Deep Discipleship in a Digital Age: Rethinking Church, Ministry, and Life Together in an Online World

Computer screen with a church building on it

Revolutions are by their very nature destructive and disruptive. Revolutions bring old things down and erect new institutions and networks in their place. Revolutions bring conflict. They trample down things once thought sacred and raise up new images and icons for public devotion. Revolutions can be both cathartic and catastrophic. But above all, revolutions change the way things are. They bring colossal disturbances and create new normalities that become normal so fast that we hardly even remember what things were like before.

Consider the following examples.

The invention of the printing press was disruptive. It changed how we store and disseminate knowledge. It created a new type of literary culture with new opportunities and risks.

The invention of the automobile was disruptive. It extended our ability to travel. It meant we were no longer bound to villages but could move about within cities and between cities. It removed nuclear family from proximity to their wider family. It drove new industries and facilitated new problems related to road safety and pollution.

The invention of airline travel was disruptive. It made national and international travel affordable. It changed military warfare. It created a new world by making the world smaller.

The advent of the internet and the proliferation of personal i-devices is disruptive, too. It has changed the world in multiple ways, from how we buy and sell to how we work, pay bills, listen to music, learn languages, and even catch up with family. The digital revolution has created a new virtual space with all sorts of prospects and hazards for all people. The fact is that people now live in their phones. They watch television on everything except a television. Their professional and personal lives happen either partially or primarily in a digital space. So why would their religious life be any different?

Furthermore, COVID lockdowns accelerated the digital revolution. Many of us were told that we could not work from home because it was supposedly not possible, not practical, not doable, or not feasible. And yet, due to COVID, many of us did work from home for weeks and even months on end. It turns out that it was possible, practical, doable, and feasible—and so it became normal. The effects are still here with us.

One obvious impact is that since COVID, many people have not gone back to church, preferring instead to church-surf: to watch livestreams from multiple churches. Or else, they get their weekly sermon from a megachurch that they listen to on a podcast. Complain as we like, the change for many has become a habit, one that they are unlikely to give up in the short term.

The digital revolution has slowly been building. COVID was an accelerant but not an absolute beginning. Churches and ministries have long invested resources into the internet—from a simple home page, having a YouTube channel, converting sermons to MP3s, hosting podcasts, having a social media presence, hosting private chat groups, and more. But those things, as big as they could be, were mostly add-ons or side pieces to in-person and on-site ministries. Yet COVID restrictions from 2020 to 2022 meant that those add-ons suddenly became the main thing or even the only type of Christian ministry people could perform and/or receive.

Seminary Professors, Meet Your On-Call Research Assistant

My wife is a children’s minister at our church, and when the COVID lockdowns struck, she had to figure out how to do children’s ministry online. Like many people, she had to work out on the fly how to write, design, film, edit, and share video materials for kids under twelve. She became the Steven Spielberg of Sunday School videos. She also found ways to connect with kids, to send them craft sets, and arrange playdates when it was safe to do so.

I am an academic dean and biblical studies professor at a seminary. During the lockdowns, my colleagues and I had to figure out how to run a seminary fully online with no in-person meetings. How do we worship together as a community? How do we mentor students? We had to create resources from scratch, to find ways to keep the teaching and learning going, to market the college and recruit students, to comply with the evolving accreditation requirements, and to monitor the mental health of faculty, staff, and students.

I’m guessing many people have already asked themselves this question, but what does the digital revolution mean for the long term? How do we cultivate discipleship in a world filled with metaverses, streaming services, and an endless number of social media platforms? How do we do church when physically attending a church is merely an option and not a necessity?

We need to do some introspection and reflection, because the disruptions are only just beginning. As such, we need to think deeply about ecclesiology, our doctrine of the church, with all of the opportunities and challenges presented by our digital age. If we do not think through this question and work it through thoroughly, then we are destined to latch onto shallow, faddish, follow-the-mob, purely pragmatic, and shortsighted answers to tough questions. Or else we are going to end up treating the church as merely the weekly online meeting of Jesus’ Facebook friends.1

A digital age needs a well-defined ecclesiology to figure out how physical spaces and digital places relate to the body of Christ.

We are going to end up treating the church as merely the weekly online meeting of Jesus’ Facebook friends.

How things have changed

I can think of several ways in which the digital revolution, accelerated by COVID lockdowns, is still with us.

1. Church shopping is like scrolling through Amazon.com

A colleague of mine was looking for a new church. I naively supposed that she was driving to different churches every Sunday in order to find the one that was right for her and her family. Nope, not even close. She did her church shopping by checking out the YouTube pages of the churches, looking at their worship services, and interrogating their home pages. Church shopping is now like online shopping for shoes!

