While technology creates many exciting opportunities to expand ministry, it also presents dangers that ministry leaders need to be aware of. In his book Digital Disciple, Adam Thomas breaks down the dangers of a digital society while offering helpful suggestions for how we can make the most of the opportunities new technologies present to us. Thomas spoke with Laura Leonard, associate editor of BuildingChurchLeaders.com, about how these principles apply to ministry leaders.
As a Christian and a leader, what does it mean to use technology well?
As a follower of Christ, I have to be diligent at following him in all facets of my life. The fastest growing new area of existence is the virtual existence. I have had to increase my awareness of the presence of God when I use technology, the Internet especially. I discovered a couple of years ago, much to my chagrin, that when I would go online for extended periods of time, I would unconsciously shut off the part of my brain that searched for God. Somehow I decided that God wasn't there; I wasn't looking for him. But now I try to incorporate into my virtual existence all of the things I do in my physical existence in practicing the presence of God. I found that online, it can happen just as well as it can in real life. The barriers online that don't exist in real life have to do with embodiment—not being able to be with the other person that you're engaged with face to face. That kind of challenge is an added dimension that makes practicing the presence of God online harder. As I say in my book Digital Disciple, there are tremendous opportunities for connection online, but every connection comes attached with the danger of isolation. So we have to work on moving toward those connections and not ignoring the nature of those dangers. If we believe that God is who God says God is, then we have to believe that God is in all things, including the things that humans have created, like virtual reality.
How do you see the church using technology poorly?
Individuals tend to make mistakes, institutions tend to magnify them. People in churches use technology poorly any time the technological situation, for lack of a better word, is the only payoff. If there is no external connection besides the technological, if there is no extra-virtual (physical) thing your technology is delivering, then you are missing something. I could tweet all day long, but if my tweets don't give somebody something that they can do in their real life, then all I did was tell them what I had for breakfast. That's not important, and it's not what we should be doing.
When we as followers of Christ use technology, we have to continue practicing the presence of God—looking for God in technology, recognizing that it's hard to do that because of the disembodying nature of technology—and then finding new ways to bring people together, both virtually and in the real world, and having those two really tie together. My favorite example is the flash mob. Everybody found out about this flash mob online and then they all appeared in the same spot in real life. That's fantastic! I think the first flash mob was the day of Pentecost. We're still doing that. If there isn't some sort of real world payoff to a virtual existence, then that existence threatens who we are in all facets of our life.
From a wider church perspective, the worst way technology can be used is to castigate other people. There is no way to engage in a dialogue when that kind of vitriolic language is used. In face-to-face conversation, sometimes you can move past inflammatory rhetoric, but when you see it in text on a website, there is no way to get past that. You're going to close the window. Churches, when they are online, have to recognize the fact that everything they put on the Internet is one side of a conversation, and they're not going to hear the other side of it unless somebody is really trying to make themselves heard. They have no control over how it's being received. This is the same problem that's been around forever, but the Internet magnifies it.
Are there ways to engage the other side and turn that negative into an opportunity for something better?
My church uses a children's program called "Godly Play," which is a phenomenal Montessori-based education system, and it's based on the word wonder. "I wonder about this." And I have discovered that this elicits some of the most amazing responses from five-year-olds. I wonder if we could use that word more online, or more in general, to begin a conversation and not try to begin and end it at the same time, to expect that God might do something with it if we just let it be open. I think that when we write for an online marketplace, we have to be aware that people of all different walks of life may encounter that and we might end up talking to somebody who we would never have thought would see it. Beginning a conversation from a place of openness and wonder is the best way to start.
What does practicing the presence of God in your online life mean?
I've been working on some spiritual practices for that very purpose. The one that I have really gotten into recently—so simple and really amazing—started when I realized that I use Google more than I pray, which was kind of a starting realization. I would search Google 20 times a day, and pray three or four times a day. So I'm reaching back to the ancient practice of breath prayers, which is a prayer that takes a second and a half to say it, and it's a centering thing, it brings you back to that expectation that God is present. I started saying my breath prayer every time I searched Google. I will type in something and before I hit enter I will say, "I put my trust in Christ," which is my current breath prayer. It's amazing how I end up saying it 20 times a day and it keeps me centered. It keeps me remembering the fact that God is everywhere I am, because I am always in God's presence, whether or not I notice it. That's a simple one that everybody can do.
Another spiritual practice that I have been doing for years is journaling. There's a blurring of lines between what is public and what is private, and people will blurt out very private things on the Internet without realizing that it's public because they're alone when they do it. Keeping a journal that I write with a pen in a notebook keeps me grounded in that reality and knowing that there are things that are okay for the world to know but also things that are better for only God and I to know. That keeps me grounded in the physical world and the virtual world.
How else can leaders maintain an online presence but have an appropriate level of transparency?
