LONDON – It may be easy to dismiss the value of digital relationships but that is where many people are in the digital age and if Christians are committed to the command of Jesus to go and make disciples, then they need to be there too.
That was the message that emerged at the Evangelical Alliance's Digimission conference on Tuesday.
The conference demonstrated the potential of the digital age, hooking up one speaker live from Phoenix, Ariz., and allowing more people to take part by tuning in to the simultaneous live broadcast via the Web.
Jonny Baker, an avid blogger and part of the leadership and discipleship team at Church Mission Society, said Christians faced the challenge of contextualizing the Gospel in the digital environment and warned against the temptation to think that other people should "take off their cultural clothes to embrace Jesus."
He said he had come to think of the values of the digital era as quite similar to the values of the Kingdom of God, in the sense that God was always on, allowing constant connectivity.
Reflecting on how often people are on their mobile phones, he said, "What does that do to their imagination when it comes to thinking about a relationship with God and Jesus Christ?
"Maybe they think about church beyond once a week, maybe they think about church beyond a gathering and maybe church as a connectivity to Christ. Maybe they think about it as connectivity to each other, always on, the body of Christ."
He went on to say that people were connecting to Christ without connecting to a church.
"In a network culture you can be outside but connected," he said. "One of the reasons why a million evangelicals have left our churches is that their fire isn't going out.
"They're connecting to Christ and communities and theology and resources but whilst outside."
Mark Meynell of All Souls Langham Place said there were on average 15,000 sermon downloads from the church's website a month.
He encouraged Christians to utilize new media even if they did not feel they were professionals or "techies."
"There are people who have the potential to be salt and light online but they assume it's for professionals," he said. "We can't expect people to come to us in the real world or the virtual world."
American author Shane Hipps spoke into his webcam from Phoenix about the new concept of "anonymous intimacy" fomenting in the digital age.
He gave the example of one woman who posted photos of her newborn baby on Facebook for all her contacts to see, wounding the feelings of one particularly close friend who was not on Facebook and did not see the pictures until four days after everyone else.
New media was, he said, "eroding intimacy with people you know and increasing intimacy with people you don't know at all."
Hipps added a word of caution when he said digital media could create connections but not community.
"Online marriage or online parenting is not a good idea … some things need to take place in a physical space."