2. International access

If you speak and write in English, then the whole English-speaking world is open to you. Interesting fact: the city that is the number one consumer of The Gospel Coalition articles is Sydney, Australia. TGC gets more hits from Sydney than from any other city in the world. Other cities like London, Singapore, Bogotá, and Mexico City are up there too as major consumer of articles from TGC. English plus social media equals international audiences at your fingertips. It is possible to have an international profile from your small-town church office in Boise, Idaho, or Bismarck, North Dakota. I mean, I’m writing this from the outer suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, and the vast majority of the readers will be in the USA, UK, and Southeast Asia!

3. Hybrid is the new normal

Our Christian life and church involvement is spread over various physical encounters and digital interactions. We organize church rosters through shared documents, we do our church giving via direct debit, and we have meetings either in person or on Zoom. Yes, we still meet for weekly worship, there are in-person Bible studies, children’s and youth nights, and mercy ministries that require personal attendance, but digital is now part of the equation: it is part of the scenery of ministry and community life. Digital tools are a great way of building community.

4. Live streaming has become normal

My church now live streams all services. It never used to: this was a direct result of COVID. This means that if I’m home sick, on holiday, or traveling on business, I can still watch my church at worship and even participate at a distance. This is not necessarily ideal, but it keeps me connected with my church family at times when I couldn’t otherwise be.

5. Pastoral care can be done digitally

Many moons ago, an experienced pastor told me that 80 percent of pastoral care can be done via the phone. I’d say it is the same thing now, but I would add email and social media. You can keep up with your flock or fellow parishioners just by sending them the odd text message. Or just see what they are talking about on social media— assuming you do it in a non-creepy way. This is one way you can find out how people are tracking. That is not to say that anything beats meeting with someone with a hot beverage, but we now have other tools at our disposal to travel beside our church family.

6. Christians have access to more Christian content than merely local sermons and physical books

It used to be the case that Christian instruction came to you from sermons and Bible studies associated with your church. Maybe you were involved in some para-church ministry like a university ministry on the side, or perhaps a book you purchased from a store arrived at your house one day, but your main diet of fellowship and learning was your local church. Not anymore: there is a whole industry of Christian ministry that is available to you with a click or swipe of your finger. Whether that is podcasts, devotionals, ebooks, newsletters, blogs, YouTube channels, TV subscriptions, or social media accounts, there is a lot on offer—almost unlimited choice and accessibility. Indeed, it is even possible for digital Christian teachers, celebrities, or influencers to become your number one source of Christian instruction and inspiration. If you happen to be between churches, living in some kind of post-church recovery, or just too plain lazy to get to church and mix with church people, that is an obvious attraction. The question is whether it is a supplement to your church life or a substitute for it!

7. Theological education is not what it used to be

When I went to seminary, you quit your job, then enrolled for a three-year, full-time, on-campus degree while you simultaneously worked part-time in your church as a ministry apprentice. As a seminary dean who talks to other seminary deans, let me tell you that that is definitely not the normal pathway anymore. Most seminaries now teach 50–70 percent of students online, either totally or partially. Most students are part-time and are still holding down a job or two. The number one commodity in theological education today is flexibility, since people have busy lives into which they are trying to fit their seminary education. Online study is now the default rather than the exception. This creates challenges for seminaries. How do you create a cohort experience when the cohort is partly or fully online? How do you resource your students with library resources when some are on-campus and others are miles away from a library? How do you mentor students in ministerial and spiritual formation online? How do you assign workloads to faculty based on face-to-face, hybrid, and fully online classes? The digital revolution means that seminary administration is like trying to solve a Rubik’s cube that fights back.

Can we stop the digital revolution?

The digital world offers instant access, genuine convenience, diversity of choice, and an assortment of Christian things for people to sample and consume—albeit of wide-ranging quality. Whether it is sermons, political commentary, worship music, or mentoring, it is all available for subscription, or even for free. But do we really need it? Is it good for us? Can we get away from it?

There are digital skeptics, purists who would tell us to log off from Facebook, cancel our subscription to RedeemTV, stop live streaming services, and cease getting sermon tips from Reddit. “If you cannot look someone in the eye, shake their hand, or sense the tone of their voice,” they might say, “then it detracts from the fellowship of the church, is potentially a dangerous distraction from the world, or could even mean allowing yourself to be malignantly influenced by any lunatic or charlatan with an internet connection and some kooky ideas. There is, so it goes, far more to fear than benefit from, so get off the grid, go analog, and do it old school, i.e., in person.”

The problem is that there is no putting the algorithm back into the PC. Our lives now span the physical and digital worlds. Our professional lives and social lives now have a digital footprint, with benefits and risks, but that is the state of play. The same is true for our Christian life and our church’s ministries. There is going to be a digital aspect to them whether we like it or not.

