What Does Digital Discipleship Mean for the Local Church?

As a local church member, pastor, elder or youth leader, you may be wondering how relevant Digital Discipleship is to your church.  The Digital Discipleship ministry exists to create, inspire, encourage and resource disciples of Jesus Christ to share His love through their creativity and innovation in the digital space.  What does this look like in action?  After reading this article, you will be equipped with actionable ideas for integrating Digital Discipleship principles into the fabric of your church.

14-16 July of this year, over 200 people from various conferences in Australia and New Zealand gathered on the University of New South Wales’ campus for the second Digital Discipleship Conference.  While the most public function of the Digital Discipleship ministry of the Greater Sydney Conference is the Digital Discipleship Conference, its relevance is in the attendees and the impact the ministry can have on the local church.

Digital Discipleship and the Local Church

A church’s strength – its unique quality – is in its community and its ability to be a place of life-changing teaching, learning and launching.

In the Bible, we see the church doing every day, ordinary things together – eating, sharing problems and burdens, sharing dreams and discouragements and sharing financial obligations.  Community was natural – almost inevitable.

When the biblical model of church is so reliant on in-person interaction, what does Digital Discipleship have to offer?  In many ways, this question lies at the heart of the discussion of the relevance and efficacy of Digital Discipleship at the local church level.

In the minds of some, community musthappen exclusively in person while in the minds of others, community happens online.  However, Digital Discipleship offers a “both, and” approach instead of an “either, or” approach.

The local church can now adddigital tools to its available resources to reach, disciple and provide community.  The local church has the opportunity to recognise the giftedness of its members in the areas of creativity and technology and to acknowledge the abilities of these people to move the work of the church forward.  The local church is positioned to amplify its message while becoming more targeted in its approach through available technology.

Local church leaders and members can implement any of these principles as they work to integrate Digital Discipleship into their church’s ministry plans keeping in mind that this ministry encourages churches to equip its members to make disciples and grow in discipleship by meeting a need in the digital space, addressing a digital need or utilising digital tools.

Think like a seeker

The first thing a church needs when implementing Digital Discipleship principles is empathy.  Yes, empathy!  We need to begin to think like a person looking for a church community when setting up our websites and social media accounts.

Arm yourself with empathy for a seeker or a person looking to find God.  What questions would you have about church? What would encourage you to attend a church or to reach out to a Christian to understand Jesus better? What might you see that would give you a boost of encouragement to push through a hard time?

Show your online visitors what life might look like if they were a part of your community.  Give them a glimpse of the events, the spiritual life and the friends they might make.  Show them how they can have their questions answered.

While it’s very important to put thoughtful consideration into your website and social media design, remember social media isn’t a science and effective website design can require iterations.  Knowing that you can test, change and update can relieve a bit of the pressure of always getting it right the first time.

Understand why you are posting in the first place.  Periodically assess whether you’re getting the results you need from your social media and web presence.  Find ways to adjust or adapt to the needs of your church and to the people you are trying to reach through your site and social media accounts.

Value the talents of the creatives and tech savvy among you

Since the Digital Discipleship Conference, people have said their spiritual lives has been renewed because the church is acknowledging and affirming their areas of giftedness and showing them how they can make a contribution to the mission of the church based on the skills God has developed within them.

There isn’t always space in the church for creatives and the tech savvy to place their talents on the altar in service to God.  Weaving Digital Discipleship principles into the fabric of your church’s Discipleship Plan can provide space for more people to feel engaged around the idea that the church values their time and talents.

Providing a space of recognition for the giftedness of creatives and the tech savvy is an essential part of Digital Discipleship.

Identify the specific needs of the people you’re trying to reach

Never before have marketing messages been able to be so targeted as they are today.  In the digital space, ads can be aimed at specific groups based on demographics and behaviours.  For this reason, it’s best to decide whoyou are trying to reach.  Review some of the ministries your church is running.  See if there’s an opportunity to bolster their efforts by implementing a digital strategy.

Find a way to meet the needs of your community in the digital space, around a digital need or by utilising a digital tool

There is discussion, even within the Digital Discipleship ministry, about how “Digital Discipleship” fits within “Discipleship”.  Many models have been created and put forward for church members and leaders to study and understand.  One in particular is based on Jesus’ story of the Sower and the Seeds from Mark 4.  These models are helpful in explaining the process of discipleship so some may wonder if Digital Discipleship is similarly proposing a new model of discipleship that exists exclusively in the digital space.

