When was the last time you were away from a digital screen?

On my (Chris Morton) nightstand, you can find not one, but two pairs of headphones. Many nights, right as I drift off, listening to an app that guides me through a Lectio Divina exercise. This might sound spiritual, but keep in mind that just moments before, I was doomscrolling through hopeless news stories or gobbling up the neverending stream of mindless TikTok videos.

Through my phone, I can end my day with an ancient, powerful spiritual exercise, or I can numb out to the never-ending stream of content. My phone doesn’t care, it’s just happy to have my attention.

As Christians, we want to be devoted to the God revealed in Jesus, thrive within a church community and invite our friends and neighbors into the kingdom of God. But modern life means doing that within, and sometimes in spite of, our hyperconnected, always-on, digital world.

Welcome to the Digital Age

I (Michael Beck) have watched a grandchild take her first steps and offered prayer for dying persons in their final moments on FaceTime. It’s hard to imagine doing anything, grocery shopping or dating or going to church without, in part, doing it on your phone.

On May 24th, 1844, Samuel Morse started the telecommunications revolution when he sent the first telegraph from Washington, D.C., 40 miles away to Baltimore, Maryland where his fellow inventor and machinist Alfred Vail. The word “telegraph”means  “to write far.” Up until this point, communication primarily required “direct contact” through physical contiguity. Through the telegraph humans could now interact rapidly across great distances, sowing the seeds for the digital age.

The Digital Age began in the 1970s and 80s when personal computers became widely available, expanded greatly with the introduction of the internet in the 1990s. Then, in 2007, the iPhone launched the smartphone revolution, placing a supercomputer into the pocket of billions of human beings, creating a new, hyperconnected social web. The broader usage of these technologies has since become the driving force of social evolution.

Human beings were created for relationship, with God and with each other. Relationships require connection, presence, time, and communication. Distanced contact creates new opportunities for people to develop meaningful relationships, and adds new wrinkles as well. As followers of Jesus on a new frontier, we need to consider both how these new opportunities can be used for missional fruitfulness, and how they affect our own ability to connect to God and our fellow Christians.

Discipleship, Attention and Your “Digital Diet”

Dallas Willard defined discipleship as “the process of becoming who Jesus would be if He were you.” But what exactly is that process? 

For Jesus’ first disciples, it meant turning much of their attention away from their careers and families to one way of life to spend more time with Jesus. Andrew still fished and Peter still hung out with his in-laws, but their attention was on Jesus. 

There is no higher commodity in the Digital Age than attention.

Digital technologies are not neutral, they entice us to pay them constant attention, and then sell that attention to the highest bidder. People become the “users” and our lives are reduced to “data.” We “users” and our data are the real products that  big tech companies sell.

Traditionally, identities are shaped by physical proximity: where we live, the people we spend time with, or the books or CDs we can hold. In today’s Digital Age, physical proximity isn’t everything. In person experiences with friends and family or live events compete for our attention with the experiences available to us through inboxes, social media feeds and podcast subscriptions. 

We can’t escape the attention economy anymore than previous generations could escape industrialism or agrarianism. We must learn how to navigate it and live on mission within it. 

Discipleship in the Digital Age can be simplified down to pursuing a “digital diet.” Diets are not just what we eat, but when we eat and how much. To eat more fruits and vegetables, it helps to have them around and easily accessible. It also helps if we don’t keep ice cream around. With the endless buffet of digital opportunities, disciples need to learn how to discern what is broccoli—content and digital experiences which can help you pay more attention to Jesus—and what is ice cream—content and experiences that distract us from Jesus.

The internet also opens up new possibilities for relationships. On one hand, my church (Michael) has had the opportunity to host online AA and NA meetings for addicts who couldn’t gather the way they did before the pandemic. This is quite literally a lifeline for those suffering from the other great epidemic of our time—addiction. On the other hand I (Chris Morton) have found myself avoiding people and entire social media platforms to keep from getting sucked into hot button conversations. 

A few years back, my family (Chris) was going through a painful transition, and my brain naturally wanted to dwell on the pain and hopelessness of it all. About this time I became familiar with the work of BibleProject, who creates videos, podcast and courses that present the themes of Scripture in a novel and Jesus-centric way. I “binged” my way through their massive back catalog. I found myself thinking about Scripture even when I wasn’t listening, and bringing it up with my friends and family. Broccoli.

Recently, I started spending a lot more time than normal on Twitter, often getting pulled into conversations about culture war topics and pushing back against internet bullies. I was filled with righteous anger that felt great. I couldn’t stop thinking about it—and it wasn’t long before I started having trouble sleeping. Things almost immediately improved when I deleted Twitter from my phone. Ice cream.

