Digital Children: From Guttenberg to Zuckerberg: How Social Media is Changing the Church

Here’s my Digital Media PowerPoint and the text from my presentation at the  the Digital Children conference:

Of all the messages the world has ever heard from politicians, story tellers, advertisers and more the gospel is still the stickiest.  The good news is that God’s message is your message, which makes your presence and voice online and that of the children and young people we work with wholly (and holy) indispensable!

I want to challenge you today as a Christ follower to change your mind-set of the way you spend your time online.  I want to challenge you to share new ways to reach a fragmented world for Christ.  Together, we can light up the online space.  We can “go” and we can “tell” as Jesus asked each of us to do.

Game Changers

Multiple factors can be attributed to why social media has grown so rapidly, including cheaper broadband, a fire to innovate and the global economy shift.  As unprecedented economic, political, and social factors continue to fragment continents, cities and even homes, words such as connection, community, and relationship increasingly dominate the conversation.

Broadcast to Social Media

In the 500 years or so between the inventions of the printing press and the Internet, which Dave will explore later, we have lived in a broadcast media environment of books, radio, newspapers, and television.  These media served as highly effective platforms for sending a single, well-crafted, attention-getting message out to as many people as possible.  But broadcast media afforded little opportunity for feedback or discussion.  In the church, we have used this one-to-many broadcast communication model in sermons, printed newsletters, letters from the Rector, and broadcasting worship services on Radio 3 or Songs of Praise.

Social media represents a profound shift in this model.  Today, almost anyone can publish a blog, have a YouTube channel, and host their own podcast.  Anyone can comment on, extend, qualify, discuss, and share a sermon.  With today’s technology, you can reach in minutes, and even seconds, the physical ground that the apostle Paul and other game changers covered in years. 

Sheer size of Social Media

The sheer size of social media is huge:

  • Facebook with 1 billion (and growing) registered users, making it the third biggest country in the world.  Interestingly though for us the largest growing segment of Facebook users are those aged 55 years plus.
  • The average user has 130 friends, spending 24 minutes per day on Facebook, creating 70 pieces of content each month,
  • Each day 460,000 new users sign up to Twitter
  • 110 million tweets are posted each day
  • 37% of active Twitter users use their phone to tweet.
  • There are over 150 million blogs globally.
  • People are engaging video at increasingly higher rates (about 5%) than other social media.
  • Engagement, with video increases with each subsequent generation – for Millennials (18-33 year olds) watching video is the fourth most popular online activity behind email, web search, and social networking.
  • YouTube sees 72 hours of video uploaded every minute.
  • YouTube is also the web’s second largest search engine – people want to see us in action, hear our voice, not just read our words.
  • The average person will watch 5 hours of video a day.
  • Whilst at the Third Lausanne Congress in 2010 we were told that 25% of people coming to faith do so through media on mobile phones.

Following all those statistics it is easy to be over whelmed.  But as Paul challenges us in 2 Corinthians we need to not lose heart, not be crushed, not in despair, not abandoned, not destroyed, as we’ll hear in a moment, if anything the opportunities that we have to share the Gospel are ever increasing in this digital world.

Practicing Digital Ministry

Jesus: The Master of Buzz

Remember the viral buzz generated around The Blair Witch Project back in 1999?  How about the Susan Boyle Britain’s Got Talent audition video?  Don’t forget the explosion of the YouTube phenomenon that is now Justin Bieber, or the hilarious viral e-mail sent each Christmas that allows the whole world to Elf Itself.

We each have the opportunity to give voice to the supernatural acts of God in this day and age.  Everyday believers just like you are already stepping out and adding to Jesus’ phenomenal buzz.

However you want to look at it, as a resident of the twenty-first century you’ve got the potential to wield some serious digital influence – for Christ.  The message is as sticky, as good as it gets.  Sticky content is independent of time, change, and cyberspace.  The Apostle Paul, no doubt a thought leader of his day, knew the message was unlike anything else the world had ever known, and he wrote: “We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives.”

Adapting to technology does not mean you change the message to fit the culture.  The Word of God stands and does not need to be spiced up or watered down to fit the taste buds of any culture or generations.  The Word is as alive and active as it was when God spoke it into existence.  The only thing that you must change is your mind-set about how you must now relate to the culture around you.

Writer and theologian Francis Schaeffer said that “each generation of the church in each setting has the responsibility of communicating the gospel in understandable terms, considering the language and thought-forms of that setting.”  Whilst the technology that we’re being invited to use might be different, in essence I want to encourage you to rely on traditional modes of engaging with people that have served the Christian community well for generations.

Called to Humility

The online world provides the perfect storm for pride to rise up like a toxic tsunami.  To quote C.S. Lewis, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.”  When you think more of yourself, you create a place where pride creeps in, and if you’re not careful, it finds a place to set up permanent residence deep inside you.  As I’ve said earlier, we’re not here to focus on ourselves, but instead to be Jesus’ servant, faithfully sharing his message.