I remember when I worked in military intelligence back in the 1990s. The concepts of information warfare, cyber-warfare, and command, control, and computing as weapons of warfare were in their infancy. Now, cyber-war, in both defense and offense, is one of the main theaters of modern warfare—as the recent conflict in Ukraine has shown. I think the same holds true for church ministry.

The digital space is now one of the spaces in which the church must operate. Our people are in the digital world, and so it is to the digital world that we must go. Facebook and Twitter are the new agoras, Google is the new Areopagus, your chat group is the new lecture hall of Tyrannus. Whether it is connecting with people digitally, making the best use of the resources that are out there, or making your own resources available to others, that is the place we need to be if we are to bear testimony, make disciples, shepherd the church, and engage life together.

The digital revolution is like nuclear fission: it is a potentially destructive force; but, if rightly handled, it is a near-infinite resource to be utilized in Christian ministry and for service in the kingdom of God.

There is no stopping the digital revolution. But maybe, just maybe, we can ride it, use it, sanctify it, and take it captive to Christ.

Incarnation over avatar and presence over appearance

While I think digital is now a sphere or theater for Christian ministry and witness, I do not think it is a substitute for physical, face-to-face, human-contact-centered Christian living. Digital is a supplement, not a substitute.

The big danger is that the digital world lends itself to ecclesiological docetism. Now, “docetism” was a heresy which claimed that Jesus only appeared to have a physical body, but he really had a phantom, ghostly, or quasi-spiritual body. It was based on the assumption that God would never take on anything as icky or disgusting as human flesh with its fluids, failings, and faults. Similarly, there is a churchly version of docetism, where our physical bodies do not matter, they are just avatars, the real world is either inside of our heads or inside of our phones. That ecclesiological docetism is just as bad as Christological docetism.

The Word did not become an algorithm, he took on flesh.

Christians are not called to the world wide web, but to the world in all its beauty and dangers.

Our hope is not for the upgrade of our software, but for the resurrection of the body and the life of the new creation.

The Lord Jesus told Peter to “feed my sheep,” not acquire more followers and more paid subscribers.

For those who want instant access to everything, who don’t want to risk relationships with fallible people, who prefer the super-pumped sermons of superstar preachers on demand to the jumbled thoughts and cheesy anecdotes of their local pastor, going fully digital is a big temptation, but one we must resist.

Hey, I get it. I’m an introvert, I have a busy life. Some Sundays I’d rather stay in pajamas, have tea and toast, crank up Planet Boom on Spotify, watch a live streamed service of my favorite churches in New York or London, use the book of common prayer app, DM a Bible verse to some friends, then see if Uber Eats can get me some communion juice and wafers.

That is Christian digital consumerism, but it is not Christianity. I do not think it would even be healthy in the long run.

The Body of Christ is just that: a body. We are the physical presence of Christ on earth, as the Holy Spirit connects us with our risen and exalted Savior, just as we are connected with each other. Digital or not, we are the only “Jesus” many people will meet. We are the only Bible many will ever read. We are the only prayer they will ever hear. We are the only miracle they will ever see. In addition, our Christian family need to see our faces, not our gifs. Our Christian family needs encouragement from us, not merely an emoji. You cannot email someone a casserole and see the joy on their face when you bring it over. Tears should be cried on shoulders, not into an iPhone or over a keyboard.

Let us remember that a celebrity pastor is not your pastor. Uber Eats cannot deliver communion (I’ve asked!). Podcasts are recordings of sermons, not sermons themselves, where the Word confronts us with all its wisdom, glory, and power. No matter how much you love your Instagram account, it will never love you back.

Consider this too: people used to go online to escape the real world. But now people go into the real world to escape the digital world. The digital world is a good thing, but like all good things, it is open to vitiation and corruption. Indeed, the digital world is addictive. If you don’t believe me, try to wrestle an iPhone off a teenager at 10:00 p.m.!

People used to go online to escape the real world. But now people go into the real world to escape the digital world.

We can use the digital world, but we need to make sure we do not get lost in it or give ourselves wholly over to it. No matter how much people may try, we cannot live there—not always, and certainly not forever.

Ecclesiology for a hybrid world

So how do we live faithfully and wisely as Christians, within our churches, in a digital age? I have six topics for us to consider for a wholesome use of the digital landscape.

1. Orthodoxy

There is a lot of Christian content online, and not all of it is orthodox. In fact, some of it is flat out false teaching and even sheer crackpottery. To engage the digital world as a source of content, instruction, or spiritual food, we need to be discerning. Only use and recommend teachers, institutions, and organizations that you know and whose reputation is widely respected. The size of someone’s audience is not always a good guide as to the quality of somebody’s teaching.