Digital Discipleship’s aim is to provide a gentle nudge (or a strong nudge if necessary) to the church to meet the needs of people within our community in the digital space, around a digital need or by utilising a digital tool.

This is what that process may look like at the local church:

  • Have we met the needs of people within a digital space? Have we engaged in “digital door knocking”? In other words, have we digitally reached the people in our geographic community?
  • Have we addressed a digital need, i.e. screen time for children, using technology for seniors or online safety for kids?
  • Have we utilised a digital tool to address the needs? For example, have we utilized CRM tools (customer relationship management), websites, social media accounts or other pieces of technology to address the need?

Providing discipleship opportunities in the online space

Local churches have a variety of opportunities to help their members grow in discipleship in the digital space.  Ironically, while leading with spiritual events and worship services is not the natural progression of discipleship — even in the traditional discipleship models — it’s often the starting point of our interactions with people in the digital space.  We often begin our online interactions by “sowing the seeds” through livestreams of church services and advertising evangelistic programs, which isn’t necessarily the first natural step to introduce someone to Jesus.

Even though it’s not the recommended starting point, it is crucial.  There are many people who are in need of Jesus who spend significant amounts of time in the digital space.  As expressed at the Digital Discipleship Conference by Pr Sam Neves, Associate Director of Communications from the General Conference, online relationships are not virtual relationships they are real relationships.  There are real people behind the computer screens.

There are many people who are unwilling or unable to enter a church building.  Many members of our local churches have stopped attending church but may be willing to anonymously watch a service online.  Many parents, previously involved in the church, are distracted on Sabbath morning by attending to the needs of their children.  Others have hearts that are ready to listen to spiritual messages but are intimidated by entering a church building.  By fostering relationships online, some who were unwilling to attend may return, others who were disengaged may be encouraged to return to the church and some may find spiritual renewal.

Keeping this in mind, there are opportunities to share spiritual content online outside of the traditional church hour.  These might include online small groups and online prayer sessions.  There are also opportunities for webinars and online evangelistic series.

Not all online relationships must remain in the digital space.  There may be opportunity for building relationships with people online that encourage and attract them to attend your church.  There are many things that need to happen for a person to trust you with their Saturday morning in a church building.  Digital Discipleship can play a role in familiarising people with your church and encouraging them to attend.

Providing members with personal ministry opportunities

There is an additional opportunity for local churches within Digital Discipleship.  Recognising that not all members are gifted in the areas of creativity or technology, there is room for the non-technie, semi-creative to be involved in Digital Discipleship.

Pastors are often laden with the responsibility of maintaining the functioning of their local churches while also evangelising their communities.  This skewed view reduces the responsibility for church members to grow in discipleship.

Creators, Distributors and Engagers

Employing Digital Discipleship strategies in the digital space, as a church, can provide church members with the tools and know-how to share and disciple within their online communities.

There is a model in Digital Discipleship of content creators, content distributors and content engagers.  Collectively, they create content to share a message, distribute the content to their networks and position themselves to have conversations around that content.

Local churches are well positioned to adopt this model among a group of its members who wish to use their social media platforms to intentionally share Jesus online.

If your interest has been piqued and you’re curious about introducing Digital Discipleship principles in your local church, consider the following:

  1. Exercise empathy for the people who will be engaging with your social media accounts and your website. What questions might they have that you can answer?  Have you given them a glimpse at what life might be like if they were to join your community?
  2. Value the creatives and those gifted with the ability to understand technology. Regard their contribution to the mission of the church as highly as you would the musicians, Sabbath School teachers or youth leaders.  This will affirm the area of giftedness God has given them and will engage them in the church’s mission.
  3. Identify the specific needs of the people you’re trying to reach. Today’s digital landscape is highly segmented, and it’s much easier to target the people you’re trying to reach in the geographic locations where you want to connect with them.  Having a clear picture of who you’re talking to can be very effective.
  4. Find a way to meet the needs of people within your community in the digital space, around a digital need or by utilising a digital tool. Digital Discipleship does not limit you to the digital space.  It provides you with another avenue to reach people, with additional tools and with additional needs to meet.  How can these increased opportunities be useful in allowing you to reach the people you’re trying to reach?
  5. Provide discipleship opportunities in the online space. After you’ve met people’s needs, be prepared to feed them spiritually.  This may mean a series of articles or videos or a livestream of your church service or Bible study.  Whatever it may be, be prepared to talk about the life-changing effect of Jesus in the lives of your online visitors.  Have a plan for how you can best progress to that point in the conversation.
  6. Provide personal ministry opportunities. Digital Discipleship provides a natural personal ministry opportunity for the creatives and tech savvy.  However, it also creates a space for church members who are less digitally inclined.  If they operate in the digital space, they may be able to participate in the model of content creators, engagers and distributors.

