Almost everything you need to know about being a pastor in the digital age starts with a stick.
Well, to be fair, it is more than a stick. In the right hands, this “stick” commands respect. In the Bible, we find a stick in the hands of Moses. Through it, God empowered Moses. The majority of the time, Moses used it in accordance with God’s will, though through a lapse in judgment, it also became a tool of disobedience.
And now, as we face the complexities of the digital age, we can rest assured that we are dealing with the same God but with a different stick.
Just as the Lord asked Moses many years ago, “What’s in your hand?” He raises a similar question today. What we find at hand is a plethora of digital tools, devices, and strategies that are considered distractions of the enemy by some but are awesomely powerful when wielded to do God’s work.
What is digital discipleship?
Digital discipleship is the use of all the tools and strategies at our disposal to carry out the Great Commission. It is strategically positioning ourselves as a church online and creating a Christian presence that allows us to
- answer questions,
- provide comfort,
- meet needs,
- empower members,
- support social media influencers,
- build digital communities, and
- show Jesus’ love in a compelling way.
Furthermore, digital discipleship acknowledges the special abilities of the techies and creatives in our church and empowers them as we have traditionally empowered our personal ministry leaders, Sabbath School teachers, and Pathfinder directors. It elevates the role of the church’s communications team from the typesetter of the bulletin and the sound team to that of vital partners in ministry.
This article will outline ways you can lead your local church to consider or refine your approach to digital discipleship. Also, we will discuss the digital discipleship ecosystem as well as outline some practical ways you can lead your church to get started in the digital space.
Digital discipleship and the local church
A church’s unique quality is its ability to create community and be a place of life-changing teaching, learning, and launching of disciples. In the early church, community was natural and almost inevitable. The church did things together—shared problems, dreams, discouragements, financial obligations, and a love for Jesus and His calling. Today, technology allows us both to extend that community and amplify our message to groups that we can more tightly target than ever before. As you consider practicing digital discipleship in your congregation, it is helpful to frame the what, who, and how.
The what of digital discipleship
As you approach your church team and suggest that the church create a digital discipleship plan, keep in mind that there are three natural ways to integrate digital discipleship into what you’re already doing or to develop something new.
Meet the needs of people within your community in the digital space. You can think of digital discipleship as what you do on your website, social media, and in online groups to meet your community’s needs. It could be as simple as encouraging your church members to share and engage in conversations on their social media accounts or optimizing your web content to help people who are searching for answers online.
Continue to meet the needs of the groups you are already ministering to, but also provide support for people on your social media accounts, in forums, or on your church website. For example, consider having a section on your web-site about parenting, health, or prayer. Host an online Bible study or prayer meeting. Livestream a cooking class. Always seek to meet peoples’ needs, whatever they may be.
Meet the needs of people in your community in person around a digital or creative topic. Digital discipleship can be powerful when it allows churches to meet in person. Options range from hosting seminars about keeping your children safe online to setting online boundaries for teens or hosting a six-week photography course. You could also conduct a computer class for senior citizens. The specific needs of your community will dictate the best options, so talking to them to understand their challenges is key.
Utilize digital or creative tools. Use tools that help fulfill the particular objectives of your various ministries. Remember, digital discipleship is a ministry that serves other ministries and should integrate into your church’s communication, evangelism, and ministry plans. You should use it as a means to accomplish an objective and not just to be an objective unto itself. In other words, do not buy expensive live- streaming equipment because everyone else is doing it. Ensure that what you are doing is helping to reach the people you are best positioned to influence.
With this in mind, employ the most effective tools. Many churches have seen success with apps like WhatsApp, YouVersion, Echo, or Facebook. Some set up events on Meetup.com, and others have invested in photography or videography equipment. Whatever decision you make, always use technology in ways that will help you to reach your goal.
The who of digital discipleship
If you are mentally reviewing your congregation and not a single techie or creative person comes to mind, do not worry; digital discipleship is still for you. While this ministry creates a platform for techies and creatives, it also has room for others who have a passion for sharing Jesus. Between your church and a neighboring one, you should be able to find a group of content creators, distributors, engagers, and curators to form what we can call your technological ecosystem.
Content creators. Content creators are masterful storytellers, talented artists, and skilled graphic designers. They take biblical concepts and stories and provide interpretations and depictions that capture our attention and lead us on a journey. In addition to celebrating artistic talents, we must also recognize those with technical abilities, such as our computer scientists who build systems, design platforms, and provide engineering genius. They create digital reality out of our dreams.
Content distributors. Think of content distributors as our digital door knockers. They get content seen by sharing it on the social media accounts, in online forums, and in WhatsApp groups. This effort creates the opportunity to start conversations.
Content engagers. Content engagers join online conversations in a compelling, Christlike manner. The first, or engagement stage, emerges from the conversations we have online. In fact, it is the keystone in the digital discipleship process.What you say online can have a huge impact on someone’s day, mood, and perception of life around them. Are we using our conversations to lead persons to the Lord?
Content engagement is not just responding to the conversations that start on our social media platforms; it is also proactively joining conversations on relevant social media accounts, engaging with texting platforms, and being a good member of online groups.
The local church has the opportunity to speak to the local community and answer questions through its involvement in its own social media. We also have the chance to build relationships through interaction on the web pages of local businesses, in local online groups, and in community forums, thus giving us a voice and allowing us to be part of the conversation happening online in our geographic area.
