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Digital ministry: More about culture than computers

Ryan Panzer Shift Ministry Models Leave a Comment

As church leaders, we still have much to learn about digital technology. In 2015, as many as 50% of churches didn’t even have a website. While that percentage is steadily decreasing, we’re only beginning to observe the widespread adoption of digital technology in our ministries. There remains a skill gap in the digital expertise of many church leaders, exacerbated by the rapid and at times overwhelming development of new technologies. From marketing to content creation, social media to worship streaming, the technological demands of today’s church leader seem to have no end. How does one keep up with all the apps, the new platforms, the latest trends? How does one develop enough expertise to do this work without losing focus on pastoral care, preaching, proclaiming the Word, and administering the Sacraments? 

Fortunately, there’s good news for the overwhelmed church leader. We don’t need to be power-users of every new digital technology. We don’t need to be early adopters, nor do we need to devote considerable energy to the work of digital media. But as church leaders, we do need to be attuned to our broader digital culture. 

All of us are part of a broad, tech-shaped culture that conditions us to think, learn, and act in ways that are rather different from the time before the rise of smartphones and high-speed internet. As church leaders tasked with setting mission and vision, our leadership always intersects with this surrounding tech-shaped culture. Our goal shouldn’t be to adopt every new technology. Our goal should be to study digital culture to find areas of overlap with our mission and vision. Ministries aligned to digital culture need not be digitally sophisticated. They simply need to be aware of some core values that all of us share in common. 

The Core Values of Tech-Shaped Culture 

With this goal in mind, here is what we mean when we talk about tech-shaped culture: Fundamentally, to understand tech-shaped culture is to understand how and when widespread digital technologies influence the meaning-making process. To know something of tech-shaped culture is to know that digital tools are changing meaning-making by facilitating the asking of questions, by forging new types of connection, by encouraging collaboration, and by making space for creativity. 

Cultural Value 1: Questions

Perhaps the most direct way that digital technology influences our culture is through questions. You can think of major technologies like Google, Siri, and even Netflix as tools that invite our questions and provide us with many possible answers. In the digital age, we expect opportunities to learn and grow through questions. This expectation extends into our spiritual life, where we expect to find God through reflection, introspection, and questioning. Whether online or offline, it is our responsibility to create a space for our communities to engage their questions and to sift through answers, even if those questions don’t directly pertain to “churchy” topics. 

Cultural Value 2: Connection

Digital technology influences connection by turning everything into a hybrid experience, a blend of offline and online. Tools like Zoom, WhatsApp, and Facebook Live continue to blur the line between online and offline. As participants in tech-shaped culture, we expect to integrate the physical and the virtual, especially through church. As church leaders, our task is to make connections easy for our community and to ensure all connections have shared online and offline expressions. 

Cultural Value 3: Collaboration

Online tools like Google Docs and Slack create seamless opportunities for multiple people to make meaningful contributions. Real-time collaborative software flattens hierarchies and invites us all to join in collaborative conversation, work, and learning. As church leaders, we are called to make our ministries increasingly collaborative, within our congregations and throughout the broader community. 

Cultural Value 4: Creativity

Platforms like YouTube, Vimeo, and Instagram provide a platform for broadcasting creative expression. These tools make us all into artists and directors, empowered to tell stories and share our perspectives. In the church, we should seek ways to further creative expression, exploring what it would mean for our communities to function not just as spaces for worship, but as workshops to help us articulate our experience of God. 

These are the shared values of tech-shaped culture: 

  • Making space for questions
  • Connecting the online with the offline 
  • Promoting collaboration, and celebrating creativity 

We don’t need to be sophisticated users of technology; sometimes we may not need much technology at all. As church leaders, we simply need to notice these values in action and to determine how they align to God’s work in our Christian community. 

Read More by Ryan Panzer on the Intersection of Technology and Ministry

About the Author

Ryan Panzer

Ryan Panzer (MA, Luther Seminary) is an author, instructional designer, and consultant who started his career working in digital marketing at Google. At Google, Ryan helped small businesses to craft a digital strategy using tools like Google Analytics, YouTube, and Google Ads. His Fortress Press book, "Grace and Gigabytes: Being Church in a Tech-Shaped Culture", comes out in December 2020. For more writings and resources, visit www.ryanpanzer.com.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

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