A few years ago, I was asked to do a main stage seminar on digital technology at a large conference for ministers.
In the Q&A time I got a rather angular question from a minister who I think was feeling overwhelmed: ‘This is all very well for those who are young and trendy, ministering to hipsters, but what does it have to do with the rest of us?’
After thanking him for calling me ‘young and trendy’ (I was nearly 40 at the time!) I shared that actually my ministry context was predominantly council estates, that these are as a percentage of income the biggest users of digital technology, and that this made the point that digital technology is so ubiquitous that whoever we are, rich or poor, young or old, child or parent, we all need to engage with its implications for how we pastor people.
We are all affected
I share the story because I think this view is still quite prevalent, but it’s a significant error. Digital technology affects us all. We have become even more aware of that over the past few months of Covid-19, when so much of life moved online. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so if the gospel is not shaping our life online then the world at large will be. Here are two areas to start us thinking:
1. Teach online virtues
Jesus wants his followers to obey all that He commanded (Matt. 28:20). ‘OK, but the Bible doesn’t teach us about life online, does it?’ It is true that the Bible wasn’t written into a digital media context, but it has much to say to us about it. Jesus is Lord of all, and He’s Lord of the digital as well. The digital age hasn’t taken Him by surprise. His words are still sufficient to ‘thoroughly equip [us] for every good work’ (2 Tim. 3:17).
• His teaching on patience has much to say to our desire for the immediate and the prevalence of frustration.
• His teaching on the importance of tempering knowledge with love has much to say to a generation that quickly says ‘I know’ because we’ve read a blog or can Google it, but doesn’t really know how to live life out.
• His teaching on humility, listening well to others and to His word, has much to say to our febrile online debate.
• His teaching on purity has much to say to the prevalence of the pornographic and the hypersexualisation of the human body.
2. Live out what we know
It is painfully ironic that a tendency for evangelicals to treat people as brains on sticks who merely need to be filled with godly content, is now reinforced by the secular West and life online. However, a life of following Jesus is not just about what we know – ‘orthodoxy’ (though that is vital of course), but about how we live out what we know – ‘orthopraxy’.
Being concrete and seeking to encourage godly habits is not legalism (as some wrongly think it to be). Time and again, Paul emphasises the importance of godly models of behaviour alongside godly teaching: ‘You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life’ (2 Tim. 3:10); ‘Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ’ (1 Cor. 11:1).
The digital world knows this already: why do you think all video content has autoplay prompts to get children and adults habituated in clicking on ‘watch next’? They know the power of praxis. Therefore, we have to be thoughtful in evaluating digital practices and ingraining godly alternatives. Turning off autoplay functions, setting limits on time online, turning off phones (not just onto silent mode) at meal times, leaving phones downstairs rather than taking them up to bed, never tweeting a quick response when you are angry, checking a post’s truth before you share it. These are just some suggestions to get us thinking about what godly praxis looks like in our life online.
Pete Nicholas is co-author of Virtually Human: Flourishing in a Digital Age. For more resources visit www.virtuallyhuman.co.uk