Can the gospel reach digital natives?

‘Once upon a time, if you wanted to communicate with someone, you either spoke to them, sent them a letter (which could be delivered in either of the two postal deliveries every day!), or you phoned them. This could be from one of two places: either a phone box in the street, requiring loads of change, or the house phone in the hall—where everyone could hear you—and answered by the desired recipient’s parents, with whom you had to have an excruciatingly awkward conversation before being able to ask for the person you actually wanted to speak to. This probably sounds like the dark ages, but it was actually less than 35 years ago.’

So begins the latest Grove Youth booklet on Youth Ministry in a Digital Age by Liz Dumain, who works in the mission team in Birmingham Diocese. The booklet is a great exploration of the challenges and opportunities of reaching ‘digital natives’, those who were born with the internet technology that many of us have been learning to adapt to. Liz begins by noting the growth of internet use, how it differs for those who have known nothing else, and why it matters.

In 1985 only scientists had access to the internet. By 2006, 17 million people were logging on and by 2014, 38 million adults in Great Britain accessed the internet daily. Accessing the internet via mobile phone more than doubled between 2010 and 2014, increasing from 24% to 58%. On 25 August 2015, one in seven people on the planet logged onto Facebook, and over a billion people now have a Facebook profile.

The year 1980 marks a line in the sand between what has been called the digital native—one who has never known anything but the digital age—and the digital immigrant—one who has experienced and observed the evolution of a digital age. These two groups have fundamentally different understandings and worldviews. There is the world of the digital immigrant, where digitalization is strange, inherently suspicious, constantly changing and needs to be kept up with. This contrasts with the world of the digital native, where the digitalization and the internet just is. Change has evolved in giant leaps rather than incremental steps, opening a huge gulf between the two generations.

Liz then explores the impact of digitalisation on young people—and steers an interesting course. Some commentators do nothing but lament what the internet is doing, whilst others (at the other end of the spectrum) assume that it is unproblematic and that we need to ‘get with it’. Liz looks coolly at the impact, noting the issues, but also seeing that this is the world that we live in and need to engage with. She particularly notes the phenomena of being constantly connected, self-creating, expecting to contribute, redefining relationship, being wired for speed, and the possibility of living in the shallows. Her comments on identity creation and friendships were particularly interesting.

Young people claim share a polished version that their online and offline identities are the same, yet admit they share a polished version of themselves online. On Facebook, people are more concerned with making it look like they’re living rather than actually living. Social media invites us all to share only the good life: edited highlights that speak only of living the dream rather than life in all its fullness. As youth workers the temptation is as real for us, and for the young people we serve. Do our statuses speak only of the extremes—either only positive experiences, or only ranting? Do we risk drawing others into our fantasy world online, leaving them with a warped impression of what a fully-submitted life in Christ really looks like?…

In a pre-digital age, ‘friend’ was a noun describing an individual with whom one had a close association. Digitalization has reimagined ‘friend’ as a verb, defining friend as ‘one who friends or is friended.’ In social media terms the act of friending someone often corresponds to granting that person greater access to information about oneself, rather than one who is closer in associa- tion. This development has moved friend into a looser and potentially more transient association. This raises a paradox: young people form looser friend associations online, but share more online than previous generations have done face to face, seeming to be happier expressing feelings in typed communications rather than face to face. This openness also has a dark side: young people find it easier to be mean online; friends may participate in online criticism or negative ratings in a way that trusted confidants would not be expected to.

Liz then goes on to some fascinating theological reflection about the age we are in, setting out some key questions. Can we see the internet as a gift from God, in the same way that we might have seen the Roman road network as a gift which allowed the swift transmission of the gospel in the first century world? And how do we tackle the task of translation from one culture to another—a challenge that has faced Christians in every age? Translation is never a value-neutral task, in that it can never leave the message unchanged—but it can never be avoided. In order to help think about these issues, she draws on the work of Gardner and Davis, who offer three ways of thinking about digital technology, each offering important insights:

Technology as liberator: the potential to provide the church with new tools and opportunities to reach young people with the gospel: a positive in uence on church activities and institutional structures.

Technology as oppressor: assuming that the online presence dilutes life o ine, in the same way it is argued that a media friendly ‘pop Bible translation’ represents a shallow interpretation of Scripture.

Technology as instrument: recognizing the ambiguity and complex nature of the digital era, but also seeing the potential as an instrument of new language and format to communicate with young people.

Liz then teases out some particular challenges as we think about reaching digital natives—challenges you will recognise from your own situation:

  1. How can we move beyond a Web 1.0 approach in our online presence, mission to young people and attitude to the digital world? This requires increasingly creative approaches and consideration of radical new ways of being…
  2. How can we adapt to a generation who are not used to being passive recipients of the wisdom of others? This will require more than a token nod at all-age worship, or asking for feedback; rather, it will need a wholescale re-evaluation of what it means to worship, or to learn…
  3. How can we lead those wired for speed, entertainment and instant gratification into a deep experience of God through his word? Young people expect to remix and mash content and are unused to things being fixed; how do we deal with their understanding of Scripture in the light of this?…
  4. How can we welcome the generation who expect participation and contribution?…
  5. How can we welcome extreme multi-taskers? Digital natives thrive in a multi-tasking environment, whereas Christian culture is generally based around monotasking (listen to a sermon, sing a song, read a book)…
  6. How can we inhabit online spaces with digital natives? There are many opportunities for new wineskins, if churches and organizations are prepared to learn, apply and change…
  7. How can we call the digital generation from superciality toward a deeper commitment to God and a wise understanding of what to accept and reject without seeking to pull back to a pre-digital era?

This is a challenging list of questions, but one which is unavoidable. This is a really excellent exploration, and I think must be essential reading not just for those in youth work, but for anyone concerned to see church grow and people reached in our contemporary cultural context.

You can order the booklet (as print or PDF) post-free in the UK from the Grove website.

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4 thoughts on “Can the gospel reach digital natives?”

  1. I’ve just ordered the book but I was interested to see the author referring to digital ‘natives’. Marc Prensky coined the term but, for a while, it has been overtaken by ‘inhabitants’ and ‘visitors’ which help us escape from age group stereotypes. Stats show men in their 30s as gamers; and over-50s are the fastest growing users if social media…

  2. I think the greatest opportunity is for evangelism and discipleship in the context of international online communities. It’s not easy to do, but as trust is built and people feel comfortable to share in private groups, intimate discipleship is possible, supported by rich media, and all learn from each other. Small offline discipleship groups can be spawned and continually supported by the online community. I read a stat recently that in America it takes 100 church members, a $100,000 budget, and 1 year to produce 1 discipled convert. Digital Missions can radically change those ratios. With the enormous potential of digital communication here and around the world, we need to take this seriously. Why not engage your own digital natives in reaching and discipling their own around the world. Why not start a digital missions laboratory in your church. What if kids raised money for their next mission trip that started digitally before, and continued in connected relationships after. The cost effectiveness of digital is clear. And arguments that it is not as intimate as, or cannot spawn or support, offline relationships is unfounded and detracts from exploring the vast potential. There is a great need for research, but more need for experimentation, which is what our team is doing. Sharing ideas and solutions with other digital missionaries would be very helpful. Digital Missions represents a new frontier and probably the best opportunity for the muliplication movements long desired.


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