If you're a pastor or a lay leader, I'd recommend having a Facebook profile for your personal life and creating a second one for your church identity. If you're a youth minister, make sure you direct your youth to the one that you maintain because of your professional presence. I don't actually have one of those because I joined Facebook in college and by the time I realized that I should have a separate profile, too many of my youth were on my private one. So if that's the case, set up a limited profile on Facebook and shunt your youth into that. People at your church don't need to know about everything that goes on in your private life. With social media, they're going to find it if you pop up on their news feed and they see pictures of your vacation.
If you are involved in a conversation with youth online, there are a couple of good rules to remember. Don't say anything to them that you wouldn't say at coffee hour. Again, it's a private/public problem. And if you're emailing with a youth, CC somebody. Blind copy another youth minister or volunteer so that you know somebody else is reading it. You're not really supposed to be alone with youth, but in an email, is that alone? It's tricky. So whenever I email with my youth, I always blind copy my other youth leader.
How can leaders from a different generation connect and understand the tech mindset of the people they're leading?
Ask them about their experience. Teenagers will tell you what's going on in their lives if you ask them. They will. They are more than happy to talk about themselves. It's a time of life when they need to verbalize what is going on to make it real. If you're an older person who's trying to connect with youth, meet them where they are but don't try to be cooler than you are; don't be fake. If you don't know how to use Facebook, ask one of them to show you.
If it's something that you're really uncomfortable with, don't worry about it. In my youth group, only about half of them are on Facebook. Either it's antiquated or they just don't care. I actually use e-mail with my group a lot more than I expected—I thought I'd be using a Facebook group—but we use e-mail. And that's been around since the time they were born. Older folks know how to use email.
But really, it's about being genuine. Genuineness on the Internet is tricky because most things that happen on the Internet happen textually and not everybody can write what they're thinking. People can talk, but if you actually are trying to write your thoughts out, not everybody is good at that. But we're becoming a text-based society. Learning how to textualize your thoughts (rather than verbalizing your thoughts) is a skill that's becoming more and more relevant.
You talk in your book about "transsocial" behavior—this idea of being in a room full of people while carrying on conversations with people in different places through text. How does that translate to the church's idea of community?
Transsocial behavior has been around as long as anything. Paul used it when he wrote his letters. His letter to the Corinthians is a transsocial communication, because he wrote it, somebody carried it to them, and they read it. The difference between transsocial communication that Paul did and transsocial communication that we do now is instantaneousness. Now we can do it so quickly that it has become real time. That has changed the game. It's more important to balance the opportunities and the dangers. You can project yourself over these long distances, but then you also have to remember that's only part of the relationship. It's very difficult to sustain just the transsocial relationship, either because one side of the relationship loses interest, or, when transsocial communication is the only way you communicate with somebody, there's a tendency to create an idealized version of that person. The best example of that would be where you meet somebody through a dating website and then you e-mail for three months before you ever meet. By the time you meet, that person is not the person that you created. That is something that happens in real life. You might know my favorite band is the Decemberists, but you have never been in a car with me when we're singing along. There's something special about that that we can really lose if we don't hold onto it.
What should pastors and leaders be communicating to their people about technology? What does the church need to be hearing?
Whether or not your church uses the word sacraments in its daily life, every church is sacramental in some way. Every church seeks a way to bring the inward and spiritual and make it the outward and visible. We're all sacramental people because Christianity is an incarnational religion. It is a religion that comes from God being with us in the presence of Jesus Christ. Ever since the descent of the Holy Spirit, we have attempted to become the body of Christ in the world—that is how we are incarnational people. One of the ways that we do that is to live in our bodies, as the particular, gritty, dirty, beautiful people that God created us to be. We have five senses. When we use technology, we use exactly two of the five. There are sixty percent of our senses that never, ever get used when we use the Internet: smell, taste, and touch. There's a danger in letting those other senses atrophy and not being those fully embodied people that God calls us to be.
One of the most amazing things about church is that it is a place to gather and rehabilitate those senses with each other and among each other. And then we throw into that rehabilitation the remembrance that we are strongest when we are together. When we're in church, we celebrate that by lifting our voices as one to God in prayer and praise. Then we can go back out and plug ourselves back into technology, but we'll remember in the back of our minds that there's more to existence than the virtual world. As somebody who was addicted to a video game for two years and didn't really come up for air much, I can't impress on people more the danger there is in spending your entire life on a computer screen. There are incredible opportunities for connection across all kinds of plains, but every one of those is linked to a danger of being isolated. If there's one thing God doesn't want for us, it's to be isolated from each other. We experience God most fully in the lives of other people. The virtual world gives us another facet of that exploration of other people. But again, it's only one in a constellation of ways to experience the other. The more we as individuals and we as the body of Christ merge our virtual selves into the rest of our spiritual and emotional and physical lives, the more fully alive we are going to be.
—interview with Adam Thomas; © 2011 by Christianity Today International/BuildingChurchLeaders.com.
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