Church ministry in a digital age: Five steps pastors must take
It happens each morning. Before prayer is on their lips or slippers are on their feet, your congregants’ phones are in their hands. They are checking email, news, and social media. Mobile devices are not only the spark of their lives as the day begins but they also fuel their digital experience throughout the day.
As the digital ecosystem around them grows, so does their dependence on it. It consumes their home lives, social activities, and career paths. Amazon’s Alexa orders their pizza delivery and finds the movie they will watch on their smart TV. They plan their leisure time through Expedia and Airbnb. Apple’s Siri continues the digital conversations away from home as they shop, drive, or walk the dog. Their Fitbit device measures their steps and heart rate. With their phones, they digitally manage their appliances and receive notification when their Amazon package delivery status changes. At work they efficiently schedule their work and vacation time and prepare timesheets all by email, Office 365, and other digital tools. With the simple touch of a button, the swipe of a finger, an utterance, or a focused view of their face, they are connected, empowered, and informed by and with their multiple devices.
Then comes worship. As they enter a church, it all ends for these electronically oriented members. Their digital world could not be further from the church’s analog space of traditionally structured order and reflective worship. Printed bulletins take the place of updated Facebook timelines, and spoken announcements from the podium replace phone notifications. Church leaders find themselves asking, “How relevant is the church experience in this technology-driven era?”
This article will explore the new challenges and opportunities for the church in an increasingly digital world. It highlights five steps pastors and church leaders must take to under-stand our new reality better and to support members effectively as they navigate today’s digital landscape. If it was true in the days of Issachar, it is doubly true today: we need leaders with an “understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” (1 Chron. 12:32, ESV).
1. Know the times
Never before has technology so fueled and driven our lives as today. Connective computing technologies have become part of the everyday devices, products, and services that touch almost all facets of our existence. The technology world has dubbed it the Internet of Things (IoT).
Digital advances have rewired our thinking. Our technology-driven age has spawned cognitive and behavioral changes in the way we interact with the information-rich world around us. Such a compulsion to find and share information can help the church. But it needs a continuous flow of relevant, shareable, spiritual, and valuable insight to distribute to the church’s network of information-hungry sharers. With such tools in the capable hands of our digitally active members, we will discover a goldmine of personal ministry activity, potentially creating the most robustly empowered distribution network for the gospel that the church has ever known.
But the overwhelming scale and pace of digital information are having an adverse effect on the way our congregants are learning. It has changed how they take in, learn from, and respond to the digital world surrounding them. The Barna Group insightfully makes this point: “Generation Z’s lower cognitive regions, which stimulate impulse, are constantly being activated by the bombardment of neurological arousal provided by text messages, Facebook updates, and video games. At the same time, the so-called Google culture of learning— finding answers to any question within seconds—continues to change the way Generation Z youth concentrate, write, and reflect. . . . Their capacity for linear thinking has been replaced by a new mode of thinking, in which they need to take in and dish out information in a fast, disjointed, overlapping manner.”1
Certainly, this phenomenon spreads beyond just Generation Z. Each generation—from our youngest to old-est—that employs digital technology may, potentially, experience similar cognitive and behavioral influence.
2. Kiss goodbye
All who are digitally connected will encounter and interact with some, if not all, parts of what has become known as the FAANG vendors—Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google. Responding to Facebook updates, updating your music playlist with iTunes on your iPhone, tracking your Prime delivery from Amazon as you review their product recommendations, scanning Netflix for your next binge-worthy series, and finding anything you need on Google in mere seconds happens in quick, successive, parallel moments for us—regardless of age. Such a connected dynamic is the new normal for our congregants. In more ways than one, “the old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Cor. 5:17, NIV).
Our homes are becoming increasingly automated with instant, intuitive, and efficient control of our lights, window shades, entertainment, appliances, security, and energy use. Nest Learning Thermostats—synced to your weather apps—automatically adjust room temperature inside based on the weather outside. Music and TV volumes lower when phone calls come in or when Mom pulls into the driveway.
On-demand and real-time voice-enabled navigation keeps us aware, on time, and in control. Even remaining connected to our email, music, entertainment, and schedules has become safe and normal while driving.
Control of our finances is digitally at our fingertips. It has allowed us to bypass the drive to the bank, printed forms, long lines, and the bank teller. We now have instant access to and control of our funds from anywhere through an internet-connected device—in our homes, on the road, while shopping, or at work. Technology has become the new gasoline that fuels our digitally enabled automotive experience.
We now live in a digital atmosphere that always surrounds us. Our digital ecosystem is always learning, always recognizing where we are, and intuitively providing what we need next. Choices of music, TV shows, movies, videos, news, events, and notifications continuously arrive. It keeps us informed, providing us with an unequaled sense of ease, access, and control.
What this means for the church is that every member increasingly comes to it from a digitally connected world. They are empowered, informed, and influenced by digital information at an unprecedented pace and scale. The things that matter most to them they instantly receive on screens and inter-faces that connect with their careers, homes, health, family, education, travel, finances, and more. This connectivity momentum will grow dramatically as each digital action we make today adds to the scale and evolution of the digital ecosystem that will surround us tomorrow.
3. Kill the urge
A generational line has divided our membership with what has been called digital natives on one side and traditional members on the other. Pastors must resist the urge for an “us versus them” culture to grow in their church. As the pastor of both groups, your goal must be to always strive for win-win scenarios. “If one member suffers, all suffer together” (1 Cor. 12:26, ESV).
Many traditional members may resist the use of technology in study or worship by those more digitally oriented. They may view the inclusion of devices and technology as an affront not only to the authenticity of godly worship but also to God Himself during worship. This reaction becomes even more emotional when the digital experiences occur within the sanctuary.
