Disconnectedly Connected: The Church in the Digital Age ￼
When it comes to digital communication, the medium is often as important as the message.
Last week, Stephen E. Wilhite, the inventor of the “GIF,” died. The simple digital format has become such a fixture in daily communication that it is hard to remember a time before Michael Scott from The Office could react on our behalf. Today’s society places immense value on “content creators,” but the way we communicate or engage with that content is as important as the content itself. The Church must be alert and intentional about how it navigates an increasingly virtual world.
Shaped By Digital Mediums
How we communicate impacts what we communicate.
On Twitter, a tweet may go viral and spark widespread commentary across the internet, but it is inevitably forgotten in a day or two (if not sooner). Far more enduring is the way a 280-character limit has wired brains to think in sound bites and fostered an impulse to have an immediate opinion on everything the moment it happens.
The “Instagram Generation” is well documented for the unrealistic beauty standards it promotes, as well as the inability for many people to live “in the moment,” rather than experiencing the world through a smart phone screen.
YouTube and TikTok house plenty of mindless or filthy content, but perhaps more important is how they incentivize extreme and loud opinions. In a digital ecosystem where everyone has access to a platform, the ensuring battle royal for views, clicks, and recognition stimulates click-bait titles, sensationalism, and insatiable outrage.
Ironically, Facebook is arguably the least face-to-face social platform of all, due to an increased tendency to communicate through “experts” or visual memes. Rather than formulate or articulate an opinion, people simply need to hit “share” on an article or “Willy Wonka meme” that supports their opinion.
While each digital platform has its own unique quirks, one universal trait of the modern digital world is that it is shaping people to communicate in monologues rather than dialogues. Although most social platforms have a comment or chat feature, these can be toggled off and any unwanted feedback can be deleted. Due to the rise of internet “trolls,” social platforms are increasingly allowing options to restrict or filter comments. As a result, people can blast their opinions into the world without any fear of pushback or challenge, or—more critically—any need to listen to others.
A common misunderstanding, particularly by older generations, is that today’s youth are now wholly disconnected from each other as computer screens have usurped genuine human relationships. The reality is that no generation in human history has ever been as connected. Nearly every recreational activity now has a social dimension. Even a traditionally solitary experience such as playing a one-player video game is now social, with Twitch and other platforms allowing hundreds or even thousands of people to join together as a digital community. Similarly, the current Wordle craze exploded largely because of the ability for players to share and discuss their scores online.
Consider a recent experience of mine. I was an American watching an Italian heavy metal band play a livestreamed show in London while viewers from South America posted their reactions in real time. Now, imagine trying to explain that scenario to someone twenty years ago. I’m old enough to remember life before cell phones when a simple miscommunication could leave you separated from your own family in a shopping mall for hours!
We are not disconnected, but we are connected differently. In a paradoxical way, people are both more and less connected than ever before. This “disconnectedly connected” reality presents both opportunities and challenges to the church.
The Church in a Digital World
When Covid first swept across the world, many Churches scrambled to adapt to the new reality and physical limitations. Now, just a few years later, livestreams and online ministries have become a fixture for many churches. The church dove head-first into the deep end of the digital pool out of necessity. Now that the dust has begun to settle, we’re left with some difficult questions about the future of the church in a digital world.
Some Christians enthusiastically embrace digital technology as the future, even giving rise to some “online only” churches. One positive result of the digitization process is that there have been more eyeballs on our worship services than any time in recent memory. The world was granted a window inside the church. Unbelievers who may have been uncomfortable or unmotivated to wake up early on a Sunday and visit a physical gathering could suddenly stumble upon a livestream. The digitalization of church also allowed for a clearer understanding of the Church Universal, rather than a narrow identity as isolated local congregations. Best of all, digital church eliminates the abominable “meet-and-greet” time (and all my fellow introverts shout, “Amen!”).
On the other side, many Christians adamantly dismiss online church as “fake” church. Streaming a church service is not the same as sitting in the sanctuary, just as texting a friend while watching a movie is not the same as sitting side-by-side in a movie theater or discussing it afterwards at a coffee shop. When a church service is offered in the same medium as people stream their favorite movies and shows, they are tempted to treat it the same, multitasking by folding laundry or responding to emails while they watch. There is also a loss in the crucial accountability that comes from physical gatherings.
So, what’s the answer? I’m not sure there is one. At least, not yet. We are likely many years away from understanding the full impact of the church’s increased digital footprint. Nevertheless, the “answer” to every cultural change is not always a binary choice of better or worse. Sometimes different is just different. Throughout history, the Church has always adapted to stay faithful to its mission in a rapidly changing world, and the challenge of the digital age is no different.
The church would do well to avoid going the way of Blockbuster Video, rendered obsolete by stubbornly refusing to recognize the reality of an increasingly digital world. At the same time, the medium matters. To “go digital” is not as simple as delivering the same message through a different medium. The way that we receive the message impacts the way we understand the message. The digital age offers immense possibilities to spread the gospel and stay connected as the body of Christ. But when Church worship services begin to resemble Netflix, over time Christians will be shaped to treat it with the same passive and casual indifference.
We live in an unavoidably digital world, but we are not robots. Church is the family of God. Most homes today are filled with an unwieldy collection of laptops, tablets, cellphones, and other electronic devices. There is value in these devices, when used wisely and with moderation. But the most worthwhile family moments usually come when we turn off the TV, put away the smartphones, and talk, laugh, and fellowship face-to-face around the kitchen table.