2. Communion

Digital resources should enhance communion rather than detract from it or disengage us from each other. What is arguably the number one danger posed by the digital world is disconnection. We lose contact with people as we lose ourselves, our identities, our purposes, and even our faith in the ether. Communion is about our common union with Christ and with each other. Accordingly, drawing closer to Christ should draw us closer to each other, and vice-versa. The union is physical. Just as a marriage cannot be virtual, neither can Christian fellowship be like that. Yes, we can watch each other eat over Facetime, but I can’t wash your feet digitally. Yes, I can wave at my friends on Facebook or like something of theirs on Instagram, but that cannot be the totality of our relationship. Barbara Streisand was right: people need people—in person.

3. Mission

When it comes to evangelism or mercy ministry, there is an awful lot you can do digitally, but an awful lot you can’t do as well. You can do online courses introducing Christianity, have crisp apologetics videos, and respond to people asking spiritual questions. But deep conversations about God and the gospel require a particularly personal pathos, a mixture of listening and exhorting, dealing with peoples doubts and despairs, which are better done face to face. Similarly, online you can raise awareness about a particular issue or raise funds for a certain cause, but at the end of the day hungry people cannot eat algorithms or emojis. People need someone to come beside them to carry them, take them to the hospital, or bring them a meal. St. Ignatius never said, “Feed the poor; if necessary, use food.” Mercy, justice, and compassion must be embodied; they cannot be attached to an email, or hyperlinked in a Word doc.

4. Pastoral care

A lot of checking in on people can indeed be done via email, phone, or Zoom. But hurting people need people, not a screenshot of people they are chatting with. Empathy and encouragement can only be carried along an internet connection so far. Caring for people means coming beside them, whether in a home or hospice, to find out their fears, joys, and hopes.

5. Theological education

The digital world brings convenience and flexibility in theological studies. It has obvious benefits if you cannot leave your city or job to engage in full-time studies. I, for one, have done my part to make sure that online students can get the best online seminary education wherever they are, irrespective of their schedules. Whether that is New Testament introduction, Christian ethics, preaching, or the doctrine of God, you can learn online. In fact, even apart from seminaries, there are good teaching resources like Logos Mobile Ed, Masterclass, and SeminaryNow. While online studies are flexible and feasible, I still think the ideal and optimal is to be part of a community, face-to-face, and with a cohort of fellow travelers. In my experience, the most important thing students remember about seminary is not the intellectual ideas or ministry techniques they encountered; it is the relationships they formed with teachers and fellow students. You can get that a bit online, but it is far better in person.

6. Discipleship

A disciple is a learner and imitator. We learn from Jesus and about Jesus even as we try to imitate Jesus. I think discipleship is a matter of Jesus-focused mentoring, learning, and growing in faith. It’s the pursuit of maturity in Christ (Col 1:28). There are great ways of doing that online—maybe listening to a podcast with a mentor or friends and then chatting about it on Discord or WhatsApp. If a bunch of college kids you are mentoring move away, digital tools are a great way to keep in touch and to keep some momentum going. But I’m reminded of how Paul said that he taught publicly and “from house to house” (Acts 20:20). There is something pastorally and pedagogically effective about visiting kids in their dormitory for Bible study, praying with workers in their lunchroom, or meeting with stay-at-home moms in the park to engage in a mixture of catechism, prayer, and book club.

I could sum up my reservations about the digital world with a quotation from Hebrews:

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Heb 10:24–25 NIV)

Conclusion

I began this essay by pointing out that the digital revolution will continue to be disruptive. The disruption has only begun. I’ve tried to argue that there are many opportunities for a wise and discerning use of digital resources and platforms for Christian life and ministry. I’ve argued that we should utilize them, but also that we should recognize the many risks involved—with dangers we haven’t even imagined still to come. We are now at a point where artificial intelligence can generate sermons, compose worship songs, write Bible studies, and offer spiritual counsel. You can even deliver sermons via an artificially created avatar. In the future, the lines between virtual reality and real reality are going to blur. In such a world, digital or empirical, we need to be grounded: grounded in God, grounded in God’s grace, grounded among God’s people. Our journey together is a union of flesh, faith, love, life, and hope in our common Savior. There might be an app to help with that, but the truest app to help us along the journey is to hold hands and walk into all the world together.

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  1. A line I borrow from Nick Perrin, “Jesus’ Eschatology and Kingdom Ethics: Ever the Twain Shall Meet,” in Jesus, Paul, and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 102.
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Michael F. Bird

Michael F. Bird (PhD University of Queensland) is Deputy Principal at Ridley College, Melbourne, Australia. He is an Anglican priest and the author of over 30 books about the New Testament and Theology. He can be found on X at @mbird12 and blogs at michaelfbird.substack.com

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