Content curators. Much like a museum that gathers items that are most worthy of display, a curator or an administrator on the church’s social media account can curate content from around the internet to make it easier for church members to then distribute it. Typically, the social media accounts of Adventist magazines, TV stations, conference offices, and individual churches are great content curators.
The how of digital discipleship
Now that you understand the what and who of digital discipleship, we can deal with the question of how to implement it. As previously mentioned, digital discipleship is a ministry that supports the other ministries in your church and should integrate into your church’s communication, evangelism, and ministry plans. Again, you should use it as a means to accomplish an objective and not let it just become an end in itself. So, the starting point should be to consider how applying digital discipleship principles to what you are already doing can bolster your efforts.
Think like someone who is searching. Once you have studied what you are already doing and how digital discipleship can enhance it, the next thing to do is to exercise empathy. We need to begin to think like a person looking for a church community as we set up our websites and social media accounts.
If you were searching, what questions would you have about church? What would encourage you to attend? Why would you reach out to understand Jesus better? What might you see that would give you a boost of encouragement to persevere through hard times?
Show online visitors what life might look like if they were part of your community. Give them a glimpse of the events, spiritual life, and friends they might encounter. Show them how they can have their questions answered. Be your authentic self by displaying actual photos of members on your website and social media accounts. If necessary, bring a photographer in to take them. Being real online can make a huge difference.
Remember, while it is important to put thought into your website and social media design, keep in mind that it is not a science, and effective design can require revisions and continual adjustments. Knowing that you can test, change, and update can relieve the pressure of always trying to get it right the first time. Most importantly, understand why you are posting something in the first place.
Value the talents of the creatives and tech savvy among you. Traditionally, we have not always created space in the church for creatives and the tech savvy to place their talents on the altar in service to God. Weaving digital discipleship principles into the fabric of your church’s communication, evangelism, and ministry plans can allow more people to feel that the church values their time and talents. Providing recognition for the gifts of creatives and the tech savvy and inviting them to be partners in ministry is an essential part of digital discipleship.
Identify the specific needs of the people you are trying to reach. Review some of the ministries your church is running and understand what their demographic is. See whether there’s an opportunity to bolster their efforts by implementing a digital strategy. You can aim ads to specific groups based on demographics and behaviors. For this reason, it is best to decide who you are trying to reach.
You can learn more about their needs by understanding where they hang out online. If someone is struggling with a problem, they may already be seeking a solution. Go to the Facebook pages where they may participate or the Instagram accounts they may be following. What online groups are they part of? Check out the conversations. What are they saying? What needs do they express? Use this information to shape how you address the community you want to reach.
Meet your community needs in the digital space, around a digital need, or by utilizing a digital tool. Continuously question what you are doing online. Seek to ensure that you are using the best method possible to meet needs. Utilize tools that help you accomplish your objectives and meet the community where they are, whether it’s online or in person.
Be intentional in your livestreams. Many people are unwilling or unable to enter a church building. Members of our local churches may have stopped attending church but are still willing to anonymously watch a service online. Parents, previously involved in the church, can be distracted on Sabbath morning by attending to the needs of their children. Others have hearts ready to listen to spiritual messages but feel intimidated by being in a church building itself.
By fostering relationships online, some who were unwilling to attend may return. Others who became disengaged may re-engage and find spiritual renewal. Shape your livestreams with this in mind.
Always be intentional in your online interactions. Take the opportunity to speak to your online audience, appeal to them, and have specific calls to action for them. Give them their own space on your website and social media accounts and create an online spiritual home for them. Provide the opportunity for conversations instead of simply putting your message into the void of the internet and hoping God will do the rest.
Meet needs online outside of your livestreams. While livestreams are important, you should also offer ways to share spiritual content online outside of the traditional church hour. That might include online small groups and prayer sessions midweek. Consider webinars and online evangelistic series. Another channel might be online cooking classes, parenting webinars, and other online classes.
Not all online relationships must remain in the digital space. Seek to build relationships with people online that encourage and attract them to attend your church. Many things need to happen for persons to trust you as they contemplate giving up their Saturday morning for a church building. Digital discipleship can play a role in familiarizing people with your congregation and encouraging them to attend.
Your voice matters. And now, if you are wondering, it does matter what you as a pastor post online. Gone are the days where your social media account was your personal space. With that being said, be a real person online. Share your love of sports or cat memes or parenting failures. Be real; be authentic; and, above all, be like Christ.
Growing in discipleship
A foundational text for digital discipleship is Romans 12:15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” Make this your practice in the online space. Local churches have a variety of opportunities We often begin our online interactions through livestreams of church services and advertising evangelistic programs. Join conversations where a wise word will prevail. Share in people’s joy and their sadness, just as you do in your in-person ministry.
While we want to use all the digital tools we can, all resources should be used with wisdom and discernment. We still depend on a close relationship with God. Through prayer, collaboration, and strategic thinking, ask God to guide you and your congregation on how to use the digital space to help people grow in discipleship. Remember, same God—different stick.
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The author organizes an annual digital-discipleship conference. For more information regarding the 2019 conference in Queensland, Australia, visit the “Digital Discipleship Conference 2019—QLD, Australia” page of the Adventist Church in New Zealand website at adventist.org.nz/event/digital-discipleship -conference-2019