Discipleship hinges on our ability to give our attention to Jesus. With countless new tools and distractions made available by the Digital Age, discerning what goes in and stays out of our digital diet clears the way for us to turn our eyes back to him.

From Streaming Worship to Digital Church

Any expression of Church happens in a “space,” and I (Michael Beck) believe that those  spaces can be physical or digital.

Pioneering sociologist Manuel Castells calls us to recognize the difference between two kinds of space: the space of place and the space of flows. Cities are a “space of place,” a physical location that is also a communication system for building relationships, sharing ideas and selling goods. Like a city, the internet is a communication system that does not require literal physical contiguity. Castells calls this a “space of flows.”

Most churches equate “online church” with broadcasting worship services, but others are exploring what it might mean to cultivate expressions of church specifically for the internet. These are digital spaces to connect, pray, check in with their spiritual growth, share in sermonic conversations and participate in the formative elements of discipleship online.

The church I (Michael) pastor meets physically in one expression on Sundays. We also have a digital expression called Living Room Church VR, where 50 people from across the world gather on Monday evenings. In our physical gatherings, we can chat, hold hands, and even lay hands on each other for healing prayer. In our online gatherings, our digital avatars do the same. 

Our digital expression draws people from around the world, many of whom could not or would not attend a physical church gathering. Each week, we have new Christians lead in prayer, share a song, or bring the message. They are growing in their discipleship as they come to faith, grow in their faith, and even share their faith with others. 

Some might question if a digital expression can be “church.” However, we recognize no single expression of church is a complete embodiment of the people of God. What happens in a liturgical gathering is part of what it means to be church but so is what happens at a potluck dinner, a service project or a small group. Each of these spaces can draw us closer to God, inspire us to love one another and equip us to serve the world. Likewise God is doing something special among us in these online spaces.

Missional Engagement

How can we know Jesus and strive to live like Jesus in our digitally connected culture? Perhaps it is as simple as being the kind of people, or congregations, who can join with the Apostle Paul and say “follow me as I follow Christ.”

Or—dare we say it—follow me on Instagram.

Our hope is that as our co-workers, neighbors and friends get to know us, both in person and online, they are also getting to know Jesus.

I (Chris Morton) moved to Austin, Texas to plant a church among the secularized, artsy, hippie-inspired subculture the city was known for. 

I’m fairly active on social media, but I have a few rules. Be true to yourself, by sharing things you are interested in. Try to build a sense of community by asking a lot of questions on topics that you, and hopefully others, care about. For me, this naturally included what was happening in our church plant, as we worked to form deeply honest relationships that would, in time, grow to be a flourishing expression of church. 

I remember sharing some thoughts online after a particularly difficult political season, when outspoken local and national leaders were taking positions that I felt degraded others who were made in the image of God. A secular friend I met at the gym sent me a direct message to say “Hey Chris, I’m not ready to go to church yet, but I see you, and I really appreciate what you’re doing.”

As individual Christians and church communities, we have the opportunity to share about what we see God doing. We have the opportunity to gather people to hear about Jesus’ kingdom, whether that’s in the comment section of a social media post, in Zoom rooms, or in an IRL church sanctuary.

Does the Internet Make it Harder to Follow Jesus?

The truth is, it doesn’t really matter if the Internet makes it easier or harder to follow Jesus. The Digital Age is here. For digital natives, Facebook, TikTok, Reddit, and Instagram are real spaces where real people can be engaged. The Holy Spirit goes before us there too.

When the COVID-19 pandemic came, Christians and church leaders who had ignored the online world rushed to livestream their worship services. Some participated reluctantly, and others were more “dialed in” than before. Such leaders might say they prefer a physical space to a digital one, but their online efforts make it clear that they considered those moments of worshiping or praying for one another “real.” 

Perhaps the easiest way to understand the Digital Age is we are all missionaries now, except instead of new countries, we’re being sent to digital sphere.

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The Digital Age requires us to rethink discipleship. We need practices that draw us to Jesus when our devices want our attention. We need robust digital expressions of Church that go beyond streaming content and help people grow closer to each other and encourage them in their own disciple journeys. We need a thoughtful approach to how we present ourselves as the people of God in public, both on the street corner and in our social media feeds.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand our role in the Digital Age is we are all missionaries now, except instead of being sent to new countries, we’re being sent to digital sphere.

Chris Morton is Director of Strategic Initiatives for Fresh Expressions US.

Michael Beck is Director of Re-Missioning for Fresh Expressions US and Cultivator of Fresh Expressions for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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