Both sides share the same theological beliefs and desire the same spiritual growth, feeling the call and pull of the same Holy Spirit. Furthermore, they confess their dependence on the same Savior. Yet, they still find themselves at an impasse—not one of belief but one of the culturally driven expectations of worship. E. M. Kaye has aptly defined participants from both sides of the technological divide: “Those born into the age of digital technology around the year 2000 or later are called ‘digital natives.’ They understand and are comfortable with all things digital. Those born before the new digital technological age and who are now having to switch from an analog culture to a digital culture are termed ‘digital immigrants.’ Most churches are made up of both groups.”2
In their research study documented in Making Space for Millennials, the Barna Group noted some interesting mind-sets that appear on both sides of the generational divide in our churches. “One way to think about this generation is as exiles in something like a ‘digital Babylon’—an immersive, interactive, image-rich environment where many older believers feel foreign and lost. More than six in 10 Millennials like that they know more about technology than older adults. And, the truth is, the church needs the next generation’s help to navigate digital terrains.”3
Those born in the age of print firmly advocate for the authentic feel of the printed Bible. They can hold it in their hand, put it on a shelf, and pick it up again for more study. For them there exists almost a romantic attachment between them and the Word by way of the printed Bible. Though they know it to be historically true, they cannot really fathom a time when God’s Word did not exist in book form.
So much of what they know about Jesus they searched for and found in a printed Bible. They felt the words as they ran their fingers over the raised ink on the delicate and almost sacred paper. It was this authentic experience with God’s Word that brought them thus far. Because it inspired them, gave them hope, and saved them, they can not imagine it in any other way.
4. Knock on doors
Today’s pastors face a choice: view the changing digital landscape as gates of opposition to be frowned at or doors of opportunity to be knocked on. The changes in digital technology have dramatically transformed the world. It has become an interconnected ecosystem of constant data exchange between people, devices, services, platforms, and brands. Today’s increased hunger for the instant, on-demand choice of information, action, and response shapes the digital environment. This living, breathing, and rapidly growing digital landscape, replete with pitfalls and opportunities alike, surrounds both our present and potential church members.
The shifting digital landscape has influenced congregational expectations of what the church should be. Digital natives seek a connected, on-demand, and responsive church environment. Expecting instantly accessible spiritual support and answers from their church leaders, they look for a spiritual ecosystem that they can effortlessly connect to their own. The burden that digital growth has placed on church leaders is for them to be as responsive to their congregants as the digital world has become.
Church leaders have begun incorporating digital opportunities. Today, pastors are connected with members on Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitter, Snapchat, and other relevant social media platforms. It has opened the door for closer familiarity with members and families. Because it provides timely knowledge of family and member needs, it can enhance the ability to minister compassionately and in the moment.
For the church to find lasting success in reaching and influencing our growing group of digital natives, we need to not only appreciate this behavioral shift but also be willing to adjust to it. This digitally equipped group are active sharers of information. But what the church shares with them needs to be in a shareable format. A 35-minute sermon can still be appropriate, but the salient points of the sermon may need to be shareable in the moment, whether through text, images, video, or audio.
While today’s digital information comes at such a rapid pace, individually the information itself arrives in a small, snackable form. Whether images, videos, text, or audio—the bite-size package must be designed to be quickly reviewed, ingested, and shared (if deemed valuable enough). It should be clear, direct, and useful.
Equipping members digitally makes the church relevant in their lives, increases their spiritual knowledge, and empowers them to share the gospel— digitally. Without this shift, the church is at risk of losing meaningful connection with the group that will be its future.
5. Keep in “touch”
Responding to member needs in the digital age does not just mean or require a digital response. We must never lose the human touch as we seek to support members in our digital age. Instead, we need to strike a balance between being reactive and being responsive. For today’s pastor, the temptation with digital contact is to instantly respond to each and every individual notification, message, or prompt. That will prove overwhelming for anyone.
Yet there is a reason for optimism. Our digitally robust congregants may appear digitally preoccupied or distant. However, they are persistent in their search for God, beyond the walls of the church, within their interconnected world. Armed with their phones and tablets, they are already connected with the Lord before they arrive at church. Our challenge, then, is not to introduce them to God. It is an opportunity for the church to rewire its ministry framework digitally, enabling our digital natives to retain their digital connection with the Lord while at worship.
Today’s on-demand pastors need to learn how to employ the digital world so that it allows them to take a breath, think clearly, and respond prayerfully. The digital world is pregnant with potential efficiency. Tapping into that potential in a measured and balanced way enables clear communication, good use of time, and dependable spiritual support for members and families. The sharing of His Word has escalated at every innovation of human communication, from scrolls, to the codex, to the printing press, to the telegraph, to radio waves, and to television broadcast. Today the communication blessing comes in the form of digital media.
Pastors must find a balanced way to include the digital in the worship environment so that it infuses the worship culture with excellence, informs our digital natives with connectivity, and marries fellowship and spirituality with growth. The digital should also be used as a tool to extend ministry reach and share your church’s brand of worship with an ever-widening digital audience. Digital resources are a tremendous blessing from the Lord, a tool to accomplish the gospel commission. The right stewardship of this blessing is the real challenge and opportunity our church leaders face in an age when, truly, “many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase” (Dan. 12:4, ESV).
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1 Barna Group, Gen Z—The Culture, Beliefs, and Motivations Shaping the Next Generation (Ventura,CA: Barna Group, 2018), 17.
2 E. M. Kaye, The Christian Church in the Digital Age: Over 501 Digital Ministry Ideas for Pastors and Christian Leaders (Jacksonville, FL: Christian DigitalMinistries, 2014), 187.
3 Barna Group, Making Space for Millennials: A Blueprint for Your Culture, Ministry, Leadership, and Facilities (Ventura, CA: Barna Group, 2015), 60.