Why Churches Can’t Ignore Digital Literacy & What to Do Next

desk with tablet, smart phone, and ear buds to illustrate digital literacy

Are you intrigued by the term “digital literacy”? I was—and I didn’t know it was a thing until I started researching for this article.

If you’re curious like I was, digital literacy refers to learning how to use technology responsibly in various ways. Does that seem vague? Well, I couldn’t find a good definition—it seems like the term is too new and too broad for a really coherent definition. Covered under the umbrella of “digital literacy” are things like:

  • Reading articles or books online
  • Creating or consuming content using technology
  • Using social media
  • Making purchases online
  • And just about anything else you can think of that somehow needs a plug

But what does digital literacy have to do with churches? An awful lot, actually—especially now that hybrid services (live stream and in-person) and online church communities are here to stay.

Christians throughout the ages have always looked to the Church for guidance about how to live in a God-honoring way. So it follows that in our digital age, churches need to teach and model how to exist online in a way that’s consistent with our mission and identity as Christians.

After all, many of us spend our days planted in front of screens, both big and small. One study shows that millennials and Gen X alone spend 3 or more hours a day on mobile devices (3.7 for millennials, 3 for Gen X)—and that number continues to rise. If we become like what we look at, our screens are constantly discipling us.

As Christians, we know that growing as disciples requires looking at every part of our lives from an eternal, kingdom-focused perspective. When it comes to digital literacy, that means churches need to disciple their people—especially during the pandemic—on how to use (and not use) technology.

Here are three ways your church can start teaching digital literacy.

1. Teach people what tech is (and isn’t) for

In The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch writes, “ . . . if we don’t learn to put technology, in all its forms, in its proper place, we will miss out on many of the best parts of life in a family.”

The same is true for churches—and the application is greater than simply technology. How we engage with the world on our devices impacts how we engage with life outside the screen too. One of the best parts of life within the Church is the unity that grows between people who are very different but love the same God. But using technology wrongly can hide opportunities for church unity. For example, someone can be anonymous on your church’s live stream, and they can also be practically anonymous at your in-person gatherings too: just get to church five minutes late, sit in the back row, and have your stuff gathered before the benediction starts.

Regardless, we as Christians and digital consumers need to be reminded of a few realities:

  • Technology is a tool. What job are we giving it? 

I don’t pick up a hammer and ask, “Well, what do we want to do today?” No, I know exactly what I’m doing with it—and I’m using it for one task (maybe two, if I bend a nail). Similarly, when I pick up my phone or TV remote, I need to remember that I’m in control of what it does—and that if I don’t know what I’m using it for, it will probably end up using me by diverting my attention.
  • Technology is not a source of life. What are your expectations when you pick up your phone? 

Sometimes when I’m having a rough moment and want to get lost in the infinite scroll, I have to hold my phone in my hand and say, “There is no life in this box.” That simple statement assures me that whatever I’m looking for, whether it’s a boredom buster, comfort, or a distraction, burning time on my phone will not make me feel better or help me know Jesus better. Jesus came that we may have abundant life (Jn 10:10), and a 5” box that’s waiting to shatter offers no such promises.
  • Good things take time. Does the way you use technology increase your impatience for the way things (and people) develop?

I google all sorts of dumb things, and I know I’m not the only one. But the speed at which I can get information online deceives me into thinking everything should come quickly. This impacts how I think about personal growth, relationships, and developing new skills, and it’s a recipe for a frustrated life. Life hacks will only take you so far—and they have very little impact on the lifelong endeavor of discipleship.

If your congregation isn’t hearing these truths from their church, where will they hear them?

2. Model digital literacy

Every church is a local, personal group of Christians who together reflect to the world what God is like. We are a people first and foremost, called by God to proclaim the gospel and demonstrate other-worldly kinds of community and grace (1 Pet 2).

As such, the things your church does—the content you create—should flow out of your church’s identity and mission. Your weekly live stream, sermon podcasts, blog posts, social media, and emails are only a taste of what your church is. But it should be an accurate taste: don’t catfish your people! In other words, don’t pretend to be “the cool church” online and then turn out to be something different when people visit in person.

Likewise, the things I post online and the ways I reply to others on social media is only a taste of who I am. Again, it shouldn’t be fake—I shouldn’t be a jerk online but kind in person (kind all the time is preferable, of course!), nor should I try to look like something I’m not.

Churches and church leaders—on their personal profiles—need to model digital literacy for others, particularly in three areas:

  • Communication and messaging. I’ve started saying, “The comments section is where civility goes to die,” and I stand by it. But it shouldn’t be true, particularly among Christians. Our people need us to show them it’s possible to have fruitful online discussions—even disagreements—without breaking fellowship. Having a vibrant online church community with clear expectations and examples of how to treat others online is a good way to model this.
  • Content consumption. The easiest thing in the world is sitting down and flipping on the TV to disconnect from the rest of the world. We can all probably burn some good time that way! But what are we watching or reading or listening to? What are we scrolling through? Are we taking in the digital equivalent of junk food? Or are we absorbing things that are true and beautiful, things that help us to both marvel at God’s world and grieve the destructive power of sin? We don’t have to be legalistic about it—I love a good, dumb show as much as anyone. But we need to remember that our lifetime is limited—we might as well spend as much as we can on things that matter.
  • Content creation. We can’t spend our whole lives just consuming digital media—at some point, all of us are creators as well. Everything we post online, from 10-second videos to essay-length Facebook status updates, is content we create. It doesn’t have to be all serious all the time (after all, being a Christian is anything but dull!). But we should create content with honesty, wisdom, and intentionality, aiming to build people up rather than tear them down.

Now, I know some pastors and church leaders pride themselves on not having (or regularly using) social media accounts. That’s fine, as long as you aren’t neglecting your church’s online community (whether you’re using Faithlife, Facebook, or anything else). But I’ll toss out that word you probably love hearing: delegate. People will still need models and instruction for digital literacy, even if it’s coming from someone else in your church.

3. Remind people to turn the devices off

A while back, I started the practice of not checking social media on Sundays. I’ve gotten out of the rhythm of that, but I need to get back into it—because I need that physical reminder that there’s more to life than what I see on someone’s Instagram story.

I know some people take social media fasts or have similar day-off routines—call it whatever you like.

Ultimately, you and I and the people in our churches need to know that we are more than our online presence. We are more than consumers or creators, and we are more than what our social media replies tell us. We are worshipers, we are loved children of God, and we need far more than we can get from our phones or tablets or computers or TVs. We need the body of Christ around us both digitally and physically, and we need rest for our minds, hearts, and eyes.

So, remind your congregation to step away from the noise every once in a while so they can remember who they really are.

Written by
Jennifer Grisham

Jennifer Grisham is Content Marketing Manager at Faithlife. She previously served on church staff as director of administration and managing editor and administrator for Doxology & Theology. Her work has been published by The Gospel Project and The Gospel Coalition, to name a few.

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Written by Jennifer Grisham
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