The New Digital Mission Field
This paper will focus on the Digital Missional movement that the Church is going through today. It is a revolution that is currently eating away at our clergy base which tends to be older and less technologically adept, although, there are some pastors like my senior pastor at Brunswick UMC who is very adept and ready to learn.
Newbigin argues in his book, The Open Secret, while the missionary thinks that they are bringing God into a context that God is already there and has been there from the beginning moving within and God will continue to be there long after the missionary is gone. We as missionaries are not introducing God but finding God within the current context and trying to connect with the Divine’s mission there. (Newbigin, 66) The theological assumption behind Digital Mission is that people in the ether are seeking God and through that meaning, although they will use many different means of doing this.
Digital ministry is a relationship-based experience. The tools we use in pursuing this relationship are vast from art to music to spoken word to eBooks, podcasts, Sub stacks, social media etc. The tool kit is vast because these are the building blocks for creating extensions of a local community’s mission.
Newbigin argues adeptly that people are not monads spiritually isolated from God and that God is not isolated and separated from creation, it is the inter-relatedness of God to creation and people with each other in community that creates a wholeness and a glimpse at the Garden of Eden restoration envisioned in Genesis 1. (Newbigin, 69) Digital Missions (I will also use Ministry), therefore, is creating connections between God and a web of people in relationship to achieve the work of restoring creation.
Many people are turned off by the physical church, but they are not turned off with worship. We know this because people view worship online, watch worship videos, and join social media groups that help them with their journey. One of the most shocking things I learned in my two years of Digital Ministry on behalf of my worshipping community and conference has been how many communities Christians belong to! It is not that people are rejecting the Church per se but building a portfolio of spiritual resources that enables them to experience God in a way that fits how God created them. I have spoken with several members of the Church I serve and many attend Catholic and Orthodox liturgies, they give to many television and radio-based ministries and have done mission trips with non-UMC based groups.
At first, I was under the impression that most pastors were aware of this. But my experience on the UMC Clergy Facebook group has demonstrated otherwise. In many cases pastors are consumed by how to physically bring people into their churches again. During the pandemic they have in many cases simply shut down or streamed a service online that was barebones. And sadly, even this bare minimum has proven not even be in line with that congregations overall missional vision. As Newbigin argues our pastoral cadre in many cases has reduced grace from unconditional blessing that is universally available to all into a contract that can only be fulfilled through physical interaction within the Church. (Newbigin, 74) Faith comes by hearing the word of God and there is nothing in the Bible that limits HOW this is word is spread.
Digital ministry can be used as an effective ministry to spread God’s unmerited favor broadly. How can our local church through a Digital Mission expand the understanding of election to included people of many divergent backgrounds, ethnicities, sexualities, countries? We living in the physical church have a privileged place in that we think we hold the means of Grace within our walls waiting for others to partake of. (Newbigin, 77) Nothing could be further from the truth! Digital Ministry allows a local congregation to expand its reach beyond the four walls of the local Church and in doing so expand election to new people around the world.
I cannot speak for other ministers of digital ministry, but my research and experience has shown that for a digital ministry to be successful it must be in line with the local congregations mission. A successful digital experience will present a love that helps the seeker or believer to experience a love that wells up to eternal life. At Brunswick UMC in Crystal Minnesota this is encompassed in the simple mission of “How Can We Help?” We believe that the Holy Spirit never stopped moving within Creation. In the Bible the Holy Spirit cajoles, nudges, challenges, and comforts those who seek God. So, our goal in digital ministry is to splash grace as far as love can reach using many digital tools. Theologically, our digital presence is based around seeking others online. We participate in groups based on Discord, Gilded, Patreon, and YouTube to build relationships with people in crisis. This is in line with Mark 6:45–52 where the disciples are going to a new place across a lake, a storm hits them and Jesus sees this, but he is in prayer, prayer was critical to him, yes, his entire ministry is in a boat on the lake straining at the oars, but he was in prayer. Now Jesus does not immediately walk out onto the lake. He does not walk across until dawn, and he was simply going to pass by them, the disciples cried out and he into the boat with them. The essence of our digital ministry is to find people in crisis and to point them towards Jesus and encourage them to invite him into their boat with them so that grace may calm their waters of life.