Humility has a gentle tone; it doesn’t condescend or diminish another person’s value.  It doesn’t ignore, marginalise, or favour.  It never criticises or corrects in public, especially over minor things.  Just check out the example of Mo Farah, having won the New Orleans half-marathon, Farah was asked by WSDU presenter LaTonya Norton if he had ever run before.  Farah broke into a smile and replied that he had run a half-marathon before, but that this was his first time running in New Orleans.  Not once during the interview did Norton note Farah’s 5,000 metres and 10,000m gold medal success at the London Olympics, only ever referring to him as the male winner of that half-marathon.  Various people in the twitter world criticised the presenter to which Mo Farah replied: “Just wanna say to everyone being nasty to LaTonya Norton please stop!! She made a mistake like we all do!! She didn’t mean anything by it!”

Caring for God’s People

When Jesus started His ministry, He began to call individuals to “follow” Him.  We see and hear the expression “follow me” or “I’m following …” a lot in the social networking realm, but to date, no one has yet to offer the return on investment (eternity) that Jesus offered.  Once the disciples began following Him, Jesus proved worthy of their trust by being consistently genuine and authentic.  Basically, He cared, and it showed as He walked, talked, prayed, ate, and lived out the highs and lows of daily life with His beloved tribe of twelve.

The same trust, built through consistent, real, one-on-one dialogue, is the goal in our online relationships.  It will be a steadiness of character, a showing up, and a reaching out with a Jesus brand of compassion that will touch hearts for eternity.

It is a paradox of social media that people will share very intimate and sometimes life-and-death matters in social media spaces, even though such sharing becomes immediately both public and permanent.  Today, new loves, breakups, engagements, marriages, divorces, birth and death announcements, health news, and personal locations are all shared online.  Social media therefore can serve as a good “leading indicator” that something is amiss with someone.

I see my Facebook news feed and Twitter stream as place of and occasions for prayer.  People, regardless of faith, in my experience, deeply appreciate these digital expressions of pastoral attentiveness and concern.

We can also actively solicit prayer requests, something we’ve often done with our youth group, in preparation for Parish Prayers on a Wednesday morning – they see that God answers all knee mails!  Interestingly I receive as many prayer request from those who don’t see themselves as Christians as from those who do.

Forming Disciples

Social media is changing the way we learn because it has changed the way we access information and the way we connect with one another.  Scott McLeod, a professor of educational leadership describes it this way: “We no longer live in an information push-out world where we passively receive information that is broadcast out to us by large, centralized entities.  Instead, we now live within multi-directional conversation spaces.”

The ability people have to find out almost anything on Google, Wikipedia or YouTube necessarily changes the role of the ministry leader as an education.  Those in leadership no longer function as “resident theologians” by virtue of any special gnosis or knowledge received in seminary, or from the shelves of the theological books and commentaries in their office.  Instead, in a sea of information, they need to help others to become theologians themselves, inviting people to reflect critically upon all the information they encounter and to engage in discussion with others over that information.

Consider the difference between a sermon and the increasingly popular Pub Theology offered by churches around the country.  In a traditional sermon, a congregation gathers to hear a vicar impart information.  There may be some discussion afterwards in coffee, but the structure of the learning is centred on the teacher who shares their expertise.

By contrast, pub theology is normally facilitated by a “resident theologian” around a table, with everyone having the opportunity to bring something meaningful to the discussion.  Social media presents a similar opportunity – a theological conversation happening in a public place, influenced by the life that is all around it.  This is, of course, entirely consistent with the Latin root of “sermon”, sermo, which means “discussion.”

Building Community

Many people worry that digital relationships will eclipse face-to-face engagement; however, studies show that people active in social networks are more likely to be engaged in face-to-face volunteerism and faith communities.  This is because people who long for community seek it out in many forms, and people who connect in meaningful ways enjoy opportunities to extend that connection in both online and offline settings.  Thus, one of the important roles we have on social network sites is to cultivate a sense of community that moves between both online and offline locales.

Making Public Witness

As we end I want to share with you examples of creative ways to share faith using evangelism.  First off, in Facebook, someone took the time to create Jesus’ account for Holy Week – I’ve used it a number of times in schools and youth work to help young people engage with the Gospel.

Second, Twitter users followed the Natwivity throughout Advent, when different figures from the world’s most famous story wrote 140-character updates each day.  It included Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, the three wise and King Herod.  Natwivity was organised by design company Share Creative and the Evangelical Alliance to bring the 2,000-year-old story to social media platforms.

The Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus video has been seen by over 24 million people on YouTube alone.  It’s a spoken word, a modern poem by a young man highlighting the difference between Jesus and false religion.

Dibden Youth has created an online community through our Facebook page.  We share information on upcoming events with the 96 people who are part of the page, but it goes well beyond using the page simply as a digital bulletin board.  We regularly pray for them, we inspire them with quotes from Christian saints, encouraging them to reflect.  All of this digital engagement reinforces the face-to-face engagement we have with them.  In addition, for example, in Holy Week we saw 21,147 engage in a range of images and videos we shared linked to Easter.  For an average church with a youth group we were able to reach a huge number of people.

Conclusion

The possibilities for the Kingdom in the online world are real, they’re here and now.  The invitation exists for anyone with access to the internet.  Transformation has started, and you are here to be part of it.  The testimonies of grace, forgiveness, redemption, and new life are echoing through cyberspace – if you listen.

Studies show that Christians are online, with their shiny gadgets in hand.  This is a wake-up call prompting you to get intentional about how you spend your time online – connecting, serving and leading the conversation in such a way that others will seek to know Christ personally.