With this sense of understanding, I want to present an example of how this might play out at a local church.  In this instance, I’ve chosen young parents as the group Grace & Love Church is trying to engage.  As you read through the example, slot in the group or groups your church wants to have conversations with.  Think of ideas that would fit with what your church is trying to achieve.

Example: Grace & Love Church

Being empathetic

Grace & Love Church is looking to reach out to young parents.  By placing ourselves in the shoes of our social media and website visitors, we have been intentional in including information – prominently displayed – that talks about how we meet the needs of young parents.  We may have a section about it on our website as well.

Engaging the creatives and tech savvy

Every few days on our social media accounts, we may talk about the upcoming lesson study, emphasise the parents’ online Bible study and provide encouragement for parents.

As we set-up our social media, website and online campaigns, we have identified a few people in our church who are skilled in graphic design and are creative.  We’ve engaged them to share their ideas and we are working with them to regularly create social media posters.

We are also creating some small videos with parents for social media about how they’ve seen God present in their lives.

Identifying the needs

We’ve been talking with Children’s Ministry and we know that parents in the area probably have questions about how to engage with their kids around technology.  Some of the questions they may have are:

  • As a parent, I am wondering how much tech is too much?
  • How can I keep my kids safe online?
  • Are my kids getting enough play time since they’re so attached to their devices?
  • What is a good age to give my kids a mobile phone?

Identifying a digital need, addressing a need in the digital space, addressing a need that can be solved with a digital tool

In this instance, we’re able to engage all three areas of Digital Discipleship.  We are addressing a digital need: parents wonder how to engage their kids with technology while keeping them safe and not over exposing them to it.

As a church, we can bring in an expert and record a video and promote it (paid Facebook or Google ads) or we can bring together parents to share their opinions on video and share the video with the community online.  Using this method of targeting is like digital door knocking.

Similarly, we can bring in an expert to talk at an in-person seminar.  We can invite our neighbours through letterboxing or through online targeting.  We can also record the session and make it available online.

In this process, we will use the skills of digital disciples and we will be utilising digital tools.  This last area may not seem very important in comparison to the others mentioned but remember that engagement with the content will soar when audiences see that effort went in to the creation of the content.

Providing online discipleship opportunities

In this particular example, you may not make “sowing the seed” or sharing a spiritual message the next step, as a church you should have some online broadcast or content where people can engage with you on spiritual topics.  This could be a livestream or online articles that answer questions.

In the example of online articles, you can continue in the vein of parenting and address some of your parenting philosophies as they relate to your Christian faith.

Providing Personal Ministry Opportunities

Within Grace & Love Church, there is a group that are “creators”.  They are creating the video or the social media ads and materials around the parenting seminars/webinars.  From there, a group in the church, should begin sharing content online about the upcoming event.  They can also share the links online of articles you’ve created around the topic of the event.  They should then be prepared to talk about the event, explain it to anyone who is asking and engage with people around this content.

This is a simple walkthrough of what Digital Discipleship might look like in one scenario.  As you can imagine the needs assessments, options and opportunities can be endless.

Hopefully, you have found this article to be actionable.  It would be great to know that after reading the last sentence you felt inspired to get your church to explore the idea of Digital Discipleship.

Here are a few programs and ideas you may consider for your church.

Additional Ideas

Community Programming Addressing Digital Needs

  • Help Me Deal with My Pornography Addiction
  • I Need Help Setting Online Boundaries for My Children
  • I Need Help Navigating the Digital World, I Have Teenagers
  • I Need Help Navigating the Digital World, I’m a Senior

Digital Discipleship Ideas

  • Join meetup.com and start a meet-up that address a specific need in your community
  • Run a webinar in response to a need

Has this article inspired you to integrate Digital Discipleship principles into your church’s plan?  I’d love to help your church explore the possibilities for meeting the needs in your community and helping to encourage creatives and the tech savvy to dedicate their time and talents to ministry.

Please contact the Digital Discipleship Ministry at digitaldisciples {at} adventist.org.au.

-Written by Rachel Lemons Aitken. At the time of publication, Rachel was Communications Executive of the Greater Sydney Conference and Founder of the Digital Discipleship Ministry of the Greater Sydney Conference

This article was originally published on the Digital Discipleship website 30 August 2017 about digital discipleship and the local church