Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from Benjamin Windle’s latest work, Digital Church in a Lonely World, published as the first Barna Ideas release. Barna Ideas is a series committed to exploring new models, new methods and new mindsets for the future of the Church.
Windle’s full work, which explores the seven ingredients necessary for church community in an increasingly digital and lonely world, is available both in Barna’s online store and on Barna Access Plus.
Churches Are Not Immune to the Digital Era
Technology has become ubiquitous. It pervades almost every interaction we have on any given day. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is marked by technology, such as:
- Advanced robotics
- “Internet of things”
- Artificial intelligence
- Cloud and quantum computing
- 3D printing
- Augmented reality
- Space travel
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is not coming. It is here. Giant tech companies, including the likes of Google, Amazon and Facebook (or rather, Meta), have disrupted entire industries.
Local churches exist within a culture, a time in history and a geographical space. We are shaped by the era in which we live.
This is not a statement in favor of relativism or compromise in church or giving in to the times. Considerthat the Church we read about in the Book of Acts didn’t have parking lots, pews, crosses adorning beautifully designed facilities or even baptism tanks. I’m not sure we would call any of those things compromises; they are advancements that have come with modern society.
The point is this: We are not immune to the digital era. If we fight it, we will lose.
At the same time, if we act like a leaf tossed into a stream and simply abandon biblical convictions, we will drift from our central purpose.
Every industry or major company that thought their prevailing model was immune from digital disruption was devastatingly wrong.
If you are a pastor or church leader, it’s natural to ask: What will happen to the future of church? Are we the new Blockbuster? Is everything about to change forever? What will community look like to new generations?
So, let’s embrace digital, but let’s not capitulate to digital. Seems like a contradiction, right? Except it’s not; it is a tension that will save us from the dangers of both extremes.
If we resist digital, we will continue to lose our two youngest generations (and the next generation of church leadership).
If we capitulate, we will give into consumer-driven, preference-based Christianity and lose our effectiveness.
But if we first map out our biblical convictions and clearly define biblical community, and then innovate radically with digital tools to support that, we will get the benefits of both.
A new digital innovation may help us to reach more people or change the world in some way, but it should still be scrutinized—if anything, to help remind us that technology should always be the servant and never the master. The master should be our biblical convictions on what the Church is and the mission God has given us.
John Mark Comer says, “I think it’s wise to cultivate a healthy suspicion of technology. Technological, and even economic, progress does not necessarily equal human progress.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about the phrase “unintended consequences.” It may apply to how we use technology. Technology has promised a lot. Convenience. Efficiency. Progress. Life was supposed to be better with a smartphone and a smart fridge. But has technology delivered on its promise? For those who grew up in an analog world, technology has brought great benefits to our lives, yet many of us still feel we have lost something. After all, technology has emphasized a slew of challenges. Anxiety. Loneliness. Alienation. Division. Angst. Negative news cycles. Many feel disenchanted with modern life, despite the fact that they can order an Uber from their wristwatch.
Technology helps. Technology hurts. If we know where the hurt is, we can build around it more intentionally.
We need a filter for new technology, so that if we decide to embrace it, we can understand the potential dark side of its use and, in turn, develop a plan to counterbalance it. In his book A World Without Email, productivity expert Cal Newport asks probing questions about the hidden costs of technology. If businesspeople are asking about the unforeseen challenges that new technology has fostered, maybe those of us in church leadership should also give it consideration.
Let’s ask deeper questions.
Churches are typically instinctively resistant to change. However, a protectionist or obstructionist mindset will not age well. That’s why we need a thoughtful, considered framework for how to assess new digital solutions as they arise.
I have contended for years that the new generations see a merging of the offline and online worlds. They will mix and cohabitate in the same spaces. Perhaps this is a better mentality than thinking in terms of “replacement,” that digital church will supplant the physical church.
Substituting digital for in-person gatherings during a pandemic is smart. It is not a full expression of church community, but it is something. Online ministry should support, not substitute.
Before we adopt a new technology, let’s not ask, “Will people prefer this?” Rather, we should ask questions such as:
- Is this healthy?
- What are the ramifications of this for the next generation?
- Is this merely convenient or does it make us better?
- Are there hidden costs to this technology?
- How will this technology affect our culture and the people side of our church?
- How effective will this be in terms of ministry to kids, youth and the elderly?
By asking the right questions, we can better understand the impact of a new technology and not be distracted by the convenience benefits. It gives us a more well-rounded perspective than just blindly accepting every new digital trend or online platform that is marketed to the church world.
Ben Windle’s complete work, Digital Church in a Lonely World, is available to read on Barna Access Plus or for purchase via Barna’s online store. Windle has also written a guest post, a letter to his Millennial peers, about the importance of community. Read the post here.
Interested in other research Barna has conducted on digital church? Explore the articles listed below to discover past data on this topic.
- Do Americans Replace Traditional Church with Digital Faith Expressions?
- What Research Has Revealed About the New Sunday Morning
- One in Three Practicing Christians Has Stopped Attending Church During COVID-19
- Technology Promises Connection, but Gen Z Sees a Paradox
- ChurchPulse Weekly Conversations: Ben Windle & Jay Kim on Digital Community
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2022