Digital Discipleship

We live in a digital world, or at least so it seems at times. We are surrounded by virtual places and technology that has inserted itself into our lives—for good and for ill.

In this rapidly changing world, we have to learn what it looks like to follow Jesus. In lots of ways, it is essentially the same as it’s always been, but when context and culture shift we do have to think about what it is to be a disciple in a digital world.

In an article for Premier Christianity a couple of years ago I suggested that we need Gen Z’s help to figure out what discipleship looks like in the digital wasteland; to describe what shape wisdom takes. I thought I’d give that a go and ask a group of student friends of mine to talk over what they thought wise social media use looks like.

They had three pieces to advice to share:

Diversify your feed

Echo chambers are bad, following people you disagree with is good for you, and following people who aren’t like you broadens your perspective on life. Sounds wise to me, I’ve been thinking a bit about how to do the same.

Which sounds really wise until you read the research that doing so leads to polarisation. On top of that, the algorithms want to make you as mad as they can.

Find light in the darkness

Including some Christian ‘content’ in amongst all of the other things you might view and follow is important. We should see some truth and light amongst everything else.

Again, great, though we need to question why we’re viewing ‘darkness’ in the first place, and the idea of ‘Christian content’ makes me a little uneasy, but I take the point. We’re more driven by our phones that we would want to admit.

Fight comparison

Everyone presents a curated, perfected version of themselves online. It becomes very easy to compare your thorny, awkward reality with the filtered, posed images of our friends that clutter our screens. Even those who have very visceral feeds that are applauded for being ‘real’ are curating this vulnerability for us—that’s the nature of the medium. As Theodore Roosevelt (allegedly) said long before Facebook was a dream in Zuckerberg’s eye:

comparison is the thief of joy

I was delighted with the beginnings of wisdom among these late-teens and early-twenties, they were aware of some of the pitfalls of digital life. They weren’t sorted (who is?), but they want to be discipled into further growth in these areas. Though the advice can be hard to follow.

At the same time, I was pretty surprised by some of the things they didn’t say. Having reflected a little before our conversation I had three thoughts on some of the ways I need discipling to use these tools well, and they didn’t touch on any of them.

Following the work of the philosopher James K. A. Smith I’m convinced that most things we regularly encounter in our lives form us to be more like them. Smith calls them “cultural liturgies”; Tony Reinke suggests that we “become like what we like”. This could be a good or a bad thing, but it needs to be reckoned with.

I’ve noticed that social media usage forms my heart in these three ways:

I ignore flesh & blood

The people I interact with online feel as important to me as the people who I encounter bodily in my neighbourhood and in my local church. That isn’t right, I can’t be everywhere, and God has placed me in a specific place and specific local church. These are my people, they’re the ones I’m supposed to especially care for and about. And they’re the awkward ones who think differently to me.

Everything happens now

Technology forms us to expect everything to happen now, we’re wired for instantaneous feedback by our devices. This isn’t a new phenomenon, back in the 1980s Neil Postman reflected on how the telegraph had started this process of being concerned with whatever is “new” and was happening elsewhere. The problem is that the Christian life isn’t instant, to steal Eugene Peterson’s excellent book title: it’s a long obedience in the same direction with us being slowly, painfully, formed into the image of Christ ready to enter the eons before us.

My concerns are shifted

I start to believe that what’s important is whatever my feeds tell me is important. For me that means the latest kerfuffle on theology twitter, and I don’t like what it does to me. For the students I was talking with it will be other things, but the same effect. We’re supposed to seek first the kingdom and his righteousness.

I’m glad that younger Christians are beginning to think through their usage of social media, but I think we need to pay more attention to our hearts and the effect that these tools have on us. Social Media can encourage us to engage at a surface level and move on quickly, let’s not be like that.

These are the things I’m going to be trying to focus on in my conversations with my Gen Z friends. These are the things I’m going to be examining in my own heart. Our mission is to make disciples, whatever places we find ourselves in.

Photo by Jenny Ueberberg on Unsplash

This blog is an adapted version of an old article for Premier Youth and Children’s Work Magazine.

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