CP Opinion

Thursday, Nov 27, 2014

Digital Mission Field: The Disappearing Wall Between Life Online and 'Real' Life

  • (Photo: Brandon A. Cox)
January 16, 2014|1:42 pm

Pastors, by and large, are beginning to catch on. To reach the current culture, which is shaped in large part by its technology, we have to go digital.

This is nothing new. To reach 17th and 18th century people, you needed to use a printing press. To reach the culture of the 20th century, you needed to utilize mass media such as radio, television, or direct mail and advertising. And to reach people today, you use social networking.

But we still have a partly legitimate fear about using social technologies too heavily. We fear we will lose our edge when it comes to "real life," face-to-face relational ministry. We fear that we'll neglect those who don't use or like smart phones, that our relationships will become shallow, and that in our effort to "keep up" with the latest technologies, we'll drift from our long-held traditions and theological moorings.

While this fear is well-founded, I think it may also be mis-directed. Yes, indeed, the boundaries are disappearing. I grew up listening to the loud, shrieking sound of a dial-up modem "connecting." When my online session was complete, I would then "disconnect." No one disconnects now. We walk and breathe in an atmosphere of technology.

So what do we do? I think there are a few possibilities.

1. We retreat. We create a safe place – a world free of digital interruptions and technological fads. We can place baskets at the entrance of the church to have people drop their smart phones in until the service is over. We can keep telling people to turn their cell phones off. We can cut off the wi-fi in the building and restrict access to social networks.

2. We can go with the flow. We can become digital to the neglect of being spiritual. We can be cool, hip, and cutting edge without any roots in our pre-analog past. We can be all video, totally online, sell our buildings and cancel our in-person meetings. This way, we'll be well ahead of the curve.

But who wants to use either of those strategies? You can find leaders in both of those camps, and neither is helpful. There is a third option.

3. Embrace technology as a tool to connect people to something infinite and eternal. Just as ancient apostles utilized papyrus and the Roman's roads, and just as a previous generation shared the gospel successfully over airwaves and through printed tract and pamphlet distribution, we today can utilize online tools to share the gospel. And in doing so, we can connect people to a God whose character is completely unaffected by technological advances and cultural shifts.

I think people long for relationships, so social media is quite the handy tool for meeting those relational needs. But we know that online social networking will never fulfill that need, so we have the chance to take people deeper in relationships with God and others.

The disappearance of the barrier between online and offline isn't a terrible shift. It's just an inevitable next phase of our culture that needs to be harnessed for the good of the Gospel.

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Brandon Cox became a pastor at age nineteen and has served in that role in small churches, as well at Saddleback Church, one of America's largest and most influential churches. He's now planting Grace Hills Church in northwest Arkansas. Brandon also serves as editor, mentor, and community facilitator for Pastors.com and Rick Warren's Pastor's Toolbox, one of the world's largest online communities of church leaders. He's an avid, top 100 blogger (according to Kent Shaffer's semiannual list) and lives in Bentonville, Arkansas with his wife, Angie, and their three awesome kids.

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