewis continues, and if our whole life is influenced by Christianity, what we post will be evangelising in one way or another.

"God is a communicating God so we should be communicating in the spaces where people are."

Ould agrees: "It's important for Christians to be where people are, and since most people are now online that's the place to be!"

But she stresses that churches have to see engagement with social media and the internet as more than "a bit of an add-on". Broadcasting Sunday sermons or updating websites with the latest church news once a week is not enough anymore and churches should consider social media as something "that can be brought in to augment what the church is already doing, to connect as part of a whole-community - in people's everyday lives through the week".

It's going to take time to get people involved and confident in using it, she admits, but being intentional and putting thought into the content is a good start.

"A church may decide to get to grips with Twitter. Talk about the kind of things you want to share on there, give someone responsibility for it, and let them focus on that for a couple of hours a day for e.g. three months, and see where it's making a difference."