In lieu of beginning with what is successful, I would like to discuss where digital ministry is harmful. Digital ministry is most harmful where it expands notions of colonialism, racism, social violence against sexual minorities and women. And this happens when the mission is pursued from a privileged perspective without consideration of the people they are touching. If our goal is to bring the love of God, but the digital ministry team has members who want turn people away from alternative sexual expressions, this is a conflict causes moral harm. The art in digital ministry is retelling the story from the perspective of the community and placing it in the cultural context and language of the people you are ministering too without causing harm through bias, privilege, or hate.
Which brings up the second challenge to successful digital ministry, not being specific in who they are pursuing. It never ceases to amaze me how many ministries that are dying never ask themselves whom are they pursuing. They assume that people will just wander in and get hooked into whatever they are doing. This is crazy! Digital ministry exists in the sphere of rehabilitation and the foundation of this is empowerment. The internet is chock full of people who are unempowered and are looking for anything or anyone to pull them out of their malaise. For example, people who are poor will flow from one get rich scheme to another seeking the one thing that will break them out of poverty. When in reality, getting out of poverty is a slow methodical process specific to the person and their context.
Corbet et al in the book, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor spells out the Achilles heel of programs that mean to solve poverty and much of their thinking applies to digital ministry as well.
Many digital ministries, especially charismatic and evangelical ministries, will focus on getting people to say the sinner’s prayer, get a bible and a tract into their hands and encourage them to go to a physical church for community. It is a one size fits all approach which does not really work. Yes, the person has a momentary spiritual experience, but the waves of life or the next video or group dialogue from another ministry takes that attention away. So digital ministry must encourage deeper engagement online to build relationship. All ministries, churches, denominations, etc. are part of the Church Universal. So, it may take three different online communities within differing denominations, regular online worship services of radically different styles, online counseling in several closed groups, and access to resource pages to bring someone into the DIGITAL Church. And we must respect the fact that they may not engage further than this. We have learned at Brunswick that people who attend worship online regularly, and participate in our closed community give, volunteer, and pray at just a high amount as those who are physically present! We can cause harm though when we pit one ministry or denomination against each other. We confuse people and we force them to choose an expression of God when all the communities within the person’s spiritual portfolio contribute a portion to the person’s spiritual health! Digital ministry therefore must avoid doing things for believers and seekers that they can do for themselves through a self chosen digital portfolio. (Corbett, 109) Our goal should be to be a part of their spiritual portfolio and to partner with other ministries, churches, and denominations to bring the full power of the Universal Church to bare on a person’s life. To do this effectively though digital ministry should be focused on listening and not on preaching at people and collaborating within the Church Universal, while allowing the person being ministered to the spiritual space to discover grace for themselves.
The best part of Digital Mission is no longer being bound to the physical constraints of mission. The mission field is the world. Once you have identified the type of person who may be attracted to the mission then the congregation should be open to people coming from many different contexts and experiences. It forces mission participants to learn the difference in cultures, the differences in how people interpret time. Corbett argues quite rightly that people in the North American context demand the efficiency and timing of Corporate America. We use tools of business to track our projects, create scorecards, and to manage our ministries. But in the majority world this is not how time or efficiency works. So, people engaged in this type of mission can SLOW DOWN and SPEND TIME on developing relationships and doing the work of identifying needs and empowering people to act on their own in their context. (Corbett, 112)
Digital Ministry is a force multiplier, it allows a small congregation to punch way above their weight. A small congregation can worship 10 in sanctuary but impact the lives of hundreds in the digital sphere. And many of the tools are inexpensive so outsized results to resources expended is quite common.
Finally, Digital Ministry engages our young people who already operate in the digital realm. My youngest son’s best friend lives in Ireland. They game together and talk to each other constantly. As a middle-aged adult I would say it is different from personal contact, but is it? I remember in the 80s being on the phone with my friends until the wee hours of the morning and I had access to a car!! I could have driven there. But the phone enabled me to be more myself, more intimate, more vulnerable. How much more so digitally where kids can see each other.
Digital Ministry is the future of the Church. Our goal should be to own a share of a believer’s spiritual portfolio and to speak into their lives. Yes, this is different than what we are used to. Yes, it will require new skillsets. And yes, it will drive some pastors into retirement or different careers. But God is in the digital world already beaconing us to join in the Divine’s global mission to bring the world back to Eden.
Corbett, Steve and Brian Fikkert. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012.
Newbigin, Lesslie. The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.